As a youngster, Ryan Rapoza weaved through the tall grass behind his parents' home in Orland, Calif., with the agility of O. J. Simpson cutting through a secondary.
Rapoza pretended he was Simpson and overgrown weeds represented the defensive backs that the former Buffalo Bills' running back juked or ran over on his way to yardage, touchdowns and fame.
Rapoza, 18, remembers those childhood dreams whenever he puts on a football uniform. Like his hero, Rapoza is also a running back.
Although he is a long way from achieving Simpson-like feats, Rapoza has begun his quest at Ventura College. He is one of six tailbacks, four of whom are freshmen, competing for the starting position.
What sets Rapoza apart from the competition is his versatility. Small for a running back at 5 feet, 10 inches, 170 pounds, Rapoza could probably hurdle a defensive back if he had to. If that didn't work, Rapoza has the speed and quickness to outrun most defenders.
You see, Rapoza is also a decathlete. He was the second-best decathlete in the nation at the National Junior Olympics last month in Lawrence, Kan.
It was only natural that Rapoza would become a decathlete. As a sophomore at Konawaena High on the island of Hawaii--where he moved with his father after his parents separated--Rapoza won 9 of the 11 track events in which he competed.
As a senior, he qualified for six events in the state track meet and was the state champion in the pole vault last year. He holds the school record with a vault of 13 feet, 6 inches.
Despite Rapoza's success in track, he opted to pursue his first love--football--in college.
"A lot of people have told me that I should just compete in decathlons and forget football," Rapoza said. "I wanted to prove them wrong and show them that I could do both."
In addition to his athletic ability, Rapoza is driven by a strong desire to succeed.
"I want to prove to people who see me playing football that I'm not a pushover. I'm someone who is going some place," Rapoza said.
Rapoza made believers of his high school football coaches. He rushed for more than 500 yards to lead his high school team last season. He also led the league in all-purpose yardage and was an all-league selection.
The University of Hawaii recruited Rapoza, but didn't offer him a football scholarship. After the state track championships, however, the Rainbows showed renewed interest in Rapoza because of his speed--4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. But still not enough interest to offer a scholarship.
Rapoza decided to play football at Ventura after hearing of the college from a former Ventura-area high school coach.
Coach Phil Passno figures Hawaii's loss is Ventura's gain.
"He's not a big guy, but he has some real good athletic ability," Passno said. "Ryan does everything good. He has good coordination, good hands and he runs and catches very well."
Passno hopes that the addition of Rapoza will shore up the Pirates' single-back running game, which ranked sixth in the Western State Conference last season with 1,003 yards in 9 games.
Rapoza's competition at tailback includes sophomores Terrell Smith and Greg Benjamin and freshmen Curt Landreth, Wayne Jones and Derrick Gore. Smith is No. 1 on the depth chart, but may lose that spot when Benjamin regains his academic eligibility.
In Smith, the Pirates have a quick, speedy running back who gained 194 yards in 37 carries last season.
Benjamin, who did not play in Ventura's season-opening 41-3 win over Porterville on Saturday, is Ventura's top returning rusher. He rushed for 481 yards and a touchdown in 111 carries as a freshman.
As sophomores, Benjamin and Smith also have the added incentive of recording a victory before exhausting their eligibility. Ventura was 0-9 last season.
"I had never been on a team in my whole life that didn't win a game," Benjamin said. "I don't want to go through that again."
Rapoza proved he's a valuable addition to Ventura by catching touchdown passes of 5 and 51 yards against Porterville. He also rushed for 54 yards in 11 carries. Smith, however, led the team in rushing Saturday with 86 yards and 2 touchdowns in 12 carries.
Rapoza displayed his sprinting skills on the 51-yard pass reception, dashing 45 yards down the middle after making the catch.
"Ryan had an excellent first game for us," offensive coordinator Dick James said.
James said Rapoza is a double threat for Ventura, as both a runner and receiver coming out of the backfield.
"Ryan has deceptive speed and he's a change-of-pace runner," James said. "When he sees daylight, he bursts through with great acceleration.
"He's the kind of running back who picks his hole and then slashes through it with great authority. "
That's the way O.J. would do it.