George Contreras, the Westlake High football coach who retired earlier this month, first saw Gary Wellman in 1978 at a Pop Warner League practice. Well, he didn't actually see Wellman. What he saw was a 4 1/2-foot tall, 75-pound bundle of helmet and shoulder pads running his teammates dizzy.
Compared to the football-toting little package that kept whizzing past them, the other youngsters appeared to have anvils strapped to their ankles.
Ten years have passed, but not much has changed. There's a pretty good chance that during the Rose Bowl game Jan. 2 a defensive back from the University of Michigan is going to see a small package streaking at him and then hear the sound of rushing wind as Wellman goes by.
Wellman, a sophomore receiver for the Trojans, has gained 100 pounds since his introduction to football at age 8. He's not 4-6 anymore, either, although he's much closer to that height than he would like to be. His listed height is 5-9. A university spokesman, asked if that was Wellman's actual height, replied, "I doubt it."
He is, however, fast. Very fast. That is something that has not changed a bit.
"When he first came to Westlake High, we knew he was fast but we had no concept of exactly how fast he was," Contreras said. "When Gary was a freshman, we had two real fast seniors. One was an All-CIF running back and the other was the No. 2 sprinter on our track team. We lined Gary up against them at 100 meters, and he blew those two kids away so badly they just kept running up the hill and into the parking lot and to their cars.
"And then they drove home. They were embarrassed. Gary was so fast in high school it left you speechless."
Wellman was a track star at Westlake, too. He finished fifth in the state 100-meter sprint final as a senior in 10.67.
But if you search the country, you can find thousands of youngsters who can blister a running track. If you threw a football to each of them, however, the ball would strike the vast majority on the nose.
"The thing that really made Gary unusual is that he had great hands," Contreras said. "It sounds simple, but great speed and great hands is a very rare combination. You see a million guys who can run 4.4 seconds at 40 yards, but very few of them can snag a football while they're doing it.
"Gary is a football player first. He's a football player who happens to be very fast."
This, of course, is a highly useful combination. Like a boxer who happens to be able to knock people out, a hockey player who happens to be able to skate, a sumo wrestler who happens to be able to eat a small herd of cattle for lunch.
"You can't compare running track and playing football," Wellman said. "On the track, you concentrate on just running. Nothing else goes through your head. In football, a million things go through your mind as you're running.
"The other big difference is that in football, someone is always trying to knock you down."
When he first walked into a team meeting at USC, this knock-you-down business became quite serious for Wellman.
"They all looked like giants," Wellman said. "Everyone seemed so big. It wasn't like that in high school. My teammates at USC looked enormous, and that was \o7 off\f7 the field.
"When they put the pads and helmets on, it was even worse. I was shocked. Right away I started thinking that my speed was going to be very important."
He was right, of course. This season, alternating with John Jackson at flanker, Wellman displayed his talents for all to see. Or hear. He caught 19 passes for 330 yards, an average of 17.4 yards a catch. And twice during the season, he left opposing secondaries looking like the coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon.
Against Boston College, he faked a defensive back to the inside, got behind him and simply ran away. He caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Rodney Peete.
Against Arizona State, he put a move on the free safety and then vanished, reappearing a few seconds later in the end zone where he caught a 42-yard scoring pass from Peete.
"The touchdowns were fun," Wellman said. "Those were the biggest plays I'd ever made."
But there have been other enjoyable moments for Wellman. At 175 pounds, you might think that Wellman blocking against 280-pound linemen and 230-pound linebackers might cause doctors looking at an X-ray of his body to beetle their brows and wonder how \o7 that\f7 got over \o7 there.\f7
"At first I thought blocking would be impossible on those guys," he said. "But I worked on techniques real hard. And I learned real quick that I have to block down low on everybody. Me hitting a 260-pound guy up high won't do me much good. But if you hit them low, they usually go down. I had some real good blocks this year, and they felt almost as good as the touchdowns."
Wellman and Jackson have served as messengers for the Trojans this season, taking the plays from Coach Larry Smith and shuttling them into the huddle. At first, Wellman said, that created more pressure than actually playing the game.
"I was a wreck for the first few games," he said. "He (Smith) tells you the play on the sideline and you have to repeat it to him, so he's sure you understood and can remember it. During the run onto the field and into the huddle I repeat the play over and over to myself. But I screwed up real bad during the Arizona game.
"We had the ball on their goal line and coach sent me in with a really complicated play. It was a really critical situation, and I was nervous and as I ran it in I got some of the numbers mixed up. By the time I got to the huddle I was all confused. I blurted out something weird, a play we didn't even have. Rodney didn't know what was going on and everyone was just staring at me."
No one, however, has a chance to stare at Wellman once the ball is snapped.
If you notice a few Wolverine defensive players with seemingly very heavy feet at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, listen for Wellman. You might hear him go by.