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Former Poly High Star Walks On, Lights Up Mt. SAC Win Column

October 19, 1989|MITCH POLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was not the world's best recruiting effort that attracted former Long Beach Poly High All-American running back Leonard Russell to Mt. San Antonio College.

It was more like a world of good fortune.

In fact, Mt. San Antonio Coach Bill Fisk did not even have to step foot outside his office on the campus in Walnut to recruit Russell.

"We were very fortunate," Fisk said. "His parents moved close to our school, and on the first day of classes he just walked into my office and asked if he could come out."

Well, it was not quite that simple. Russell said the academic environment surrounding the football program at Mt. San Antonio also played a vital role in his decision.

"When my mother and father moved out to Walnut, I knew the JC (junior college) was right down the street but I didn't know they had a football team," he said. "So I came down here and found out they did. My mom talked to the coach and he seemed like a good guy and he was concerned about academics, so I came out (for the team)."

Fisk said the presence of the 19-year-old sophomore at Mt. San Antonio has been instrumental in the renaissance of the school's football program.

"It was something we didn't expect," Fisk said of Russell's arrival. "Something like that can turn your program around."

In the case of Mt. San Antonio, it has turned the program around.

After not producing a winning record since 1982, the Mounties finished at 8-3 and won the Southern California Bowl last year in Russell's first year with the team. Mt. San Antonio was even ranked as high as No. 3 in the state at 2-0 this season before dropping two of its last three games by close margins. Last weekend, the Mounties beat San Diego City College, 35-14, to run their won-lost record to 3-2.

Fisk said it is no coincidence that the program blossomed as soon as Russell joined the team.

"This is my 24th year of coaching here, and he's probably the best back I've had come through as far as the things he can do," he said. "He's a team leader, he's our team captain and he's a very hard worker."

The coach is hardly overstating his point.

In only 15 games with the Mounties, Russell has already shattered most of the school's rushing records. He ran for 1,618 yards and eight touchdowns in 278 carries last season--a school record for yards and carries.

With 723 yards and six touchdowns in 117 carries this season, he has already surpassed the school's all-time career record for rushing yardage with 2,341 and is on a pace to break his own single-season record by the end of the season.

Russell did not play last weekend because of a sprained ankle. But he is expected to return to the lineup in a game against Long Beach City College at 7 p.m. Saturday in Walnut.

From Russell's perspective, the success on the field has been gratifying. But for Russell, the biggest satisfaction has come from his improvement academically.

"As far as the academics, I knew I wasn't as disciplined in the classroom as I was on the football field," Russell said. "I wanted to be in a program where people pushed me academically, and that's the way it's been here."

He said the coaching staff is concerned with more than just the results of the players on the field.

"Before I came here I didn't know what to expect, but Coach Fisk and Coach (Paul) Russell really care a lot about us," Russell said. "I know some programs that just let the player take enough units to keep playing, but at Mt. SAC they get you to take the classes you need so you can get your (associate of arts) degree and have a choice of (four-year) schools that you can attend."

Russell said the academic climate is far better for him at Mt. San Antonio than it was at his first college stop, Arizona State.

"I couldn't have asked for a better situation to come into," he said. "I feel I'm a better student-athlete--not just an athlete. I'm a much better student than I was before I came here. I was lacking academically before, but now I know I've improved a lot. When I came from Arizona State, I came in with a 1.8 (grade-point average), and I've been here a whole year plus summer school and it's now at 2.8 and getting better."

He said his academic problems started when he was a high school star at Long Beach Poly.

"I was not studying as hard as I could," Russell admitted. "I was going to class. I wasn't the type who didn't go to class. It's just that when homework was assigned I didn't do it. It was like I wasn't a bad student when I was in class. I paid attention and I tried to contribute. It's just that once I left the classroom I didn't have the discipline and I didn't take it home with me."

There was more attention paid to his athletic skills in high school, he said.

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