It was springtime in Seattle, 18 months ago, and the ball was on the three-yard line. Napoleon Kaufman started forward, saw no opening, then, in a twinkling, veered to the other side of the line and scored, standing up.
Al Lavan had a flashback.
"I said, 'Wow, that looks like Tony Dorsett,' " says Lavan, who should know. He coached Dorsett for eight seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, and their boss, Tom Landry, called Dorsett a "flash back," a now-you-see-him, now-you-don't scepter with a football.
Few coaches get to work with a Dorsett in a lifetime, and now Lavan, in his first spring practice as coach of Washington's running backs, had his second. Kaufman was used to hearing himself compared to Dorsett, the standard for any successful, undersized running back.
"I loved to see him run," says Kaufman, a junior who will line up against UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. "He was a small guy, a tough guy. I like being compared to him and to Eric Metcalf."
Lavan's is no superficial height-and-weight-and-40-speed analysis.
"Both are extremely quick and fast," he says. "Dorsett had great vision and acceleration, and he ran with the ability to keep his pads down and make it very difficult to get a clean hit on him.
"Napoleon has the same speed," Lavan says. "Tony was a little larger in pro football, but in college they were about the same size. Tony would just freeze you and then run past you."
Dorsett was 5 feet 11 and 185 pounds as a pro. Kaufman is 5-9, 175.
"They both have vision," Lavan says. "They see the guy in front of them and they see five yards downfield. Lots of guys can see things and can't react to them. Guys like Tony and Napoleon can react.
"Napoleon is stronger than Tony. They both attack the defense. Kaufman has lateral movement. He can juke you, but he would rather go after you and give you just an edge to hit. That's unusual. Most small guys would rather run away from you."
Kaufman bench presses 385 pounds, lineman numbers, and though his speed is becoming something of a Washington legend, running away wouldn't be his style. A sprinter, California's best while at Lompoc High, he has taken life head on, by necessity, because there were no means to skirt it.
His high school coach, Dick Barrett, says simply: "There was no money in the home, and they moved around a lot."
They were Napoleon and Lojuana. His father was in Kansas City and had never been with them, and so Lojuana wanted to spoil her son to make up for an absent parent. But spoiling a child takes means, and there were few. Homes were changed every couple of months, food bought when there was money for it.
It was that background, which is what Barrett--whom Kaufman calls "my second father"--saw when a kid with a wise mouth sat in his remedial English class for the first time.
"He was just a goofy little freshman," Barrett says.
But he was fast enough to win the league 100-meter dash, and Barrett saw a future Tim Brown. Everybody sees somebody else in Kaufman.
"Tim Brown had just won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame, playing different positions: receiver, slotback, return man," Barrett says. "We tried to do that with Napoleon and started 0-3, 1-6, and then I told him 'You may be a small kid, but you're our tailback.' "
Lompoc won the rest of its games in Kaufman's sophomore season, got better the next year and was 13-1 and Southern Section Division VII champion when he was a senior. Along the way, Kaufman scored 86 touchdowns, eight from 80 or more yards. Recruiters learned the way to Lompoc, and some stayed, including those from Washington.
Others left, scared off by an academically troubled young man who was a late bloomer in the classroom and who had a history of being a discipline problem with the wrong kind of friends, so much so that he was out of the public school system for a time.
"I moved him out of my remedial English class when I saw the drive he had," Barrett said. "He settled down and began to learn. I had him go to summer school and take an algebra course and a course in SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) preparation. He went from 560 on the test to 710 from May to October."
The NCAA requires 700 to be eligible to play a sport. The dramatic improvement was viewed with such suspicion that documentary evidence was kept on hand to show that he had taken the test and the scores were legitimate.
Courses in English, social studies and geometry were taken to make him eligible to attend college, and, if his 2.1 grade-point average wasn't all that impressive, it was enough--particularly when coupled with a 4.31-second 40-yard dash and a 10.59 in the 100 meters.
Kaufman chose Washington, and vice versa. The school required him to attend a tutoring session at 7:30 a.m., four days a week, calling Barrett when he didn't, and if Kaufman didn't exactly excel in classes, he has maintained eligibility without question.