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Early Anguish Aside, Price Is More Than Right for UCLA

College football: The freshman who doesn't want to play like one is rewarded as Bruins' backup tailback.

September 19, 1996|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sunday afternoon was for Durell II and a peaceful trip to grandma's house. Young Durell likes the car ride to Sylmar, he had a little cold, and his old man was a little tired to frolic anyway.

Running the ball 14 times for 110 yards the night before at the Rose Bowl will do that to you.

Durell Price became a father in his junior year at Sylmar High, which is one of the reasons he is a freshman running back at UCLA.

"I barely get to see my son on weekends now," Price said, "and it's only about 30 minutes to Sylmar. If I was at Ohio State it would be never, and I wouldn't be able to deal with it."

He was almost a Buckeye, caught up momentarily, he said, in the glamour of playing in the Big Ten, and became a Bruin only after a fax machine mistake in which the wrong side of his letter of intent was sent to Columbus, Ohio, back in February. The discovery of the error was something of a reprieve, for him and for UCLA, which had written Price off as a recruit.

"I went to Durell's house to find out what was going on," said Sylmar Coach John Engilman, who had learned of the error from an Ohio State coach. "He was there crying and saying, 'I think I made a mistake signing with Ohio State.' It's six o'clock on what is supposed to be the most joyous day of a man's high school career and he's in tears."

Calls to UCLA assistant Gary Bernardi and Coach Bob Toledo fixed that.

"He said, 'Coach Toledo, I'm going to be a Bruin,' " Toledo said.

"I said, 'Who's this?'

"He said, 'Durell.'

"I said, 'Durell who?' "

Toledo was wary. An impostor had been calling schools all over the country, claiming to be Chris Claiborne, a Riverside North High player who was one of the most-touted recruits in the country and who is playing linebacker as a freshman at USC.

Even when he was assured that the Price was right, after hearing what had happened with the Ohio State fax, Toledo went to sleep, still skeptical until the next day, when he got Price's letter of intent in his hands with a signature.

He still didn't know what he had until fall practice began. He learned quickly.

"We scrimmaged the young kids at the end of practice during two-a-days, and he ran 70 yards the first time the ball was in his hands," Toledo said.

The decision to make Price the backup tailback, behind Skip Hicks, was an easy one.

It was a matter of physical talent, quick maturity, an on-the-job education and a little help. Price latched onto Hicks as a mentor after being introduced by tight end Tyrone Pierce, also a Sylmar alumnus, at a basketball game.

Price and Hicks corresponded during the spring and summer, with Hicks answering questions about college football from someone who was coming to UCLA to try to get his job.

Price's idea is to grow up quickly, and he'll take all the help he can get.

"I know some people can't take criticism from another player," Price said. "I can. I know he's been where I'm trying to go."

He wants to get there in a hurry.

"I had one goal when I came to college, and that was not to play like a freshman, not to think like a freshman," Price said.

"Basically, not be a freshman. . . . I made that decision when I signed my letter of intent: 'You're not going to play like an ordinary freshman; you're going to be above what you are.' "

He was Saturday against Northeast Louisiana. He hadn't been the week before, at Tennessee, where he found out some things about college football that can't be taught in film sessions or in practice.

"He ran tentatively," Toledo said. "What happens with young people is they look for touchdowns. They think they can outrun everybody. They think they can score a touchdown every time they get the ball.

"What they have to understand is that long runs come when you are trying to make four yards. All of a sudden a hole opens up and you accelerate into the secondary. But when you're trying to make long runs and you're dancing and can't get into the hole, then you're not going to be a good running back."

On his first carry in the first quarter at Knoxville, Price took a handoff from quarterback Cade McNown and started left, off tackle.

"It happened so fast I can vaguely remember," he said. "I just remember I've got the ball and I see a couple of orange jerseys there and I thought, 'Oh, man, just put your head down and hold the ball tight.' "

Loss of four yards. Lesson I.

"My eyes were already open, but once that happened, it was like, 'This is for real,' " Price said. "I knew that, but knowing it and having it done to you are two different things. It was like, 'This is wild.' "

The results weren't as wild. He carried four more times, finishing with a one-yard contribution to a 35-20 loss. This wasn't Sylmar anymore.

"I was disappointed that things didn't go the way I had planned for them to go," he said. "But I wasn't heartbroken. I didn't dwell on it. I was just disappointed that we lost the game. . . . It's not something that's happened a lot to me. I'm not used to losing."

Sylmar lost three games with Price in the lineup in the three years he played there.

"Every single one, I felt so bad after, it just tore me apart," he said. "It's really the only thing I play the game for: to win.

"Look, losing is personal to me. If you don't give your all, if you don't leave it all out on the football field, you regret it afterward."

No regrets on Sunday afternoon with Durell Price and Durell II. And no regrets Sunday night, when Price moved into his freshman dormitory from his training camp lodgings.

He got help from Joy Moss, mother of Durell II. That's something else that couldn't have happened at Ohio State.

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