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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Forever Young

Hoover High's football team doesn't win much, but its star player keeps chugging along.

October 15, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Late in the fourth quarter, Hoover High is down by three touchdowns but the offense still plugs away.

The linemen still fight to open holes and the running back still bulls into the secondary, tugging free of linebackers, dragging safeties along with him.

Hoover is winless in five games, but the Tornadoes can surely run the ball. They have that tough line and they have that tough running back.

Even as opposing teams discover Jason Young, even as they stack the line with eight and nine players, no one has stopped him.

With 779 yards in 124 carries, Young has quietly become one of the best backs in the region. He has also become something the Tornadoes can hang their hat on, a source of pride.

"This is the way we can see how well we did," said Faizan Hanif, the team's co-captain. "The way he runs is the way we justify ourselves."

*

The star senior looks a bit frail at first glance, standing on the sideline before a game.

A clunky brace encases his left knee, the residue of surgery last season. He wears Coke-bottle goggles to correct an astigmatism. They are fixed in place, a geeky black strap running across the outside of his helmet.

Without those goggles, Young is all but blind.

"I just see colors," he said. "If I want to look at the clock, I have to put my helmet back on."

But any hint of vulnerability dissolves as soon as he touches the ball.

Young makes full use of his 210 pounds, running full-tilt at defenders. Against La Canada last week, his first six carries were straight-forward, pounding affairs.

"You've got to wrap him up," La Canada Coach Richard Wheeler said. "But it's tough to do. He's a tough kid."

And just when the defense figures him for a one-dimensional back, Young adds a subtle change.

Late in the first quarter, he broke into the La Canada secondary and headed straight for a defensive back. His opponent seemed to hesitate, as if bracing for impact. Young shifted into another gear, racing past on his way to a 63-yard touchdown.

"In the beginning of the game I try to go really hard at everyone, then later I can set them up," he said. "They'll freeze and then I can make the cut on them."

This is not just talent and technique. This is determination.

"I do everything for my teammates," Young said. "If I do good, that's showing everyone else that my line is blocking, that they are doing good."

*

The Tornadoes are 13-70-1 in the 1990s. Current players can't remember the last time the team had a winning record.

Young knew all about Hoover when he was growing up in youth football. He heard all the best athletes from the neighborhood attended other schools with better programs.

"Me and my friends, we talked about that a lot," he said. "We decided to do the right thing."

Once on campus, Young waited his turn to be the star of the team's veer-option offense.

"The fullback is the feature guy," Coach Mark Bitetti said. "As a sophomore, Jason was the pitch guy and he didn't get the pitch very often."

But the coaches knew he was special and, last season, they hoped he would carry the team. Those hopes were quickly dashed. In an early season game, Young was throwing a block and someone rolled onto his leg from the side.

"I heard two pops," he said. "It felt really cold."

The ligament was torn. There was surgery followed by months of rehabilitation and plenty of Sundays spent praying in church.

"I had to work really, really hard," he said. "But I didn't really worry."

Nor did the people around him.

"We knew he was going to pull it together," said Hanif, who plays left tackle. "It probably hurt, but he fought through it."

Said Bitetti: "He's just a rock out there."

The doctors said the knee would need more than a year to fully recover. Temporarily robbed of his speed, Young began lifting weights so he could run with strength.

"I wanted to get bigger because I would have to take some more hits," he said. "I knew I'd have to punish people."

Young arrived at practice for his senior season 25 pounds heavier. His coach noticed another difference--he saw a player determined to boost the morale of a team that had little hope and only 30 players.

"I'll tell you, he's one of the better leaders I've come across in all my years of coaching," Bitetti said. "He'll do anything I ask. If things start to drag in practice, he'll get on his teammates about their effort.

"We count on him so much."

*

Never mind the lopsided scores. The Hoover players swear they are close to turning things around.

"We do well in parts of our game but some other parts bring us down," Hanif said. "We just need to put a whole game together."

In the meantime, they take pride in the extraordinary feats of their best player.

"Other teams are bringing nine guys up to the line," Bitetti said. "Jason is still moving the ball."

Two hundred yards against Franklin. Two hundred twenty-one yards against Monroe. In the 35-12 loss to La Canada, Young carried 27 times for 187 yards and both his team's touchdowns.

Next comes a Pacific League opener against Pasadena, a team with strong defensive linemen and linebackers. Once again, Hoover will be the underdog.

But, once again, that line will block. That running back will run as hard as he can.

It's a shimmer of light in a long, tough season.

"I can see it in their faces," Young said. "I want my teammates to feel good about something."

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