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Simply the Pest

Ebell has been sold short his whole life, and he wasn't happy about waiting his turn at UCLA, but now he's the man

October 31, 2002|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

The tiny kid with the dancing eyes and mischievous grin dashes down the Ventura pier and through the door of a seafood restaurant. He grabs a mint from a tray next to the cash register and bolts back to the beach.

He runs two miles on the sand until he reaches his taskmaster father and hands him the mint. The small crime is repeated daily until the tiny kid becomes as much a product of operant conditioning as Pavlov's dogs.

He runs. He eludes capture. He grabs the prize. He runs some more.

His reward? Stature.

It's all Tyler Ebell has ever pursued. The tiny kid has grown up to become UCLA's tailback as a redshirt freshman even though, at 5 feet 9, 170 pounds, he has been labeled too small so often that the words elicit another conditioned response -- belligerence.

No wonder he identifies with Mighty Mouse, sporting a tattoo of the rodent superhero delivering an uppercut that he got at a Ventura Hell's Angels hangout at 14. Ebell relishes being the fruit fly in your face, the groundhog in your garden, the possum raiding the dog food in the dead of night, an annoyance impervious to eradication.

In four games, he has confounded some of the finest pest control experts in college football -- coaches Dennis Erickson of Oregon State, Mike Bellotti of Oregon, Jeff Tedford of California and Buddy Teevens of Stanford.

UCLA (5-3) won only two of the games against those Pacific 10 Conference opponents, struggling with injuries and play-calling. But for Ebell, October marked an uninterrupted ascent.

He cracked the lineup in the second quarter against Oregon State on Oct. 5 because of an injury to Manuel White and rushed for 203 yards, the second-highest total by a Bruin freshman. Three more 100-yard games followed, giving him an average of 146 yards per game for the month.

Ebell is 72 yards from breaking the UCLA freshman record for yards in a season (703, by Eric Ball in 1985) and is on pace to reach 1,200 yards. It's still a far cry from his senior year at Ventura High, when he put up some of the best rushing numbers in the history of high school football, setting a national record with 4,494 yards and a state-record 64 touchdowns, but it's more than nearly every so-called expert expected.

Most college coaches recruited Ebell as "an athlete," rather than as a tailback and planned to convert him to defensive back or receiver. UCLA promised he would be a tailback, but Coach Bob Toledo admits he did not expect Ebell to become an every-down ballcarrier durable enough to get 39 carries, as he did against Stanford on Saturday.

Impatient and impetuous, Ebell can't fathom why he began the season fifth-string. Why anyone would doubt his ability. Why anyone would discount him because of his size.

"I don't really understand why it took so long to get me some time," he said. "I felt I could have contributed earlier."

He knew all along what is obvious to everyone now.

"He's better running between the tackles than I gave him credit for, he's done a great job of that," Toledo said. "He does everything we want a back to do. He's proven it to everybody. He's energized our offense.

"We thought we'd have to use him as a situational, substitution-type guy and isolate him. Funny how things work out."

*

The first person to believe in Ebell was his father. No surprise there, but conviction became obsession for Dennis Ebell, an ex-Marine and semi-pro football player.

His son soon was programmed to believe in himself.

"I'd wake up in the morning and there would be a quote hanging in my face, like 'It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog,' " Ebell said. "He expected a lot out of me, but he always made me believe I could do anything."

He lived alone with Dennis, although he is close to his mother, Karen Hewlett, who also is in Ventura. Ebell's friends were astonished when his father required him to do 50 pushups before he could go out to play.

"It was the two of us, and we grew up like Spartans," Dennis said.

Ebell began playing youth football and always included his jersey number with his signature.

"He'd sign my birthday and Mother's Day cards, 'Tyler Ebell, No. 2.' " Karen said.

Call it a Napoleon complex, but he all the while he had his sights set on No. 1.

As a sophomore at Ventura he led the Channel League in rushing with 1,200 yards, but was voted second-team all-league.

"It was the first time I believed I was slighted," he said. "That really made me mad. I kept the all-league team posted in my bedroom."

Every game day he ate a turkey and provolone deli sandwich and watched video of Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. During the summer, he ran with his linemen on the beach in their shoes, grabbing mints to prove to Dennis that they'd made it all the way to the pier.

By the end of Ebell's senior year, that single-minded drive had propelled him to 7,285 yards rushing and what was then a state-record 111 touchdowns.

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