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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

His Work Pays in Long Run

November 16, 2004|Eric Sondheimer

When a father invites his son to join him as a participant in the Los Angeles Marathon, it raises a question: Isn't there a simpler bonding exercise, like eating hot dogs at a Dodger game or shooting baskets in the park?

"It was one of those things," Vince Oatis said. "I wanted a companion."

So Shawn Oatis, then a freshman at Chino High, took up his father's challenge of enduring 26 miles of shared agony.

"I got to tell you, I trained and he didn't," Vince said. "He did it on athleticism and youth."

About 18 miles into the marathon, Shawn's legs started cramping. It would have been easy for him to make a phone call and have his mother pick him up.

"I massaged the legs and kept going," Shawn said. "It's so inspirational to see people in wheelchairs doing it. I saw someone jumping rope. When you see that kind of stuff, it inspires you to finish the race."

Fighting his way through mental and physical exhaustion, Shawn learned an invaluable lesson.

"Don't give up," he said. "Keep going."

And that's the way Oatis plays football. From the opening kickoff until the game ends, he hits, runs and performs with an intensity and purpose that's hard to duplicate.

At 6 feet, 205 pounds, he's a strong safety who prides himself on making sure an opposing receiver understands the consequences of trying to catch a pass in his territory. It's one of the few games "you can legally hit someone and not be punished," he said.

Oatis was the defensive player of the year last season in the Sierra League. He also ran for 1,285 yards. This season, he has led the Cowboys to a 9-1 record, contributing 76 tackles, including 12 for losses. Last week, he scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1 minute 3 seconds left against Chino Hills on a four-yard run, his 23rd touchdown this season.

Then he made an interception with 44 seconds left to preserve the 21-18 victory.

He recently committed to UCLA, turning down Notre Dame and Ohio State.

"He's probably one of the best two-way players we've ever had," Coach John Monger said.

With a 4.0 grade-point average and a determined work ethic, Oatis is a 17-year-old who has used high school to create future opportunities.

"It goes by quick," he said. "I'm a senior now and was a freshman the other day. I'm savoring the time with my friends."

He has come to appreciate the support of his parents, even though there were times he wasn't so enthusiastic, such as working out with his father when he was young.

"I used to dread going to the gym," he said. "It was an hour a day. At times, I hated it. Now I'm thankful he took me to the gym because I got an early start."

Oatis' mother, Grace, attended USC, so there could be some Trojan-Bruin tension in the house.

"There's definitely going to be some jokes between me and her," he said. "I'm hoping I can add some UCLA trinkets around the house."

Sports has always been a major part of Oatis' life, but he figured out years ago it can't be the sole motivator.

"In elementary school, I was a C and B student," he said. "In junior high, something clicked. I guess I kind of realized football is fun, but you can't depend on it. You can blow out a knee and be done. In education, nobody can take it away from you."

Oatis plays defense with a linebacker's mentality. He has studied video of Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley, All-American safeties at USC and UCLA, respectively.

"They're physical safeties," he said. "They come up and hit you. That's the kind of safety I see myself being."

Monger, Chino's longtime coach, said Oatis ranks among the most levelheaded, humble and respectful players he has coached.

Oatis gives credit to his parents for continually encouraging him to excel.

"My dad is still on me to clean my room," he said.

They've taught him to stick to his principles and beliefs.

"I do respect people, and it's something I'm very proud of," he said. "If you want [me] to talk trash, you'll have to go somewhere else."

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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