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Woods plays with a purpose

Gardena Serra receiver tries to be a role model as his sister Olivia, who died of cancer, asked him to be.

August 27, 2008|Eric Sondheimer | Times Staff Writer

As if 16-year-old Robert Woods of Gardena Serra isn't impressive enough with his 33-inch vertical leap and 4.4 seconds 40-yard speed, his high school football coach, Scott Altenberg, raves about his maturity and mental toughness.

"He's got great intangibles," Altenberg said.

On stats alone, Woods ranks as one of the top young players in the Southland. He's a 6-foot-1, 175-pound receiver who caught 43 passes for 801 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. He also was an outstanding punt returner and made eight interceptions playing defensive back.

"He might be the best I've ever coached," Altenberg said.

Each play, Woods gives maximum effort, and for good reason: He knows his sister, Olivia, is watching.

"She was my No. 1 fan," he said. "I always heard her in the crowd. She was always excited watching me play football."

On April 19, Olivia died of cancer. She was 17 and would have been a senior at Serra this fall.

For five years, she fought the disease. "She never let it hold her back," her mother, Sharon, said.

Woods learned plenty from his only sibling.

"I think of her every day," he said. "Whenever my mind is vacant, I think of her. Before every game, I pray about her."

Olivia's last words to her brother were "be a role model."

And that's what Woods has become, on and off the field.

He's a leader, a good student, always respectful and someone who plays football with great passion.

He started playing the game when he was 6. His father and grandfather each played football for small college programs. At 8, he started working on his catching skills.

"When my mom used to tell me to get the groceries, I'd toss up the watermelon and catch it," he said.

He was so good at summer camps and competitions that UCLA and USC each offered him a scholarship even though he can't sign a letter of intent until 2010.

"It was an honor to get offered so early," he said.

At a minimum, it tells him he's on the right path, but he said he's not close to making a college decision.

"He has everything, plus his mental part of the game is amazing," Altenberg said.

One of Woods' strengths is never being satisfied. He understands his speed gives him an advantage, but he doesn't want to settle for just being one of the fastest players on the field.

"People always tell me I'm fast, but there are other fast people out there," he said. "I have to get stronger and think about the game more and outsmart them."

His mother said Olivia's spirit helped motivate Woods to "think big and work hard."

He intends to honor her by writing her name on tape that he fastens to his wrist, but it's the way he plays the game and how he approaches his life that leaves little doubt of the impact his sister made.

Her final words of wisdom -- "be a role model" -- won't be forgotten.

"Those words are in his heart," Sharon said.

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Receivers report

How the receivers rank:

1. Shaquelle Evans, Inglewood, 6-2, 190, Sr.; Best in the West.

2. Robert Woods, Gardena Serra, 6-1, 175, Jr.; Has speed, athleticism, toughness.

3. De'Von Flournoy, Birmingham, 6-0, 170, Sr.; USC commit is big-play weapon.

4. Randall Carroll, Cathedral, 5-11, 177, Sr.; His speed can't be duplicated.

5. Zach Tartabull, Valencia, 6-0, 185, Jr.; Was a summer revelation.

6. Ricky Marvray, Corona Centennial, 6-0, 180, Sr.; Stood out at combines, camps.

7. Anthony Denham, Los Angeles Wilson, 6-4, 190, Sr.; Has size to outjump corners.

8. Ify Umodu, South Hills, 6-3, 200, Jr.; Can be a Pac-10 recruit.

9. Keith Williams, Simi Valley, 6-2, 180, Sr.; Best in the Marmonte League.

10. Montreal Harris, 29 Palms, 6-3, 205, Sr.; Finds a way to get into end zone.

--Eric Sondheimer

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