Posted at 10:47 AM
Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013
(Note: See the shorter version of this story (with some cool photos of Ross and former ‘Iolani great Joe Igber) at Hawaii Prep World.)
It's not easy being a phenom and prodigy.
The road to fame and fortune is littered with geniuses and athletes who shone brightest at such a young age. And then came life. Pitfalls. A society that overemphasizes victory (at times) and over-examines defeat (often).
Then there's Jordan Ross.
The 'Iolani running back been tantalizing to watch on the gridiron for some time. His YouTube video of 2012 highlights is one of 23,500 that pop up to the search words "jordan ross football iolani". In the 6-minute, 32-second reel, edited by a friend and posted by Ross, a string of breathtaking touchdown runs against ILH intermediate league foes.
The sum total of his freshman efforts: in six games, he rushed for 1,078 yards and 15 touchdowns in just 68 carries (15.9 yards per attempt). He also caught five passes for 81 yards, scoring two more times. He returned six punts for three touchdowns, a 37.2-yard average. Oh, and there was his lone kickoff return, a 90-yard jaunt to paydirt.
But that's all against ninth and eighth graders, right?
Ross hasn't been so bad as a starting sophomore running back for the Raiders. In his first three varsity games - freshmen aren't allowed to play varsity football in the ILH - Ross has racked up 383 yards and seven touchdowns on just 33 attempts. That's 11.6 yards per carry.
Again, his blazing acceleration from the handoff still makes most defenders look slow-motion, even at the varsity level. It's his vision and ability to make big and small cutbacks without losing that acceleration that separates him from most backs.
He leaves would-be tacklers in the dust - dirt at Eddie Hamada Field, rubber granules at Aloha Stadium - in a manner that seems almost routine. In the opener against Kalani, during the Father Bray Classic, he rushed for 100 yards even on a mere seven carries, scoring three touchdowns. He also caught a pass for three yards, hitting his "touch count" in the first half, sitting out the second in a 51-36 win.
Division I powerhouse Leilehua bottled him up to an extent, limiting Ross to 76 rushing yards on 18 carries and no touchdowns in a 56-35 win over the Raiders.
Then came Saturday afternoon's matchup with BIIF D-II power Kamehameha-Hawaii: 206 yards on eight carries, touchdown runs of 22, 32, 46 and 84 yards, all before halftime.
"During the summer, we went through Coach (Dominic) Ahuna's grueling six-week strength and condition program," Ross said in an e-mail. "He gets us all in top playing shape, and all the things we do on the field are a result of his incredible efforts to better us physically, mentally and spiritually."
At 5-foot-8 and 164 pounds Ross is lighter than he was a year ago. And faster. As he gains strength and size - he keeps working on his speed as a sprinter on the track team - there will be fewer and fewer linebackers able to take him down on first contact. Then what?
That strength, Raiders coach Wendell Look says, will come with time. But the comparisons, mostly by fans, of Ross to the most prolific running back in state history, Joe Igber, is a double-edged sword.
"That's where he reminds me of Joe," said Look, who was in the early period of his two-plus decades as head coach. "He has a similar style of running the ball. You can't teach that."
Ross never got to see Igber play, but he's heard the stories.
"I feel pressure as all high school players do, but my coaches, teammates and family members are extremely supportive, so that makes it more of a joy to play than a burden," Ross said. "I am honored to be even compared to Joe Igber. He was a phenomenal athlete and legendary running back. I have a few more years ahead of me to keep working hard to maybe reach that high level of excellence."
A young athlete doesn't need additional stress, but there's no denying talent.
Look was there when Igber bolted for a then-state record 352 yards in a 45-35 win over Pac-Five one fall afternoon in 1998. In all, Igber amassed six of the seven highest single-game rushing totals in school history. Ross had an outside shot at breaking Igber's mark on Saturday against KS-Hawaii, but this is 'Iolani. One Team. And Ross was done by intermission with the Raiders ahead 36-0 and the second half speeding by on a running clock.
Not that Ross was concerned.
"Everybody compares them (Ross and Igber), but their similarities are more as people," said Look, now in his 23rd season as head coach. "Both of them have great integrity and work ethic. Jordan is a good student and he doesn't say very much. He's a humble kid and appreciative of what he has, the talents that he's been given. He doesn't make a big deal of it."
Ross' parents, Walter Ross and Denise Kunitake, have seen their son emerge as a math honors student who loves to hit the beach on Sundays. Both parents were track and field athletes in high school.
"He's a tech fiend," says Walter. "He loves the water. He's a typical local boy."
But not all typical local boys are standout high school athletes as 10th graders. Look understands some of the issues that could surround Ross at such a young age. Too much media attention. Too much hype. Too much distraction.
"I don't think that's going to be a concern for Jordan. As a sophomore, he has great perspective," Look said.
Igber set state records of 27 rushing touchdowns and 4,472 yards for his career. Other career numbers that broke state marks: 56 touchdowns and 336 points, as well as a single-season point record of 162 and a single-game mark of six touchdowns.
Whatever spotlight shines on a talent like Ross, Igber said, it will be for the best.
"It's good to get exposure. One day, he'll be old like me and look back. He just has to study, stay close to his friends and always show respect to the opponent," Igber said. "I can't imagine with Coach Look there how anything else would have a bad effect on him."
Igber was a compact, explosive athlete who, at 5-6, played on the basketball team and regularly dunk in warmups - back when dunking was allowed in pre-game.
"He was very grounded. All the years I've known him, he had his priorities straight," Look said. "And football didn't consume his life."
Igber got his engineering degree at Cal, spurned offers to play pro football in favor of pursuing his career. He is currently an engineer in the Bay Area.
"When I was there (at 'Iolani), there was no YouTube," Igber said by phone on Saturday. "But I'm happy to see there's excitement again. I hope he can keep his academics together."
Being at 'Iolani, Igber added, was a huge reason why his first year at Berkeley was a breeze. It was all about preparation, being teachable and coachable.
"Coach Look said, 'Just play as a team. We win together. We lose together. We were small. Uriah Moenoa was the only one on the offensive line bigger than me," Igber recalled. "We were a small school where you knew everybody. When Coach said, 'It doesn't matter if you win or lose unless you play together,' I used to laugh. I wanted to win. But now I know it is true. You can't play forever. Football teaches you character."
There have been talented ballcarriers over the years since Igber's heyday. Raynold Stowers rushed for 261 yards against Pac-Five in 2002 and has three of the top 10 all-time rushing games on the Raiders list. Stowers was a tall back with long strides and breakaway speed. It's Ross who is more similar to Igber in so many ways.
It's a lot to expect if the comparisons continue. Ross has a path of his own to carve out on and off the field.
"Oh, he has a lot of improvement he can make," Look said. "He's a very gifted runner, but he'll work on his blocking and his understanding of the little things, becoming a student of the game, watching more film, those will come with time."
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