Omaha North running back sensation and recent South Dakota verbal commit Calvin Strong put up sick numbers last season leading his school to its first state football title in the playoff era. His 3,008 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns set state and metro single season Class A records, shattering anything done by past star Omaha prep backs such as Gale Sayers and Ahman Green.
Despite measuring 5'9, 175 pounds, he runs like his name, strong, right into the heart of defenses, where his uncanny vision and agility allow him to avoid big hits. Even when he does run into contact he breaks tackles thanks to his superb balance, low center of gravity and ample strength. With his legs churning forward and his head on a swivel, he probes for creases, then spins, darts. bounces, bursts through heavy traffic into open lanes for big gains.
Known for a positive attitude, ready smile and being a vocal, emotional team leader, he saves his best moves for the off-field. There he does a precarious dance to avoid the gang-banging culture around him.
Strong and his pre-season No. 1 Vikings play Friday night's season opener at home versus Millard West. All eyes will be on the senior when he touches the ball, which figures to be a lot given his 27-plus carries per game average last year. His 3,000 yard season came on the heels of a nearly 1,900 yard sophomore campaign, when he led North to the title game only to fall just short. He's a two-time first-team all-state selection.
For someone with his credits it's unusual he only had one college offer – from South Dakota. It may be more unusual yet he accepted it with a resume-enhancing session before him. North Head Coach Larry Martin confirms "there was a ton of interest out there" from FBS and FCS schools. Programs held off because Strong's struggled academically and he's posted sub-par 40-yard dash times (4.6-4.7) at camps.
The South Dakota commitment took Martin by surprise, though he confirms the school showed the most consistent interest in Strong. Martin, who's "extremely close" to Strong and his family, said only two weeks ago, "I know he's on a lot of people's boards and people are waiting to see where all the intangibles measure out. Everybody wants to know where he's at academically. Right now he's a non-qualifier. If he was a qualifier, he'd have more offers right now. Somebody's going to take him and is going to get a helluva running back."
The pressure to perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests has sometimes gotten the better of Strong, whose commitment eases one stressor.
"He's broke down on me multiple times about it," Martin says.
Then there was the out-of-school suspension Strong served earlier this year for unspecified reasons. Martin says Strong put it behind him.
"He handled what he had to work through like a man. He came back and went right to work and he had his best summer since he's been here. I thought our teachers did a great job of getting him his homework. He's a very genuine young man. If he tells you he's going to do something he's going to follow through and do it. His word means something to him. I feel real confident with what I've seen. He's learned from his mistakes, been apologetic for it, and moved on."
Strong's a celebrity wherever he goes in North Omaha and Martin believes even though the player is humble, a sense of entitlement creeped in.
"Sometimes kids think they can get away with a little bit more because of their status and I think he got caught up in that. I think he's understanding that consequences apply to everybody."
Martin has been pleased with Strong's progress in and out of school and feels he's prepared himself for what comes next.
"He has the grades – we've just got to get the ACT score up and we've taken the measures to get that headed in the right direction. God bless he stays healthy he's going to be one of the more decorated football players coming out of this state in quite a few years."
There's never been any doubt, barring injury, Strong would play somewhere on a big stage at the next level. He may have a chance of being an impact player there, too. Of course, it's always possible Strong could de-commit from the Coyotes and go to a football factory. It that happens, it would make him the first local back in a while to breakthrough after decades of guys doing it.
His coach won't venture to guess, but Strong may even follow the path of two recent North players, in Niles Paul and Philip Bates, who went D-I and landed in the NFL. The path to the NFL doesn't need to go through a big program either. Just ask Bates (Ohio) and Danny Woodhead (Chadron State).
The fact that Strong is even in this position is an achievement worth celebrating if for no other reason than he's escaped the fate of friends lost to guns and gangs.
That harsh street life co-exists with his sometimes storybook, folk hero saga.
His school is in a neighborhood – Strong lives just down the hill from North – beset by poverty and crime. Drug dealing and turf wars pose dangers. Minus boundaries, gang culture exerts a pull. Strong, like his name, has stood firm against the allure and trap of that lifestyle, one that cost at least six of his buddies' their lives. He continues knowing people caught up in it. He's flirted with it himself. But he's made known he wants nothing to do with it. The Gs know he's off-limits.
"I still have friends that are in the gang life or whatever but they know and I know where I need to be at. It's really not hard to x that stuff out of my life because I know and they know what I got going for myself and what's in store for me," Strong says.
"My freshman year I was pulled to doing dumb things but I've matured throughout these years to know what's right from wrong, so I've been keeping myself away. Basically this whole summer I've just been with my coaches and teammates. I really ain't been focused on anything else but football and studies so I can get to college."
Martin's aware of the pressures Strong faces. The coach and his family offer a respite when Calvin needs it.
"There is a pull and you can't ignore it but he's got his outs and when things get a little bit tough he calls coach and he comes stays with us, sometimes for a couple nights. We're more than happy to provide that for him because he is a high quality young man.
"It's also just to help take the burden off the family."
In Martin, Strong appreciates he has a mentor and advocate, saying, "The only pressure that's on me right now is finishing what he's helped me with. Me and him have always had a relationship outside football. I'll go to his house, chill out, eat steak. I'm like one of his own kids. He's like a second dad to me. He's always been there for me through anything. He has my back and I have his.
"He's a real special guy and I give my heart to him. He's prepared us for life, not just football. His speeches, they really just get to you, they spark something in you."
Martin sees Strong mostly doing the right things these days.
"He's really worked hard in terms of making sure he's doing everything he can to make the right decisions. We're just here to help continue to support him, provide him more options. Our total pursuit is to get that college education."
Strong lives at home with his father, Calvin Strong Sr., and his younger brother, Jordan Strong. As a 6'2, 250 pound sophomore nose guard, Strong's 15-year-old "little brother" is already getting hard looks from colleges. Because of his size, Jordan's always played a couple grade levels up from his age group and thus he and his superstar older brother have been teammates growing up. The siblings are cogs in what may be a dynasty for years to come given the talent-rich depth and winning habits Martin's built-up.
Calvin himself is only 17, so he may be fill out some come college, though in today's sprint offenses size isn't the factor it used to be.
Martin has always said, "it's going to be about finding the right fit for him. I think people want to see him one more year. He did what he needed to do this summer and then we'll let the first three or four games take care of themselves. We've got tough games right away – we open up with Millard West and Burke. If he does well in those games people are going to want to see that film."
Among other things coaches will see, Martin says, is a dynamic back who's "motivated and very competitive," adding, "The one concern the bigger schools have is his top-end speed. Calvin just doesn't test well in the 40. But I don't know that top-end speed has to be the number one factor. He has so many other things he can do. Number one, he doesn't turn the ball over. I mean, he just doesn't fumble. He has taken extremely good care of the football. I think he has great vision. I think he anticipates where things are going to come open so well. He's very durable. He's elusive – he can make guys miss. He's got great hips. His core and overall body strength is very good. His feet never stop moving, they're constantly going."
Strong has the ability to read defenses and anticipate where trouble lurks and then when things break down to change direction on a dime.
He says, "I see how everybody's lined up. It's really hard to tackle me unless the play gets all bunched up. I just keep my eyes focused and I shut everything else out, and once I break everything comes back loud again, all the screaming, and I can relax and have fun after I've gotten a first down or I've scored.
"Plus, I'm real small and my linemen are really big, so it's good I can hide behind 'em and just choose where I can break off. It makes it real difficult for the linebackers to read me."
He acknowledges he's also run behind an exceptional line anchored by Nebraska commit and fellow all-stater Michael Decker, who returns.
But not every defender's blocked every play and Strong doesn't back down from the one-on-one challenge of a backer trying to blow him up.
"I'm just a real strong small guy – I don't take nothing from nobody. Playing against some of the biggest linebackers in the state I've always gone heads up with 'em, I never try to fall down when they're coming – I take it to 'em. I'm a small back but I'm going to show you I have power. I'm not afraid of contact."
The contact part is funny because Strong confirms he once hated even the idea of being tackled before playing organized football. His dad and uncle forced him to play to toughen him up. His first full year at running back for the Little Vikes, after a year wasted on the line, he'd curl up to avoid hits but after dominating the youth ranks he decided the contact was no big deal, though he rarely took a clean hit. When tackled today he takes it as a personal defeat, which only makes him come back harder the next time. At the end of the day his heart and will are what separate him from others.
"I feel like that's what it is because I want it more than a lot of people. I'm always competitive. Everything is competition to me."
As for his less than stellar 40 clocking, he discounts it with, "My speed and everything shows on the field." Indeed, he's rarely if ever caught from behind. Martin, who coached current NFL players Phil Bates and Niles Paul, is waiting to see what Strong shows this year before comparing him to those elite athletes.
"I'll know a lot more with him after our first couple games. You know, we tell our kids that the guys from North who've made it to the next level are the hardest working players every day. I will say Calvin's work ethic has definitely increased. I think we've got him to the point where he understands if he wants to be the elite of the elite then he needs to continue to work harder."
Besides what's on the line for him personally, Strong's dedicated himself to getting North back to the title game again.
"I worked very hard. I'm determined this year to come out with a real big bang. I really want that ring again. I really want that experience again."
He's aware no Omaha Public Schools team has made it to three straight finals games and he wants North to be the first to do it.
The North program's come to the point where winning's the expectation. Playing for the title two years ago and then winning the championship last year has meant a huge boost in confidence.
"It really set the bar for us," Strong says. "Now nobody can really bring us down. Nobody can say they're better than us. Nobody can say anything about us being an underdog team because we showed we've climbed all those obstacles. It was very heartwarming to me because we'd been talking about it since my freshman year and just to have it after we should have had it my sophomore year was really nice."
Strong's also keenly aware of his role model and celebrity status. He still finds all the attention, as in everyone from children to adults wanting his autograph or screaming his name, a bit surreal, saying, "It's crazy." He adds, "There's not a lot of 17-year olds that can give little kids hope."
The importance he attaches to his gift for football as his gateway out of The Hood is clearly reflected in a Tweet he made:
"If I didn't have this I'd be nothing. That's why thrive (sic) to be the best to do it."
The way he sees it, realizing his dreams also honors the memory of his late friends who encouraged him to pursue football as far it would take him. Strong was en route to a game two years ago when he got word his friend Tyler had shot himself in the head playing Russian Roulette. He found out during the game Tyler died from his wounds.
In a Tweet, Strong wrote:
"Rip to my brother Tyler Brent Hickerson
When I die I want my BROTHERS walking my casket down ...the ones who stood next to me when I once stood#cant get know Realer
If only u was here to see me shine … I miss u"
Strong's grown up a Husker fan and Nebraska definitely has him on their radar. The only camp he attended this past summer was in Lincoln, where he's got to know NU's premier back, Ameer Abdullah, to whom he's often compared. Before saying yes to South Dakota Strong hinted he'd like to reestablish the once continuous running back pipeline there from Omaha that's gone dry the last decade-and-a-half.
He said, "I'd love to keep it in state just to show everybody how good North Omaha competition is. Playing for Nebraska would make a lot of people happy in Omaha."
If Strong were to renege and select another school's offer, assuming one's proffered, there's still those test scores. Martin felt the junior college route was a distinct possibility for Strong. His own son, Zach Martin, who quarterbacked North to the 2012 title game, is thriving at Iowa Western Community College, which sends many players to D-I.
Once Strong's South Dakota decision sunk in, Martin understood it because the player's developed a trust with the Coyote coaches that reminds him of what Strong has with him and his coaches at North.
"Calvin and his family mean so much to me, he's almost like my own son. My message to Calvin has always been I will find a place that's going to be the right fit for you. I'm just not going to turn you over to somebody that hasn't invested that much time in you. We're going to take care of you."
He says for nearly every dream Strong wants to accomplish, South Dakota will be able to provide that for him. If not, Martin's sure there are plenty of other places that will fit the bill.
Stay strong, Calvin, stay strong.
North hosts No. 3 Millard West this Friday at Kinnick Stadium on the Northwest High campus. Kickoff is for 7 p.m.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.