Two Heisman Trophy winners, a NFL Hall of Famer and a player who started out as an offensive guard get the nod as the greatest running backs in L.A. City Section history in yet another unique look at prep football history from Cal-Hi Sports. Eight more receive high honorable mention and 75 city backs in all honored. More exclusive state record book features are coming soon and many will be part of our Gold Club membership. To become a member and not miss any of our content, CLICK HERE.
We spent the last few days updating lists in our vast Cal-Hi Sports Record Book and with the season starting up around the state this week, got fired up to work on our L.A. City Section Record Book, an ongoing project that we will publish one day with as much information about football from the L.A. City Section as we can uncover.
We decided since there have been so many great players from the section over the years, and because our ranking of the all-time Top 10 L.A. City Section teams generated so much interest, passion and brought out good memories in the comments section, we’d stir up the pot again. This time we’re ranking individual players, in particular the L. A. City Section’s Top 12 all-time running backs, and luckily we have plenty of statistics, and saw many of these great running players or know of historians that did, to back up our claims.
Our ranking of the City’s greatest backs is primarily based on high school accomplishment, not what they did afterwards, which is a lot easier to track and follow than what transpired at the high school level. Similar to our L.A. City team rankings, we decided against any players prior to World War II because we never evaluated those teams and while we do have some info on them, we don’t have as much compared to the vast files of all the great players since. Also, players and much bigger and stronger in recent generations and it’s hard to gauge if a player from the early part of the 20th century could really stack up to all the great backs of the last 60 years.
The main criteria is that a player must have primarily played running back at his high school, not played wingback or split end, or developed into one after high school. This eliminates some great players who played quarterback or another skill position (see more detail below the rankings).
So without further ado, here’s our ranking of the L.A. City’s greatest backs (listed by school and senior season year).
CAL-HI SPORTS DANDY DOZEN ALL-TIME
LOS ANGELES CITY SECTION RUNNING BACKS
(Post World War II to present)
1. Mike Garrett (L.A. Roosevelt 1961) 5-8, 180
Topping our list is the 1965 Heisman Trophy winner and the table setter for all the great USC backs that followed him. After playing quarterback as an underclassmen, the Boyle Heights legend switched to tailback as a senior and was named section and Cal-Hi Sports State Player of the Year (Mr. Football). He scored 153 points in eight games for what was basically an also-ran club and was surrounded by far less talent than his contemporaries on this list, and that was a factor because his greatness still was evident. He was the first L.A. City back to score six touchdowns in a game (against archrival Garfield in the East L.A. Classic nonetheless), gained 1,467 yards on only 146 carries and closed out his career by scoring five touchdowns and two conversion against L.A. Wilson. “Talk about playing with ten guys that basically got in the way,” said the late L.A. City Section historian and San Fernando assistant Bill Frazer. “I saw Garrett three our four times and the other great SoCal backs in that era, and I’m telling you, they couldn’t hold a candle to Garrett.”
2. Freeman McNeil (Wilmington Banning 1976) 6-0, 190
One of the great stories of California high school football is the one about this muscular athlete who went on to become an All-American at UCLA and one of the greatest players in New York Jets history. Toiling in obscurity as an offensive guard at Compton Centennial, legendary coach Chris Ferragamo took one look at McNeil during his first practice with the Pilots and promptly moved him to tailback. Two years later, McNeil led the state in scoring (162 points), breaking the section rushing touchdown record with 27 while leading Banning to the first of six consecutive L.A. City Section 4A titles. The former guard was considered one of the nation’s top recruits after rushing for 1,343 yards on 165 carries for the No. 1 ranked team in the state. As a senior McNeil was the L.A. City Player of the Year, State Player of the Year and Mr. Football USA (awarded to the top player in the country).
3. Charles White (San Fernando 1975) 5-11, 175
As a sophomore, White was too young for varsity competition so he learned the Tigers’ vaunted offensive system as a BEE wishbone quarterback. On varsity he was moved to fullback in San Fernando’s “Dream Backfield” (QB Kenny Moore, HB Kevin Williams, HB Ray Williams) and the results were spectacular. White was all-L.A. City in 1974, gaining 1,160 yards on 118 carries and repeated in 1975, gaining 1,155 yards on 121 carries. In one game he went for 215 yards on five carries and averaged a career 9.7 yards per carry while also playing a fearless defensive back. He was also the L.A. City and CIF state low hurdles (330-yard) champ at 36.7. The only one of his backfield teammates to play tailback after high school, White went on to win the 1979 Heisman Trophy at USC. He pushed McNeil for the No. 2 spot, but Moore was a two-time L.A. City Player of the Year, sharing the award with White as a senior when the latter was named Mr. Football for the state and country.
4. Hugh McElhenny (L.A. Washington 1947) 6-2, 193
Similar to Charles White, “Hurrying Hugh” was great on both the gridiron and the track. He is one of the few to have ever accomplished a CIF state meet individual triple when he won the high hurdles (14.5), low hurdles (19.9) and triple jump (22-10 1/2). He was a great broken field runner with power in pads and his college and NFL highlights show some modern-day moves and cuts. Coach Bill Sloan ran a T-formation and used the big play offense to finish 8-0 and ranked as the state’s No. 1 team. QB Bob Cameron’s 26 completions averaged 26.6 yards per reception while McElhenny, the state player of the year, averaged 10.6 yards per carry from his fullback position. Everybody knows LeBron James as “The King”, but that was McElhenny’s original nickname during a career that saw him earn college and NFL Hall of Fame recognition.
5. Stafon Johnson (L.A. Dorsey 2005) 6-0, 202
This is the spot where we begin to honor players that didn’t necessarily go on to become big-time NCAA or NFL stars and we don’t mind creating some controversy by placing the four-year Dorsey standout in the top five. What we remember most about Johnson came in 2005 versus Oakland McClymonds at Jackie Robinson Stadium. There were over 15 D1 prospects in the game and Johnson was by far the best player on the field. He scored on a 64-yard fumble recovery return and finished his senior season with 2,125 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Johnson ran like a grown man; fast, strong, and just elusive enough at his size. Despite sharing the ball for three years with Jeremiah Johnson (who gained 3,289 yards himself), Stafon Johnson is the city top five in career rushing (5,285 yards) and scored 59 touchdowns in 42 games before moving on to USC.
6. Milton Knox (Van Nuys Birmingham 2007) 5-9, 200
He wasn’t the biggest nor fastest, but when you consider Knox’s numbers against the stiff competition he played, it’s impossible to leave the Pacoima native out of the top 10. He was a ball boy for Taft when his brother Dayon Shaw was the quarterback, so he got an up close look at the back (Jerry Brown) whose all-time city rushing record he eventually broke. After leading Birmingham to its third section title in four years, Knox was named state player of the year and finished with 1,308 yards more than Brown (6,695 yards) and scored 22 more touchdowns than North Hollywood’s Marlon Lucky (103). The only back in section history with over 100 career touchdowns, Knox played in 53 career games, carrying the ball 943 times, scoring 656 points and gaining 7,523 all-purpose yards. Numbers aside, the class and humility he displayed on live television after Birmingham was edged out by Corona Centennial for a CIF Bowl Game berth opposite De La Salle also left a lasting impression.
7. Gaston Green (Gardena 1983) 5-11, 190
In stark contrast to Knox, if Green’s vast talents were utilized a bit more, he’s probably a couple of spots higher. In Knox’s junior season alone he carried the ball more times (328) than Green did in his three seasons on the Mohicans’ varsity. One of the most highly-recruited tailbacks in the country, Green averaged 9.2 yards per carry (305 carries for 2,811 yards) and scored 32 touchdowns. A versatile back with breakaway speed and the innate ability to make tacklers miss, Green also caught 12 passes in his career for 379 yards (31.6 avg) and five more scores. Before going on to All-American acclaim at UCLA and the NFL, he also placed second in the L.A. City 100 and 200-meter dash with top marks of 10.58 and 21.47.
8. Jerome Casey (Sylmar 1989) 6-0, 185
The surprise pick of the Dandy Dozen — unless you saw him play in high school and don’t hold what happened (or didn’t) afterwards against him. Casey had 10.7 100-meter speed, was the first player to bench press over 400 pounds (425) for coach Jeff Engilman and was tough on both sides of the ball. He set the bar for a program that went 86-18-2 between 1987 (Casey’s sophomore year) and 1995 with two section titles. The three-time all-city choice scored 49 touchdowns and rushed for 3,873 career yards in 29 games, including 1,457 yards in 10 games as a senior. That season, he also caught 14 passes for a whopping 407 yards (29.1 ypr) and made 70 tackles as a hard-hitting safety. Even though Prop 48 wiped out his scholarship to USC, Pete Kokon (the founder of the San Fernando Valley Football Foundation and a well-respected historian who graduated from Van Nuys in 1932) called Casey the best all-around player — offense and defense — he’d ever seen in the San Fernando Valley, CIF Southern Section programs included.
9. De’Anthony Thomas (L.A. Crenshaw 2010) 5-9, 165
We saw Thomas’ first varsity game against Lakewood in 2008 and knew with his blazing speed and natural football instincts, he’d have quite a career. We didn’t know “The Black Momba” would become a cultural phenomenon among inner-city youth who idolized his every move. The most highly-publicized back of his generation, Thomas was named 2008 state sophomore player of the year, led Crenshaw to the CIF Open Division bowl game in 2009 and as a senior rushed for 1,299 yards while picking off five passes on defense for a Cougars team that won their second consecutive section title. We hesitated to put The Momba too high because he simply didn’t carry the ball that much as a true tailback, but we then remember what we saw up close his senior year versus Dorsey and against Narbonne in the city title game at the Coliseum — the most explosive back we’ve seen in the state since 1990 Mr. Football Napoleon Kaufman of Lompoc.
10. Dwight Ford (Bell 1973) 5-11, 175
NFL Hall of Famer Joe “The Jet” Perry (L.A. Jordan) just misses the WWII cutoff (1943), so we went with the best player in Bell history. He is somewhat underappreciated because of injuries and competing with Ricky Bell and Charles White for playing time at USC, but that doesn’t take away from what he accomplished for the Eagles. The three-year standout was two-time all-city and city co-Player of the Year with All-American acclaim as a senior when he rushed for 1,651 yards and 19 touchdowns. A fine sprinter, Ford rushed for 1,375 yards as a junior and 3,831 yards for his career.
11. J.R. Redmond (Carson 1994) 6-0, 190
It was a tough decision to go with the two-time all-city performer as the Colts’ best running back ever over Alvin Goree, but we decided the former Arizona State standout and Super Bowl champion was just too talented and versatile to leave off. In the Pac-10, Redmond played running back, could catch the ball, was a factor in the return game and took snaps at defensive back and did the same at Carson, only in more dominant fashion. As a junior, he totaled 1,316 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns and became the first Carson player to score rushing, receiving, returning punts and kickoffs in a single season. As a senior splitting carries with Patrick McCall (3,242 career yards), the first team all-state choice scored nine touchdowns to go along with 1,154 all-purpose yards. In two years, Redmond totaled 568 kickoff return yards and 408 punt return yards and four return touchdowns.
12. Stanley Wilson (Wilmington Banning 1978) 6-0, 195
It was a gut-wrenching decision, but choosing between two standout fullbacks we went with “The Steamer” over Charles Evans of Gardena for the final spot. As a tenth-grader, he played split end as Freeman McNeil handled most of the ball-carrying duties, but after McNeil departed for UCLA Wilson picked up right where he left off. As a junior, he broke McNeil’s school record with 28 touchdowns while rushing for 1,762 yards, including a 12.9 yards per carry average during the regular season. As a senior, he repeated as L.A. City Player of the Year, rushing for 1,642 yards and 15 touchdowns before going on to play at Oklahoma and in the NFL.
Next Great Eight
(Received high consideration to round out the Top 20 backs; listed alphabetically)
John Arnett (L.A. Manual Arts 1952): All-NFL choice in 1958 led the city in scoring in 1952 (112 points) and was city long jump champion.
Ronnie Barber Sr. (San Pedro 1962): A legend in the South Bay, Barber was two-time all-city and player of the year as a senior when he gained 1,161 yards of total offense.
Steve Broussard (L.A. Manual Arts 1984): Chosen first team Cal-Hi Sports all-state at DB for coach Jeff Engilman’s back-to-back 3A City champs, Broussard was a two-time all-city back and the city 100-meter champion in 1984 and 1985.
Ontiwaun Carter (Granada Hills Kennedy 1990): After three 1,000 yard seasons against stiff competition for the Golden Cougars, Carter (4,274 yards) was named the sixth best San Fernando Valley player of the 1990’s by the L.A. Daily News.
Charles Evans (Gardena 1966): Unofficially No. 13 on this list, the two-time co-L.A. City Player of the Year had 20 touchdowns and 35 conversion as a junior and averaged 9.8 yards per carry as a senior.
Alvin Goree (Carson 1986): A three-year standout for coach Gene Vollnogle, Goree (3,384 career total yards) saved his best game for last, rushing for 144 yards, including a 52-yard score, to lead the Colts over national No. 1 Banning, 21-11, before 16,000 fans for the city crown.
Durrell Price (Sylmar 1995): Rare combination of speed and power (6-1, 215) netted 4,176 yards and 78 touchdowns and a 25-game winning streak for the Spartans.
Sharmon Shah (L.A. Dorsey 1991): Another clutch performer, Shah shared the ball with Lamont Warren (before that future NFL back moved to QB) as a junior, then came back and rushed for 1,694 yards in 206 carries to earn city co-L.A. City Player of the Year honors as a senior.
(Those marked by asterisk received most consideration for Top 20; listed alphabetically)
*Michael Alo (Wilmington Banning 1980); Danny Andrews (Wilmington Banning 1980); Sherman Austin (L.A. Lincoln 1997); Ricky Bell (L.A. Fremont 1972); Harold Boudreaux (Van Nuys 1991); Marquis Brignac (Woodland Hills Taft 1998); Tobiase Brookins (Sylmar 1991); *Jerry Brown (Woodland Hills Taft 1994); *Beno Bryant (L.A. Dorsey 1988); *Clayton Calhoun (L.A. Manual Arts 1962); Jonathon Campbell (Sun Valley Poly 1990); Dante Clay (North Hollywood 1996); Kevin Cole (Gardena 1973); Tyrone Crenshaw (Sylmar 1993); *Charles Drake (L.A. Westchester 1998); Emmanuel Evans (Van Nuys Birmingham 1997); Albert Fann (Reseda Cleveland 1986); Jamal Farmer (Granada Hills 1987); *Armando Figueroa (L.A. Garfield 1993); *C.J. Gable (Sylmar 2005); Leon Gable (North Hollywood 1990); Shayzar Hawkins (Wilmington Banning 1991); Kevin Hicks (L.A. Crenshaw 1989); Tim Holliday (L.A. Westchester 1989); Chris Howard (Wilmington Banning 1999); Keyvan Jenkins (Venice 1978); Jeremiah Johnson (L.A. Dorsey 2004); Romell Knutt (L.A. Fremont 1992); Robert Lewis (South Gate South East 2011); *Tony Lorick (L.A. Fremont 1958); Marlon Lucky (North Hollywood 2004); Mario Mattison (L.A. Fairfax 1990); Patrick McCall (Carson 1996); Curtis McNeal (Venice 2007); Mike McClure (Carson 1971); Jerry Mollett (Van Nuys 1956); D.J. Morgan (Taft, Woodland Hills 2009); Manfred Moore (San Fernando 1968); Marcus O’Keith (Harbor City Narbonne 2001); Preston Oliver (L.A. Marshall 2009); Sirr Parker (L.A. Locke 1994); Marco Pleas (L.A. University 1995); Mike Pringle (Granada Hills Kennedy 1984); Chris Richards (San Fernando 1983); James Robinson (Carson 2000); Errol Sapp (Carson 1988); Ricky Thenarse (L.A. Jordan 2005); Wendell Tyler (L.A. Crenshaw 1972); Lamont Warren (L.A. Dorsey 1990); Brett Washington (Granada Hills 1990); Vince Weathersby (L.A. Dorsey 1983); Charles Webb (Gardena 1982); *Kevin Williams (San Fernando 1975); *Ivan Wilson (South Gate 1989); Fred Winborn (Van Nuys Grant 2006).
Editor’s Note: We only ranked players who were primarily running backs at the high school level; not players whom became running backs in college or in the pros. For instance, Anthony Davis of San Fernando was considered by many a better high school player than Charles White, but he was a quarterback for the Tigers before playing tailback for USC. Same with Darian Hagan at L.A. Locke; he was at one time the L.A. City Section’s all-time leading rusher, but was primarily an option QB for the Saints. If a player was a dominant two-way player or played multiple positions, we used our discretion. For instance, Michael Alo of Wilmington Banning was a great inside runner, but he also could dominate at linebacker and punt. If this was a ranking of the greatest all-around players in L.A. City Section history, he would be near the top. These rankings are based primarily on high school accomplishment; what transpired afterwards had little influence of the actual order.