Imperial running back Royce Freeman runs for a 94-yard touchdown against Sweetwater on Friday night, one of his five TDs on the night.
IMPERIAL, Calif. To watch the San Diego Section’s most fascinating football player, first you’ll have to fill up with gas. Point the car east on Interstate 8, past the Cuyamacas, all the way to the desert, past the sand dunes, haystacks and windmills.
Some 107 miles east of San Diego, exit on Forrester, go north, turn right on Worthington, Worthington turns into Barioni Boulevard and stop at Imperial High.
The home of the Tigers and Royce Freeman, a 6-foot, 227-pound man/child running back.
“All I can tell you,” said Sweetwater High coach Brian Hay, “is that if Reggie Bush and Ricky Williams have a baby, it’ll come out Royce Freeman.”
Hay made the statement a day before the Red Devils faced Imperial and its Oregon-bound running back Friday night.
With the temperature a crisp 97 at kickoff — umbrellas shielding the sun were a must before sundown — Imperial ran its record to 3-0, knocking off the outmanned Red Devils 42-21.
Freeman’s numbers: 17 carries, 322 yards and five touchdowns on runs covering 94, 60, 4, 25 and 37 yards,
“You give him a little seam and he’s gone,” Hay said. “He’s amazing.”
Sweetwater security guard and assistant track coach Jaime Romero made the trip east. His impression of the running back?
“Who, Adrian Peterson?” said Romero. “When we first saw him, I said, ‘What the heck? That’s Adrian Peterson.’?”
With his 322 yards against the Red Devils, Freeman’s career total now stands at 5,638 yards, ranking third all-time in the San Diego Section. Former University/Cathedral star Demetrius Sumler (5,650) will be knocked off next week when Imperial travels to Chula Vista to meet Mater Dei Catholic.
Barring injury, Freeman figures to shatter the section record of 6,694 yards, held by Escondido’s Ricky Seale. In the Imperial Valley, the 17-year-old is a living legend.
“We’ll never see anybody like him again,” said Mickey Dale, who calls Imperial’s games for KROP. “He’s nothing short of incredible.”
Try 15 touchdown runs of 60 yards or more in his career, three at 90 yards-plus.
There is charm to this sprawling farming community and Imperial’s football program. The field is grass, not carpet. The goal posts look like something out of the 1950s with their short uprights. It was Pop Warner night and 55 cheerleaders bounced about the track.
In this Norman Rockwell setting, Freeman turns heads, and he began doing so at an early age. He could dunk a basketball in the eighth grade. He was called up to the varsity football team midway through his freshman season.
The first time he touched the ball?
A 70-yard punt return for a touchdown. It took him twice as long to make an impact as a freshman running back. His first carry: 5 yards. His second: 62 yards and a touchdown.
His numbers this year: 48 carries, 866 yards, an 18-yard per carry average and 14 touchdowns.
The San Diego Section has produced its share of incredible running backs.
Oceanside High’s C.R. Roberts, Sweetwater’s Leroy “Touchdown” Brown, La Jolla Country Day’s Rashaan Salaam, Lincoln’s Darrin Wagner, Williams and Bush, to name the A+ list.
And that’s not counting Marcus Allen, a quarterback/safety at Lincoln. Allen, Salaam, Williams and Bush all won the Heisman Trophy. (Yes, Bush had to give his back, but that’s beside the point. He still won the thing.)
None of them rushed for more yards than Royce Freeman. And when he’s done, again, barring injury, the record will be his.
“Oh man,” said Freeman at midfield after Friday night’s victory. “That will mean a lot. That’s a tribute, a blessing to God. Just to be mentioned among those great names that went to the next level …”
He just shook his head. Defenders know the feeling.