Crusoe Gongbay's reputation preceded him. When Rockville hired Kevin Bernot to take over the football program two years ago, the coach heard rumors, whispers about the ram of the Rams (pun intended). He'd seen the yardage totals in the papers (1,400 for a sophomore!); he had been told Gongbay had the size to play linebacker, the speed to play wide receiver; he got wind that this young running back could turn Friday nights into a game of Madden.
It was all true.
"The first time I saw him really run was two-a-days last year," Bernot said. "On the first play he took a handoff, hit the line at 100 miles per hour and just took off. He ran over the linebackers and then outran the secondary. I saw that and I said, 'OK, so that's our offense this year.'"
For the most part, he was. The Rams ran the ball close to 90 percent of the time, so it didn't take Dick Lebau or Rex Ryan to figure out their game plan. Rockville's playbook had less options than a Waffle House menu: "Gongbay left", "Gongbay right" or "Gongbay up the middle."
Basically, the Rams handed over their blueprint and said, "Stop it if you can."
But it's not easy to stop a train. Especially if that train is 6-foot-1, 185 pounds and runs a legitimate 4.5 40-yard dash. One season after rushing for 1,450 yards, Gongbay piled up 1,601 yards and 23 touchdowns in just eight games (he missed two with a high-ankle sprain). He earned All-Gazette, All-County and All-Metro honors.
"I'm kind of like Marion Barber with the Cowboys," Gongbay said. "He has great vision, he's quick and when people think he's down he's bouncing off guys and getting extra yards."
But Barber isn't fast or elusive enough to turn safeties jelly-legged. Gongbay is.
In the first round of the playoffs last year, Rockville and Middletown engaged in a mud-strewn affair that made passing the ball impossible and running the ball only slightly more effective. Thus the score stood 0-0 at halftime with Rockville set to receive the second half kickoff.
Inexplicably, Middletown kicked it to the only person who could beat them. Gongbay took the kick, made two men miss, broke to the outside, shed two tacklers and then sped down the sideline for a 90-yard touchdown.
"When he gets the ball, man, can he go," Bernot said. "It's exciting to watch. He can literally score at will sometimes."
Gongbay is indeed an intimidating physical specimen with a power-speed combination that gives opponents nightmares. But both coach and player agree it's Gongbay's vision that separates him. While some runners merely run around and let their athleticism do the rest, Gongbay has a knack for anticipating holes.
"I'm good at seeing holes that aren't even there," Gongbay said. "I can predict in the first moments where that hole will be."
Bernot recalls a game against Wheaton last year when Gongbay took a handoff and immediately faced a wall of defenders. Instead of bulling forward for a yard or two, he hesitated, waited for his blockers to pull out on the edge and then bounced outside.
When the left guard pancaked a linebacker, Gongbay knew a seam would open up backside. He cut back, exploded through the crease and ran to daylight.
"We were actually just trying to run out the clock at that point and he ends up going 45 yards for a touchdown," Bernot said, laughing. "We were like , 'OK, I guess we'll take that.'
"You can't stop him," Bernot continued. "This year I think he's one of the top 'backs in the state, for sure."
Gongbay isn't arguing that point. In fact, he thought he was one of the top 'backs last year, when the class was much stronger and included names like Zach Zwinak (Penn State), Marcus Coker (Iowa) and Khalek Shepherd (Virginia).
"I thought I was top 5 last year, and if I'm not the best this year, then I'm top two and no lower than top three," Gongbay said.
So, hypothetically, if he and underclassman Good Counsel sensation Wes Brown squared off
"Absolutely I could beat him," Gongbay said.
He certainly doesn't hurt for confidence. But for all this hoopla and hyperbole, Gongbay lacks the goods to back up his talk. To date, he has just one offer, from non-BCS school New Mexico. If Gongbay was indeed the second coming of Jelani Jenkins (Florida), why hasn't he been lighting up camps and combines, regaling Division I coaches and earning invitations to All-American games?
Three main reasons: No camps, small school and, most importantly, academics.
Unlike many elite underclassmen prospects who attend more recruiting camps than football games, Gongbay has laid low. Some of that has to do with a busy schedule and the other part is likely financial.
Secondly, Rockville, a Division 2A school in Montgomery County, isn't exactly a recruiting haven like DeMatha or Good Counsel. On top of that, since the Rams don't play the best teams, Gongbay's numbers have come against less-than-stellar competition. Combine that with the camp no-shows, and there's reason for recruiters to be skeptical..
"I did have a chance to go to Good Counsel and I shadowed there," Gongbay said. "But I felt like if I went there I'd have to split way too much time because they had other great 'backs. So I went to Rockville so I could be that big fish in a small pond.
"I'm happy with my decision," Gongbay continued. "People ask me all the time why I didn't go, but I have no regrets. I like it here and I like how my career has gone."
Still, scouts tend to find prospects regardless of where the play (see: Donovan Smith at Owings Mills). Which brings us to the real reason he hasn't received many offers: grades.
With the NCAA on the lookout for academic violations, college teams are leery of recruiting anyone who may not meet the minimum requirements.
For his part, Gongbay realizes he made mistakes early in his high school career. He's spoken with teaches and counselors and says he's rededicating himself in the classroom. This summer he's retaking several courses and preparing for the SATs.
"He knows what has to be done," Bernot said.
Once Gongbay attends to his grades, he should land a few more offers. But rather than sweat over recruiting, he's putting all his sweat equity into the weight room. He's already packed on 10 pounds of muscle and lowered his 40 time.
"Some people thought I was fast, but I'm getting even faster. Some people thought I was strong, but I'm getting even stronger," Gongbay said. "I'm talking 195 pounds and a 4.4 40 by the start of the season. If I stay healthy, there's no reason I can't break 2,000 yards next year."
Two thousand? That would likely put him at the top of the state.