Isaah Crocker arrived to football practice Monday wearing a grin but no shoulder pads. He was shirtless.
One of Crocker’s Inderkum High School teammates wondered if the fastest guy on campus simply left his gear in his considerable wake, like something out of a cartoon scene.
“I know one thing,” Inderkum coach Terry Stark said with a laugh, “Crocker didn’t go topless last year. Look at those muscles!”
Crocker is 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds, long and slender, but he is hardly muscled. Those will come, he joked.
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And if there is a similarly built football player in the Sacramento area this season, it’s Isaiah Rutherford of Jesuit, a running back/defensive back. Crocker and Rutherford are close pals, running mates on the ballfields and blacktops in Natomas for years.
Neither passes the look test as a national recruit in appearance alone, but both possess a measurable that college coaches desperately seek in a fast-forward sport: speed.
In July, the friends left a camp in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with something they could not begin to fathom days earlier: cellphone pictures with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and full-ride scholarship offers.
Alabama, which has won four national championships since 2009, doesn’t come knocking on Sacramento doors often, so Crocker and Rutherford understand how fortunate they are. Studies show that less than 2 percent of high school athletes in America receive scholarships, and these two have plenty of options.
Crocker is a senior. He’ll make his decision – UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State and Nebraska are also high on his list – by national signing day in February.
Rutherford is a junior. For him, this hysteria is just starting. He still cannot comprehend that Alabama was his first offer, and that offer has caught the attention of other programs. Oregon State offered the next day.
“We sat next to each other in the plane on the way back to Sacramento, and we just couldn’t believe what happened: Nick Saban and offers!” Rutherford said. “Isaah was juiced for me and I was juiced for him. He’s so deserving.”
Crocker said the same about Rutherford, though he is quick to remind of how their last one-on-one meeting in a game went.
It happened in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs last season, on a wet field at Jesuit. Crocker made three long touchdown catches – with Rutherford in coverage – in a 52-35 victory.
“I was killin’ him,” Crocker said amid laughter. “I still remind him.”
Said Rutherford, “He got me every time. I barely played corner last year but coach (Marlon) Blanton put me in there to be an athlete, to try and keep up with Crocker, and I tried my best. Crocker, wow. Dude is so good. But I’m learning fast. If we see each other in the playoffs, I’ll get him.”
Alabama has offered area athletes before – Arik Armstead, Jake Browning, Shaq Thompson – but only one area player has accepted in recent memory. Jonah Williams of Folsom is a second-year starting tackle for the Crimson Tide as a sophomore.
“My son is a quiet kid, not a bragger, and when he called me from the Alabama camp, I kept saying, ‘Give me more, Son! What’s going on there?’ ” said Reynard Rutherford, a running back at Cal in the early 1980s. “He said, ‘They just offered.’ ‘Who offered? Saban? Wow, that’s big.’ We knew Isaiah had talent, but for someone like Saban to see it and offer, that’s really big. Just so proud.”
Reynard Rutherford coached his son and Crocker in youth basketball.
“Crocker’s like my nephew,” Reynard Rutherford said. “What’s the odds of that happening, two buddies from Sacramento offered by Alabama?”
There is palpable joy in the Crocker household, too. Crocker’s father, Dwight Crocker, was an All-Conference basketball player at San Francisco State in the 1990s. But there’s a large void for the family. Crocker’s mother, January Keene, was the victim of a fatal shooting on Jan. 5, 2007.
Crocker has a tattoo on his right arm that bears her name and a clock with the time she died, 1:50 a.m.
“I’ll never forget my dad telling me the news,” Crocker said. “Sports helped me. I could’ve gone down a really bad path. Before every game, I pray for her, think of her. Someday, I want to help kids in communities who have gone through struggles, to let them know they can still do good things.
“I think my mom is looking down on me, very proud.”