Joe Davidson

Ryan Robards, Phillip White to play for South in Optimist All-Star football

Elk Grove’s Ryan Robards, left, tries to take down Oak Ridge’s Kevin Kassis in a November game. Robards will take the field for the final time tonight in the Optimist All-Star Football Classic.
Elk Grove’s Ryan Robards, left, tries to take down Oak Ridge’s Kevin Kassis in a November game. Robards will take the field for the final time tonight in the Optimist All-Star Football Classic. Special to the Bee

It’s an 11-minute drive from one campus to the other at the southern tip of Sacramento County.

That’s 5.2 miles and a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon – in terms of competition and perception – that separate successful big-time and small-time high school football programs.

In Saturday’s 59th Optimist All-Star Football Classic at Jesuit, South teammates Ryan Robards and Phillip White will represent both spectrums. Robards hails from large-school power Elk Grove, where he earned The Bee’s Player of the Year award as a running back-defensive back in one of the most remarkable seasons in decades.

White comes from small-school Bradshaw Christian, where the 6-foot-4, 230-pound defensive end-tight end led the region with 22 sacks for an 11-3 Division V team.

Now Robards and White are teammates – if only for one game – having followed each other’s success, curious and appreciative of each other’s exploits. The Optimist game is the one event that merges players of different schools and enrollments into one unit.

“I’m excited because it’s nice playing with higher-division guys,” White said. “I think coming from such a small school, people underestimate us and think, ‘Oh, you’re at a D-V school. How good can you be?’ 

Pretty good, actually. Good enough to earn a scholarship to Sacramento State. And good enough of an athlete that the Hornets will groom White as a tight end or wide receiver. He averaged 31.1 yards per reception as a senior, often outjumping and overpowering defensive backs.

An honors student at Bradshaw Christian, White will major in criminal justice and wants to be a lawyer. He made a good argument as a player striving for a scholarship, insisting he could compete on any stage.

And White now has a fan in Robards.

“He’s got length, the height, the hands, and he’s really good at going for the ball,” Robards said, sounding like a coach. “When he fills out, look out.”

White is proof that the size of a high school – or the division it plays in – does not define talent and upside. His skills, body size and grades warranted scholarship interest.

And Robards is proof that statistics, level of competition and a 4.0 GPA guarantee zip.

Deemed too small at 5-10 and 180 pounds, Robards received mild recruiting interest and no Division I football offers. So after back-to-back All-Metro seasons as an outfielder, Robards is off to Pacific on a baseball scholarship. He will study mechanical engineering.

The Optimist game will be Robards’ football finale. He has been slowed in practice this week by a hip injury and may be limited.

South coach Jason Rossow wants to unleash Robards the way Elk Grove did last season. Robards amassed 2,884 rushing yards and 50 total touchdowns for a 13-1 team. He piled up 3,460 all-purpose yards, and kicked 51-yard field goals and 55-yard punts. He also scored on punt returns, interceptions and fumble recoveries.

Robards said football has been “special.”

White is just getting started.

“I can’t wait to get to Sac State,” he said. “I feel that Sac State has everything to be a great program, and I want to be part of that journey, to study, get a degree, play ball.”

White is inspired by his father, Phillip. He works as a school janitor, motivating his son to do something different.

“Dad always told me, ‘Don’t be like me: Go get an education, get a great job, because you can do big things,’ ” White said. “I’m ready for big things.”

Optimist All-Star Football Classic

  • When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
  • Where: Jesuit High School