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Beyond the X: Arkeel Newsome chases national rushing yards recordAug 28, 2012 ANSONIA, Conn. - They are crowning achievements that stand as magically in sports history as the fabled athletes who scripted them:
Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point NBA game. Jack Nicklaus' 18 major golf titles. Jerry Rice's 208 NFL touchdown catches. Wayne Gretzky's 215 points in one NHL season. Pele's 1,279 soccer goals scored. Cal Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games played.
High school football has one, too, similarly revered and mystical yet seemingly just as unreachable for six decades: the 11,232 career rushing yards compiled by Ken Hall of Sugar Land (Texas) from 1950 to 1953.
In prep parlance, Hall is the Babe Ruth of high school football. This Bambino was known as the Sugar Land Express.
An unreachable record for nearly 60 years? Without question. A record within the sights today of Ansonia (Conn.) junior sensation Arkeel Newsome? Could be.
Depends on who you talk to.
One thing is certain: Until it's clear that Newsome can't break Hall's hallowed all-time rushing mark, all eyes will likely be on him and the Ansonia Chargers in each and every game for the next two seasons. This could well develop into one of the most intriguing, closely followed quests for a national high school record ever carried out.
Whether it's a football state as grand as Texas or one as small as Connecticut, records are records. And this national record suddenly has a challenger, albeit one still in the distance.
It's strange to be talking about something that likely couldn't happen until November or December of 2013, but the numbers of today don't lie. Those numbers have the ability to add up in favor of Newsome, a mercurial but modest 5-foot-8, 180-pound tailback and MaxPreps Sophomore All-American who has already challenged for the single-season national rushing crown and helped his team reach two state championship games.
The question, of course, is will the numbers add up in the end?
"I think (Newsome) could do it, sure," said Ansonia offensive lineman Jh'mel Trammell. "It would be very exciting. It's hard to imagine something that big. But records aren't something we are focused on. Getting better as a team and winning is what we are dedicated to. If we do that, everything else will take care of itself, maybe Arkeel, too."
"Definitely interesting," Newsome replied, when the possibility of the chase was first presented to him earlier this summer. "For something that's been a record for 60 years, it's hard to know what to say. It would be an honor to be a part of history like that. But we have a lot of business to take care of first."
Video by Adam Spencer/Edited by Scott Hargrove
How after six decades is this discussion even possible? Why now? Why in this tenacious, 6-square mile industrial city of 18,500 residents, 12 miles northwest of New Haven and the famed Yale Bowl?
Big numbers, declining enrollment, legitimate shot
Only a handful of high school players have rushed for as many as 10,000 yards in a career, an incomparable achievement in itself. Among them, Michael Hart of Onondaga (Nedrow, N.Y.) made a credible run at Hall, finishing his prep career nine years ago with 11,045 yards. The national rushing champ of a year ago, University of Texas freshman Johnathan Gray of Aledo (Texas), finished with 10,908 and a national-record 205 career touchdowns.
In addition, senior Kelvin Taylor of Glades Day (Belle Glade, Fla.) enters the 2012 season with 7,702 yards from his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. Taylor, the son of former NFL running back Fred Taylor and a Florida commit, is 3,530 yards away from reaching the record. Not impossible, either.
But no one this early has ever laid legitimate sights on Hall, who capped his own legendary prep career in 1953 by rushing for 4,045 yards and averaging 32.9 points per game over 12 games, both records he also holds from the early days of the Eisenhower administration.
Quite simply, the emergence of Newsome during his sophomore season at Ansonia has changed the national discussion.
"I've always thought (the breaking of the record) was possible," Hall told MaxPreps last summer.
As with any sport-defining record chase, events had to fall precisely in place for Newsome during his sophomore year in 2011, when he finished third in the country with 3,763 rushing yards. The same will have to happen again in both 2012 and 2013 for Hall's mark to come within striking distance for Newsome.
"On paper, if you project his pace, he has a great shot," MaxPreps National Football Editor Stephen Spiewak said.
"However, the reality of it is, a number of factors really need to break his way. He needs to stay injury-free, his team needs to remain committed to the run, and it needs to make deep playoff runs this year and next year. More than anything, he needs to be consistently dominant. If he has even a handful of games with fewer than 100 yards, it will be very tough to do."
Already some of the necessary elements have begun to align themselves.
Newsome gained an important head start as a freshman, rushing for 810 yards in 2010. That gives him 4,574 heading into his junior year, which begins Sept. 14. He would need to average "only" 3,330 yards his final two seasons to break the record, nearly 450 yards fewer than he compiled a sophomore.
Though Ansonia has a base regular-season schedule of just 10 games, the potential to play 14 in each of the next two years is within reason, just as it was last season. The conference it competes in, the Naugatuck Valley League, holds an annual championship game. The CIAC state tournament consists of three rounds for all finalists in four classes. The potential to play enough games for Newsome is real, especially with the Chargers having dropped to the state's small-school category due to declining enrollment.
Have ball, will run...and run and run and run.
"Coach Brockett's been running the heck out of the ball for a number of years now," said Thomas, whose own state career mark of 8,279 yards is in dire jeopardy with Newsome on the move.
"And that's not going to change as long as they have Arkeel (pronounced Ar-KELL, after the singer and songwriter R. Kelly). If things go right, he'll be getting a lot more touches over the next two seasons. It should be fun to watch."
Here's another way to look at it: Newsome averaged 269 yards per game last season. If Ansonia plays the maximum number of games over the next two years and Newsome continues that same average, he would not only break Hall's record but annihilate it, by nearly 900 yards. That would give him added breathing room as well in case of minor injuries or playoff setbacks.
But there's a potential downside, too, not to mention a host of unknowns.
For one thing, Ansonia lost its entire starting offensive line to graduation. That line helped produce 6,074 yards of total offense last season, when the Chargers became the first team in Connecticut history to go 14-0, winning their 17th state title since 1976.
In addition, Ansonia has already lost its starting quarterback, senior Tyler Lester, to a broken leg. Lester, whose father, Rich, was a quarterback at Ansonia in the early 1990s, suffered the injury during a summer football camp, though he may return at some point.
Then to top all recent twists of adversity, Ansonia's home grass field was vandalized during the summer. The Chargers may have to play their first "home" game on the road while the Jarvis Stadium turf is taking root.
That's a lot to overcome, particularly when you're considering the pursuit of a coveted 60-year-old rushing record.
On the other hand, it's not as though Brockett and Ansonia haven't had to restock the offensive line before. Offensive line coach Leonard "Butch" Marazzi has become a master at it. Whether or not Hall's national record is challenged may rest as squarely on Marazzi's shoulders as on Newsome's.
"I try not to think about that (record) stuff," said Brockett, who has been the head coach at Ansonia since 2006, and served as its offensive coordinator before that. "To duplicate what (Newsome) accomplished last year again this season, you can't really expect that out of a kid. It's not fair. And we're talking two more years? I realize it's a big media thing and a lot of people are interested or would be interested if he made a run, but there are just too many factors involved to sit here and say 'Oh sure, he can do it, he has a shot.' That's not something we can really think about as we prepare for the season.
"At the same time," Brockett added, "I guess anything is possible. It'd be a heck of a thing."
While Ansonia is not a brand name on the national high school football landscape, there are few teams in Connecticut that can claim as storied a history as the Chargers. Connecticut football will never be confused with Florida, Texas or Georgia. Ansonia will never be mentioned in the same breath as Lakeland (Fla.), Southlake Carroll (Tex.), South Panola (Batesville, Miss.) or De La Salle (Concord, Calif.).
A school with a rich tradition
Nobody's claiming it should be.
But in Connecticut, when you talk about Ansonia football, you're talking about a franchise with few historical rivals over the past 112 years, starting with the community involvement and passion shown at each home game. You're talking about a program that is so long in running that it had to take off the entire 1918 season to support the nation's overseas effort in World War I.
Mayors and First Selectmen throughout the state naturally support their local high school football teams. How many of them can claim to have both played football for their hometown team and to have served as its offensive coordinator?
Ansonia's seven-term native mayor, James Della Volpe, can claim both. He was the offensive coordinator at Ansonia prior to Brockett, and played football growing up in Ansonia. He can also claim to be father of another head high school football coach in the area, Duncan Della Volpe of Warde (Fairfield, Conn.).
The fact that Newsome will be chasing a six-decade-old national record will only add to Ansonia football lore.
"It's a small town and a small school, but you learn from the time that you're a little kid that football is what you want to do if you're a boy," Thomas said. "It's embedded in the town. In that sense, we're just like any other great football town in the country. Whatever the talent level is, however big or small, football is everything to people there."
Should Newsome put himself within striking distance of the record entering the 2013 season, the quest would undoubtedly provide a major boost for the school and its tenuous city population, attracting new and revitalized fans, out-of-state curiosity seekers and football junkies, and unprecedented national media attention.
But according to veteran sports writer and columnist Roger Cleaveland of the Waterbury Republic-American, it's also something the city of Ansonia would take in stride.
"What you have to remember about Ansonia is that it's used to success in football; it's used to being in the spotlight in the area and in the state," said Cleaveland, whose newspaper is the daily voice of the Naugatuck River Valley, one that gained "All-American" status a decade ago from the National Civic League.
"It would be terrific for the city and the valley in general and the state of Connecticut if Arkeel made a run at the record, and the people of Ansonia would be extremely excited and proud, especially given the magnitude of the record. But I also think they'd take it for what it would be, just another great piece in their high school football history."
Connecticut gets a bad rap
Making comparisons is difficult.
But Connecticut teams still compete at a representative level when given the chance. Greenwich did not embarrass itself when it played at Naples (Fla.) in 2007. Southington gave a good account of itself when it faced Bergen Catholic (N.J.) in 2008 at the old Giants Stadium.
In addition to Thomas' recent career at Yale, Ansonia has sent a host of players to play college football, including Montrell Dobbs of Temple, who manned the tailback position between the tenures of Thomas and Newsome. Earlier in the last decade, running back Ken Tinsley went to Syracuse. Back in the 1980s, when Ansonia was more of a passing football team, quarterback Sandy Osiecki played at Arizona State, and later served as a backup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Connecticut football has gotten a bad rap, but we've had some very good players over the years," said Thomas. "Not as many, obviously, as the bigger states and the big football states but guys have held their own. We're not Florida or Texas but we produce players. Ansonia produces players."
Smart and patient, fast and humble
Newsome, who some suspect gets his sprinter's speed from his Jamaican heritage, is a soft-spoken yet engaging teenager. He smiles easily, mixes without fanfare among his teammates and is as quick to compliment his blockers as he is to run away from opponents with his 4.4-second 40-yard dash speed.
"They (the blockers) do the work," he said. "I just run and try to follow their lead."
Following last season's Thanksgiving Day contest against NVL rival Naugatuck, Newsome was named the game's most valuable player. He turned around and gave his trophy to his fullback, Dennis Danley.
In addition to rushing for 3,763 yards as a sophomore, Newsome registered 144 receiving yards, scored 62 touchdowns and 388 total points. He even threw a 27-yard scoring pass, and wound up with a 12.02 yards-per-carry average.
Contrary to the suggestion of some, Newsome was generally limited to three quarters of play or less due to the number one-sided games. In two games last season, he complied fewer than 10 carries as Ansonia rolled through its NVL regular-season schedule.
Perhaps his most impressive number, though, was one that didn't appear in the standard stat category. Only longtime Ansonia football historian Ed Morse kept this one. Of Newsome's 58 rushing touchdowns in 2011, 22 came on runs of 50 or more yards.
"We have great kids in general, and Arkeel is one of the best both on and off the field," Brockett said. "He's a special, special player on the field, obviously. It's great to have the speed that he has and be flashy and have all of those long runs, but sometimes we're going to get bottled up a little, like we did in the state championship game last season (against Ledyard) and that's where he's shown he can be smart and patient and take what's there and get his five or six yards. That's just as important to us in the grand scheme of things."
Newsome is the first to admit he's still a bit on the small side, and isn't necessarily taken all that seriously due to playing in a modest football state.
So he went out this summer and found a big football state to play in: Florida.
"Coach Brockett and my uncle (Matthew Roscoe) helped get me to camps at Florida, Florida State and Miami," said Newsome, who can bench press 250 pounds. "I've always been a Florida Gators fan, so that was fun. I felt I did OK with the competition that was there, maybe a little better than I was expecting from myself. All you can do is try and see what's out there and try to get better."
So far the only major college programs he's heard from are the University of Connecticut and Massachusetts. While that's not exactly a landslide of interest, it's a lot at the moment for a junior-to-be who's as small as Newsome and who plays at a school as small as Ansonia.
"He's a Division I player, no question in my mind," said Thomas, who played at Yale at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds for much of his career. "He's already put on a lot of muscle since last season and if his legs get stronger, he could be as much of a power back as a speed back."
Newsome lists Deion Sanders and Herschel Walker among the running backs he's admired while growing up. He said he also watched with great interest the senior season of Aledo's Johnathan Gray in 2011 as both players were pursuing MaxPreps' mythical national rushing title.
"He had a great high school career," Newsome said. "It was pretty cool to follow Johnathan like that on MaxPreps."
The company line
Now much of the nation may be following Newsome's career and his unlikely pursuit of Ken Hall's record. If not this season then in 2013, should the timetable still make it possible to top 11,232 yards rushing. By then, he might even be chasing Kelvin Taylor, who knows?
Brockett, understandably, wants nothing to do with individual records while trying to prepare for his team's first game and its state title defense. Still, there is something to be said for records from a team standpoint.
"The nice thing here is that we have set some state records, and obviously school records, and everyone enjoys that because all the kids at every position buy into what we're trying to do," said Brockett. "They all feel like they're a part of (the records), and for me as a coach that's important."
What's also important for now is rebuilding his offensive line. Candidates abound but answers are few. Without a solid line, there can be no championship repeat and certainly no rushing record chase.
"I have my concerns. You never know at any level how an offensive line is going to come together," he conceded. "You can do everything right in the offseason and in the weight room and in practice, but until you line up and put your hand down on the ground and block someone, you never know. We always talk about the next generation of guys stepping in and doing the job, whatever the position. Now is that time for the offensive line to step up."
One thing Brockett isn't worried about is Newsome worrying about the record.
"I wouldn't expect him to even be thinking about it or his individual stats because he knows how much goes into every play and every game, and how many things have to go right," Brockett said. "I know he has other things on his mind. We all do. We all know the only thing we have to think about is getting ready for our first game, and every game and every play after that."
But the Ansonia coach also allowed himself a brief moment to peer into the future. It was still summer, after all, and how many times does a situation like this - and a player like Newsome - come along?
"It would be something special," Brockett said of the possible record pursuit, "when you think about how many teams and how many players have played high school football in 50 states for the last 60 years, and no one has ever broken that record. Even just within our own state, it would be special if you did something for the first time in 60 years. But for the entire country? All those players?
"I guess we'll see."
Cleaveland has no doubts.
"I realize (Ansonia) has a lot of work to do on the offensive line, and maybe Arkeel is going to take a small step back and not put up the same extraordinary numbers that he did last season," the writer said.
"But we're talking about taking a small step back from 3,700-plus yards. I would fully expect him and the team to have another good season this coming year, and then be back in the same place next season that they were last year. Even with a slight drop this season, I'd be surprised if he didn't make that run at the record as a senior. I expect he will."
Jim Stout is the CBS MaxPreps Media Manager for the Eastern U.S. He may be reached at 845-367-2864 or firstname.lastname@example.org.