Until a few months ago, John Ross III insisted he had never run a timed 40-yard dash.
“We ran it in high school,” the Washington wide receiver said, “but the field was so nasty — it was like running up and down on a hill.”
Compared to his high-school field in Long Beach, Calif., the conditions were ideal for Ross in what he deemed his first official 40 time at UW’s indoor practice facility in May. He ran it in 4.29 seconds — clocked by UW staffers with handheld timers, which are typically more generous than electronic times — which was both surprising and motivating.
“To be honest, I feel like I could’ve done way better. I need to work harder than I did,” he said this week. “Everyone wanted to know what my 40 was, and I was anxious to know.”
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New UW coach Chris Petersen has said that Ross, a 5-foot-11, 179-pound sophomore, is one of the fastest players he has ever coached. That was evident Saturday night when Ross scored the Huskies’ only touchdowns in a 17-16 victory at Hawaii, including a 91-yard reception on a pass from Jeff Lindquist. It’s the second-longest pass play in school history.
And to think, Ross almost decided to give up on the sport before his sophomore season at Long Beach Jordan High. A young star on a Snoop Dogg-coached Pop Warner team, Ross entered high school feeling pressure to live up to the hype.
“I wanted to quit football. It was just too much,” he said. “I was hearing so much talk. … I feel like people saw my potential, and they wanted me to just get there so they could live off of it.”
His close-knit family helped him change his mind. His grandmothers, Millicent Ford and Carol Mitchell, were particularly comforting. Growing up, Ross split time living with his grandmothers.
“My family is all about family, and we had a lot of kids,” he said. “It was always my aunties, my uncles, my cousins — we’d always be together; we were always close.”
Ross would get special treatment. At grandma Milly’s one week, she would make two batches of cornbread, one for everyone else and one whole pan for Ross. The next week, he would get the same sweet deal with grandma Carol’s sweet potato pie; one just for him, another for the others.
“They always did their best to make me happy and put me in a good spot,” he said of his grandmothers. “They supported me no matter what.”
Ross’ parents are devout supporters, too. “My mom calls me after every game: ‘I can’t believe you did that, baby! I’m so proud of you,’ ” he said. And he looks forward every game-day Saturday to the inspirational text messages from his father, John Ross Jr.
“This is your year,” Ross Jr. typed to his son before the Hawaii game Saturday.
“He’s a special kind of kid,” Ross Jr. said in a phone interview from Long Beach. “I tell him, ‘Believe in yourself, because you can do anything.’ ”
The oldest of six siblings — five brothers, one sister — Ross III tries to send a similar message to them. “He’s a great role model for them,” his dad said.
In and around Long Beach and Compton where he grew up, Ross III said he often saw examples of what he didn’t want to become — what his mom made him promise he wouldn’t become.
“I would drive around with my mom and see guys in front of their house drinking and smoking and it would make me laugh, because you don’t have to be that way,” he said. “We don’t have to present ourselves this way. I would sit there and tell her, ‘Mom, you don’t ever have to worry about me being that way,’ because I don’t want to be that way and I don’t want my brothers to feel like that.”
He embraces the idea now that he might one day be able to support his family with football. It drives him to be better, to be faster.
Ross was a bit disappointed in his production as a freshman last season — when he scored two touchdowns, including a 100-plus-yard kickoff return in the bowl game — but it’s worth noting, his father says, that he played the entire regular season as a 17-year-old. (He doesn’t turn 19 this year until Nov. 27.)
In one game, he’s already matched that touchdown total from last season. As a high-school sophomore, he was second-guessing himself and his passion for football. As a college sophomore, John Ross III is motivated, and he’s in a hurry.
“Now, it’s different,” he said. “I go out to practice, I go out to games, and I’m very excited. Of course, I think about my family. I’m doing it for them. And I love it. I love it, I love it, I love it.”
• The Huskies, after their victory at Hawaii on Saturday, dropped out of both The Associated Press and USA Today polls. UW was ranked No. 25 in both preseason polls.