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Hinds’ London meets challenges head-on

Caris London of Hinds powers his way past Pearl River’s Davin Roberts Sept. 20.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

RAYMOND Eight months ago, Caris London was working in a factory.

Football was never far from his thoughts. Still, it took plenty of prodding from friends and family to convince him to give Hinds Community College a shot.

Three games and 412 yards later, it looks like a good decision for London and Hinds.

“I’m surprised,” said London, who quit his job at Foam Packaging in Vicksburg and enrolled at Hinds in January. “Coach (Gene) Murphy gave me a tryout, and I just wanted to make the most of my chance.”

So far, he has done that and then some.

The former Vicksburg High star, who played just one year of varsity ball, has emerged as the Eagles’ top tailback. His total rushing yardage and 135-yard-per-game average are both No. 1 in the state, fifth in the country, according to statistics reported to the National Junior College Athletic Association.

Not bad for someone who wasn’t even considered the best running back on his team during spring practice and two-a-days.

Pearl’s Steven Alexander and Provine’s Na’im Harrison were expected to be the top backs. Alexander quit in the fall.

“He has been a surprise,” Hinds offensive line coach Mike Smith said. “He was in the battle in the spring and he kind of poked his head above water at the end.”

With a tall, slender build, London (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) doesn’t have the physical traits of a running back. He looks more like a defensive back or a wide receiver.

But his build belies his running style, which is more Mack truck than Ferrari.

He isn’t blessed with blazing speed, defender-freezing elusiveness or overwhelming size, but he has a linebacker’s mentality.

“I like contact,” London said. “If I don’t feel pain, I’m not happy. I feel like I’m not giving it my all.”

With a respectable 4.6-second 40-yard dash, London can outrun most defensive linemen and linebackers. But he’d rather try to overpower them. Most defensive backs are no match.

“He knows how to put his shoulder down,” Murphy said. “He has a great deal of desire to play the game and natural running ability. He makes yards after the first contact.

“He still has his breakdowns … but he’s been a pleasant surprise. He’s just got to keep working, getting better each week.”

London has done just that so far. He went for 61 yards, then 162 in wins over Holmes and Northeast before turning more heads in a 29-carry, 179-yard performance in a 25-22 overtime loss to Pearl River last week. His durability helped keep the defense honest and opened the door for freshman quarterback Patrick Walker to complete 26 of 51 passes for 367 yards.

Early in his football career, he used his strong legs for more than just running he was a kicker in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade at Warren Central and Vicksburg before getting out of the game until his senior year.

“I used to kick it in the end zone,” he said with a laugh.

Now, he’s content trying to carry it in there.

“He looks like another one in a long line of great running backs in Hinds history,” said Gulf Coast coach Steve Wright, whose team hosts the Eagles in a South Division matchup tonight. “We expect to see more of him. Gene won’t throw it 50 times again.”

Murphy said that the tailback is even more important to the Eagles’ offense than in recent years, when they had double-threat quarterbacks. Walker is a classic drop-back passer.

“Our running game is much further along than it was this time last year,” said Murphy, whose 2000 team finished 11-1 and won the state championship.

London, who was The Vicksburg Post’s Offensive Player of the Year in 1999, didn’t graduate with his class and had to get his GED. He went to work at Foam Packaging in October.

“A lot of people asked me why I wasn’t playing ball,” said London, who was making “Styrofoam egg crates” that are used in packaging.

London said he worked to help take care of his 3-year-old daughter, Carisha. Local bodybuilder Chris Albert, who London calls his “godbrother,” was instrumental in convincing him to return to the field. Albert also helped get him in shape at Wyatt’s Gym, London said.

London’s mother, Brenda Wilson, and girlfriend, Marie Brown, encouraged him too, saying they would take care of Carisha.

“My mom thinks I’m the one that’s going to make it to the NFL,” said London, whose brother Andre was a standout defensive player at Warren Central. “That’s why I’m working hard to make the league.”

London said that he just plays one role in the running game.

“My line blocks great,” said London, whose cousin Eddie London of WC plays right guard for the Eagles. “They deserve all of the credit.”

Murphy said “it would have been a waste of athletic ability” if Caris London hadn’t played football. But his decision to come enroll is important beyond football, Murphy said.

“He is an example of what the junior college system can do for people,” Murphy said. “He might would be on the streets of Vicksburg or in some lower pay scale job than if he didn’t get some college education.”

London said he’s confident he can keep up the pace.

“I’ve got to keep focused,” he said. “Any goal you have, you just have to work hard and you can achieve it.”