This article appears in the September issue of SchoolSports magazine.
It's fitting that Niles West senior running back Rashard Mendenhall's birthday falls on June 19.
After all, a Gemini has split personalities by definition. And you don't have to believe in astrology to see the juxtaposition between Mendenhall's daily life and his true convictions.
The kid's a walking contradiction. He reads from the Bible before every game and is so modest it took him six months to realize he was the only junior named to the USA Today All-USA high school football team last year. Yet he says the always brash, trash-talking Ray Lewis is his favorite athlete.
"I like his character," says Mendenhall, a SchoolSports All-American whose older brother, Walter, is a freshman running back at Illinois. "He's a real intimidating guy. You always need somebody like that on your team."
And although the soft-spoken tailback describes his playing style as relaxed, his coach says Mendenhall has a mean streak much like Lewis.
"We lost three straight games last year, some real heartbreakers," says Niles West fifth-year coach Mark Egofske. "I thought it was his brother in the huddle, doing the riot act, saying ‘We need to pick it up in practice, be more focused.' I looked over and was taken back because it was Rashard. He doesn't like to lose. This is a kid who wants to compete."
Other than competing on the football field, Mendenhall is a fiend for video games — currently NCAA 2005. He even plans on majoring in graphic design and advertising in college and eventually designing games himself. Yet he enjoys going to art shows and cherishes life's simple pleasures, like Chicago's brilliant skyline.
To chill, he listens to a lot of hip hop and nu soul, but he also digs classical music, has played the clarinet since third grade and is currently a member of the Niles West concert band.
He's also an active member of his church's choir and defies persistent nagging from his mom to perform solos because he can't imagine singing alone in front of hundreds of people. Yet he has no problem torching opposing defenses for hundreds of yards in front of thousands of people.
That's because football is and always has been his No. 1 passion. No questions asked. The clarinet, choir, video games, art? He loves them all, but football is life to Mendenhall, who has been playing for fun for as long as he can remember and for organized teams since the summer before fifth grade.
"As a single parent, I was just trying to keep him busy," says Rashard's mom, Sibyl Mendenhall. "I even tried to get him to play golf, but he just always really liked football."
Mendenhall's Gemini quirks came through even when he was kickin' it at the park with Walter and the rest of the neighborhood kids in middle school. Although pickup basketball was the game of choice, Rashard always took his football with him, hoping his boys would want to ditch the rock for the pigskin. That rarely happened, but what started out as a simple park tag-along turned into a daily necessity. So much so that his friends started calling him Ricky, a la "Boyz N the Hood."
Mendenhall even tried to smuggle the ball under his eighth-grade graduation gown before the odd shape tipped off his teachers, who made him take it out. The obsession came to a screeching halt a few months later when his freshman basketball coach, upset over a loss, told Mendenhall to never bring the football into the locker room again. Or else.
That coach was able to pry the ball from his hands off the field, but it's been a different story on the field.
Rated the No. 3 running back and No. 7 overall recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com, Mendenhall is a shifty back who can cut on a dime and burst through tiny holes the scrawny Snoop Dogg couldn't fit through. Also an elite sprinter who was named Athlete of the Meet at the Illinois Prep Top Times Indoor Classic last March after winning the 55- and 200-meter dashes, Mendenhall is one of the fastest backs in the country and is extremely explosive as well.
"He's got tremendous acceleration after the cut, and that's what catches everybody's eye," Egofske says. "This kid can flat out run away from you and make you look silly."
Of course, the jacked 5-foot-11, 198-pounder, who was the sixth man on the Niles West basketball team last winter, can also deliver a hit if necessary.
"He's powerful and will lower his shoulders," Egofske says. "There's nothing you can do as a coach. From my perspective, I'm just glad he's on my team."
In addition to making the All-USA team, Mendenhall earned Chicago Tribune All-State honors last fall after rushing for 1,832 yards and 19 touchdowns on only 158 carries while also hauling in 13 receptions for 262 yards and four touchdowns. As a sophomore he rushed for 1,226 yards and 13 touchdowns and made 30 catches for 524 yards and six touchdowns.
Those numbers should be even better this year. In each of the past two seasons, Mendenhall played lightning to his brother's thunder. But with Walter now at Illinois, Rashard will be the Wolves' all-purpose back and will get between 30 to 50 carries per game, according to Egofske. Last year, he averaged just 15.8 carries per game.
As excited as he is about having all eyes on him, the Gemini in Mendenhall is a bit bummed about the situation.
Just a year and a half apart in age, Rashard and Walter have played together for most of their football careers and are best friends. This will be the first time they've been apart.
"It's going to be a lot harder," says Rashard. "Having my big brother on the field and being able to talk to him was nice. We've always pushed each other to be better and kept moving up together. I'll feel more isolated now."
That's why Rashard plans on minimizing that isolation. Like Walter, Rashard is headed to Illinois on a football scholarship. The two committed to the Fighting Illini last summer, and Rashard says he remains committed even though colleges haven't stopped recruiting him.
In fact, he took classes this summer and plans on graduating from Niles West in December so he can enroll at Illinois in January and take part in spring practices.
"You don't want to wish years, but I'd be really interested to see what happens in the next few years," says Egofske. "If he doesn't get injured, there's a real big window for him. But if things don't pan out at the next level, he'll be a success regardless."