This article appears in the October/November 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Just about all Yosef Ghebray thought about on the playground at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Union City was basketball. It's all anybody wanted to play. It's all he wanted to play.
Then, as now, Ghebray (whose name is pronounced "YO-seff GA-bray") idolized the L.A. Lakers. But the difficult truth he always knew he'd have to admit hit home after the eighth grade: There isn't much use for a 5-foot-10, 129-pound guy in the world of big-time basketball.
"I realized I didn't have the body type and I wasn't going to have the body type," says Ghebray, 17, now a senior at James Logan and a SchoolSports All-American cross country runner. "That summer before high school, I decided I might as well give running a try."
It's not as if there wasn't precedent for Ghebray. At that same time, his older brother, Giliat, was coming off a North Coast Section cross country title and, as it turned out, went on to win another as a senior.
So it's no surprise that Yosef, the defending Division I cross country state champion and himself a two-time NCS champ, attributes much of his success to his big brother's trail blazing.
"We talk all the time, but something he said a while ago I really carry with me," says Ghebray, whose older brother is now a junior at Cal and is one of the Bears' top runners. "He said, ‘Don't give up and don't be afraid of anybody.' I try to live by that. It's a big reason I've developed an ability to handle pain, which is really helping me right now."
Good genes and good advice still can't explain how a kid who began running competitively as a 14-year-old freshman could get so good so fast.
Ghebray, who has narrowed his collegiate options to either Cal or the University of Washington, is the third-fastest returnee from last year's Foot Locker West Regional, having finished 13th behind 10 seniors as well as Loyola's Mark Matusak and Antelope Valley's Jose Melena, both in the Class of 2005.
Ghebray believes being a California resident has a lot to do with the steep trajectory of his rise through the ranks.
"In a lot of other states, you don't get this kind of competition," says Ghebray, whose parents emigrated in 1980 from Eritrea in East Africa. "Here, you can go to any meet and run the race of your life and still end up second."
Truth is, Ghebray would have been thrilled with runner-up status three years ago. Back then, he was nothing more than an "average freshman distance runner," according to Lee Webb, James Logan's 21st-year head track coach and interim cross country coach.
While some might look at Ghebray's inexperience as a shortcoming, Webb figures it points to colossal upside in the long run.
"He just started running when he came to high school — he's not one of these age-group guys who beat up on his body as a junior competitor or burnt himself out," says Webb, 47, a former Oregon State decathlete who qualified for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials. "He hasn't put in a lot of miles. His future will be way beyond high school."
Ghebray went from novice to knockout artist in a hurry. Despite being new to the sport, he finished 12th at the NCS meet to cap his freshman cross country season. Three years later, he's a defending state champion and is among the favorites to qualify for December's Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships.
Ghebray, who also won the 3,200-meter track state title this past spring, has come so far so fast in part because he's obsessed with his training regimen, constantly varying his workouts and tweaking his conditioning routine. Even a steady flow of calls from college recruiters can't break his focus.
"I actually enjoyed it when those guys would call because I'd always end up getting them to talk about running, and I like talking about that," he says. "It's funny to think that when I first started, I was running like two miles a day. Now I do much more traditional distance workouts and run six or seven miles a day."
And in addition to training hard, Ghebray also trains smart.
"He always knows to train himself to be at his best at the end of the year," says Webb. "He knows it's not important to win every race, just the ones that count. Killing yourself to win in September — what's that mean? Not so much in the grand scheme."
Especially when the grand scheme is so, well, grand. Counting Giliat's exploits, a Ghebray has won an NCS cross country title four years in a row. And with many people predicting that Yosef will qualify for this year's national championships, the pressure and expectations are at an all-time high for Ghebray.
"I just use that as fuel," he says. "I just go out knowing a lot of people rely on me to do well, and that drives me. I'm just trying to enjoy being a kid and enjoy high school by keeping it fun. I've got great teammates, and every time we go out to practice, we have a good time."
Of course, it won't be long before Ghebray comes face to face with a new set of teammates and new expectations. But just as he was after walking off the Cesar Chavez Middle School playground that final time, he is ready to take the plunge.
"At college, you know you're going to have to start at square one again," says Ghebray. "It's just like being a freshman in high school. You just have to try to make a home for yourself."