|Standing 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, you would think it'd be
hard to overlook Luke Rowley, but people have been doing that for the
last six years.
Whether its his high school coaches at Temecula Valley, college recruiters, coaches at Palomar JC and even RCC, and college recruiters again, the story has always been the same. It's not what Luke can do, but what he can't. Luke's never had the chance to play tailback, and for most of his career, he couldn't even be the blocking fullback.
"People have always underestimated me and I don't know why," said Luke, who has the speed of a tailback (4.45 in the 40) and the size of a fullback. "All I've ever wanted was the chance to show what I could do. I was beginning to think that would never happen."
Well, don't look now but that could all be changing.
Ironcially, it's Luke and not his more celebrated running mate, Marcus Guzman, who was named to the JCFootball.com preseason all-state team this fall For once, Luke wasn't overlooked.
And now opposing teams can't overlook him. With Guzman hobbled by a nagging hamstring injury, it's been up to Luke to carry the load. In a victory over Golden West, he set carry highs with 11 carries for 55 and two touchdowns and was named the Offensive Player of the Week. Then at Long Beach, he topped that with 11 carries for 72 yards. With four games still to go, Luke has already bettered his marks from last season in carries (46), yards (235) and rushing touchdowns (3).
"I know when Marcus comes back I'll go back to blocking back, but that's cool with me. I think I've proven my point," Luke said. "I've done what everybody said I couldn't do."
To see just how far Luke Rowley has come, you need to know how far back he started.
* * * * * * * *
It became practically a rite of spring. You knew spring football had started at Temecula Valley High when Luke would line up with the running backs every chance he got, only to be told by the coaches to get back over with the defensive players.
Every year there was a different reason. As a freshman, did he want to start at safety for the freshman team or be a second-string running back? In his sophomore year, it was either play running back for the junior varsity or play safety with the varsity -- he ended up starting three games when all-state player Ryan Wikert got hurt. Then as a junior, the team needed help at linebacker.
"The coaches would always say it was best for the team so how do you argue with that? You're young so you believe whatever your coaches say," Luke explained. "I could have said something, but it wouldn't do any good. As a player you don't have any say over what position you play. Either you play the position they want you to play or you dont' play at all."
Even if that meant playing linebacker for the first time in his career. Not only was he undersized at 175 pounds, but he played most of the season with a broken hand and had to learn the position while he played.
"I was young and I admit I made plenty of mental mistakes, but I didn't think I played that badly," Luke said. "The coaches didn't see it that way. They even made a joke that most players improve as the season goes on, but I got worse." Please understand if Luke didn't think that was very funny.
After the regular season, Luke couldn't make honorable mention all-league or even All-Valley, which encompassed only five schools.
"It can't get any worse than that," Luke said.
Oh yes it can, and it did. Luke was taken out in the middle of a playoff game against Rancho Cucamonga, and then didn't even get into the semifinal game until late in the fourth quarter with Norco comfortably ahead.
After the Rancho Cucamonga game, without even taking off his pads, Luke went straight home and to the sanctum of his weight room in the garage.
"I just threw off all my pads in the garage and broke down. I was devastated. I worked so hard toward my dream and now it looked like that dream was fading fast," Luke recalled. "I felt like a loser; I was nothing. My parents were really worried about me for awhile because they thought I might do something to myself, like commit suicide, because I was so depressed. They said I was acting real strange, real angry. To them I was a different person.
"I guess I snapped at everything. I was up and down. I'd be real quiet at times and then all of the sudden I'd just flip out about something stupid. Looking back, maybe I overreacted but I just wasn't happy with my life, and I was only 16 so football was my life. Then I realized that I could keep feeling sorry for myself, or do everything I can to make sure this never happened again. I still had time to turn things around."
Just to prove to the football coaches that he was fast enough to play running back, Luke went out for the track team and ended up being the team MVP. He had a best time of 10.8 in the 100 meters, and when he was clocked at 22.8 in the 200 meters, that was the fastest time for Temecula Valley in eight years. He eventually got it down to 22.4. He won both the 100 and 200 at the Sunbelt League finals, but severe shin splints prevented him from qualifying for the CIF finals.
"The football coaches came to watch my meets and I'd always tell them I'm going to play running back next season," Luke said. "I finally built up the courage to tell them that because time was running out. Maybe I was a little desperate, but it was about time I did something for myself. Besides, why can't I also help the team as a running back. This was my last year in high school and I didn't want it to be my last year in football. They'd just say, 'Alright Luke, we'll see,' but it seemed like they were just blind to the idea."
Luke opened some eyes when he went from 175 pounds to a muscular 200 pounds before his senior year, and improved his lifts by over 50 pounds. Just his bench press went from 255 to 315, and he set the school record with 315 pounds in the power clean.
Temecula went to four weightlifting meets, and each time Luke not only won his middleweight class (up to 220 pounds), but also finished second overall. Only offensive lineman Chris Clark outdid Luke, and Clark outweighed him by nearly 80 pounds.
But with the increased size and strength also came the rumors that Luke may be using steroids. They only saw him lift for an hour or so at school. What they didn't see was what he did after school. In the weight room in his garage, Luke would lift for another 2-3 hours, and then another couple of hours of running in weighted strength shoes. He usually didn't get finished working out until 9 or 10 at night. That was on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday, he and a couple of friends would go to a local elementary school and try out a workout they'd read about in a book. First they'd run sprints in the parking lot with a tire tied to their waist, and then they'd push cars across the field.
"You should have seen the looks we got from people playing soccer there. They must have thought, 'What are these freaks doing? They must be nuts.' It did look pretty funny," Luke admitted.
What wasn't funny were the rumors.
"I'd swear to them that I've never used steroids but I'm not sure if they believed me," Luke said. "So all I could do was try to ignore it because I knew the truth. If I got mad about it then they'd say, 'See, he is roid raging.' For some reason they didn't want to give me credit for all my hard work, but what really bothered me was them thinking they could just stick a needle in their butt and be as big as I was."
But once Hell Week started and they saw how hard Luke was working, those rumors ended almost as quickly as they began.
Then in a preseason scrimmage against Hemet, Luke scored three touchdowns and thought he'd finally get his chance at running back. That was until a running back named Lloyd Morgan transferred in from Fallbrook High, where he'd been their leading rusher.
"Then all of the sudden he's ahead of me and I'm just the blocking back," Luke recalled. "It's like they were telling me, 'OK Luke, we'll give you what you want,' and make me the blocking back, which is nothing more than just another offensive lineman. I think they were hoping I'd hate it so much that I'd be happy to just play defense. I really did hate it, but I coped with it by telling myself that if I keep working hard and let my actions do the talking, then they'd have to let me carry the ball."
The problem was that Luke got very little action carrying the ball. He barely touched the ball in practice, and in the first two games, Luke didn't have a single carry.
"I was wondering if I was banging my head against the wall. Nothing I did seemed to matter," Luke explained. "I just didn't want to give up on it. I had to keep believing that if I stayed with it, I'd get my turn."
Unexpectedly, Luke finally got his turn in the third game of the season. Just an hour before the game against Rancho Bernardo, Luke found out he'd be the main running back. It seemed there were some problems with Morgan's transfer papers and he had to go back to Fallbrook.
On the first play from scrimmage, Luke ran a simple fullback dive -- the only play designed for him at the time -- and broke it for 20 yards, carrying two defenders with him before finally being brought down. He finished with 77 yards on 14 carries, including a two-yard touchdown run.
"All the rage and frustration that was eating me up inside came out in that game. Every time I carried the ball I think about proving all those people wrong, so I gave it everything I had," Luke said. "I still look at every play as the one that convinces everybody that I can be the go-to running back."
And there were no more coaches jokes. That season, Luke improved as the season went on. During five of the next six games, he ran for over 100 yards, and scored at least one touchdown in each of the last eight games.
His highest game was 196 yards in a victory over Rancho Verde, but his best game came against undefeated Paloma Valley with first place in the Sunbelt League going to the winner. Luke ran for 161 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 68-yard TD run with five minutes left to play.
In playoff wins over Jurupa Valley and Rubidoux, Luke ran for over 200 yards and three touchdowns. Even in the Division 5 semifinal loss at Rancho Cucamonga, Luke scored two touchdowns.
So despite the slow start to his season, Luke finished with 1027 yards on 159 carries (a 6.5 average) and 11 touchdowns.
This time, Luke not only made the All-Valley team, but did it as both a running back and safety. He also earned All-Sunbelt League honors at both positions and was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year. He was also selected to the All-Riverside County and All-CIF Division 5 teams.
Yet despite all that, Luke was overlooked again. Not once, but twice.
"Everything was going so well, maybe too well. I should have known by now that when things are going right, something is going to go wrong," Luke said.
Luke was getting plenty of recruiting calls, mostly from Colorado State and San Diego State. They went so far as to tell him to keep a certain week open for a recruiting trip.
"Then a few days before you think you're going on a recruiting trip they call you back and say don't bother to come. They hang up before you have a chance to ask why, and you're left wondering what you did wrong," Luke said. "I felt like I hit rock bottom. I got really depressed because I thought I had nothing to look forward to. But one thing I had learned was that when I got mad, instead of punching a hole in a wall, I'd go lift weights. So everytime I lifted the bar, I'd say 'This is for that school that didn't give me a scholarship.' I did get some funny looks from the people around me, but that was my way out of a depression."
It was Temecula Valley coach Mike Fisher who got depressed when Luke didn't go out for the track team his senior year because, "I had made my point. I'm never going to get a scholarship for running track."
Instead, every Tuesday and Thursday, Luke drove down to Palomar Junior College in San Marcos for their spring practices. Because Palomar had a returning All-Mission Conference running back, Luke was being recruited to play safety. Well playing fullback was nice while it lasted.
"I started accepting that maybe the coaches were right about me playing safety. I got brainwashed. I actually started to believe I couldn't play running back," Luke said. "If I'm going to get a scholarship it'd be as a safety, which wasn't as much fun, but at least I'd still be playing."
Where Luke wouldn't be playing was in the Riverside-San Bernardino All-Star football game. Even though he was named to the All-Riverside County team, he was overlooked when the Riverside team was chosen.
Luke kept calling and bugging the Riverside coach (Corona's John Brandom), until he was added to the team when they ran out of safeties. Luke ended up starting in the game, but had only one tackle.
"After the game I never wanted to play safety again. I hated it. I felt like a spectator watching the game," Luke recalled.
He knew he didn't want to play safety, and he wasn't so sure he still wanted to go to Palomar.
"It seemed like everybody was going somewhere, so when they asked me, I was almost embarrassed to say Palomar," he said. "The more people asked me where I was going, the more I wasn't sure anymore."
So Luke called RCC coach Mike Churchill, whose number he had gotten from Brandom. Churchill invited Luke to one of RCC's practices and immediately put him in at fullback.
"After he watched me play he said I could play fullback for him anyday. You don't know how long I waited for somebody to say that," Luke said. "At Palomar I was just a number and nobody knew who I was and probably didn't even care. I come to RCC and I felt like Coach Churchill really wanted me. It's almost like I was being recruited, except I had to make the first call."
Coming in, Luke knew he was going to be the blocking back. That's usually what you are if you're in the same backfield with Guzman, who happened to be the fifth-leading rusher in the history of California high school football with over 6,625 yards in his Norco High career.
"Marcus was the man so why give me the ball when you can give it to Marcus. You don't need to be a coach to figure that out," Luke said. "I have a lot of respect for Marcus because he doesn't have this huge ego. He always gives me or the linemen credit when we give a good block. We're a good team together. We help each other and we compliment each other's running style. He runs around people and I'd rather run through them.
"I like to think I had a little something to do with all the stuff Marcus did last year."
Luke was RCC's second-leading rusher last season, even if it was only 135 yards on 33 carries -- about as many carries as Guzman averaged per game. Luke did have touchdown receptions of 70 and 44 yards.
What few people knew at the time was that Luke played most of last season with a separated right shoulder. He injured his shoulder in a collision with linebacker Tommy Greenwood during practice before the second game. He was bothered by the injury all season, but missed only one practice and didn't miss a game.
"I didn't tell anybody because I had waited so long for this chance to play on offense that I wasn't going to do anything to jeopardize it," Luke said.
Since that was an injury that could only heal with rest, for awhile Luke couldn't work out as hard as he wanted. But once his shoulder healed, he worked out with the same zeal he did before his senior year at Temecula.
"I looked at my sophomore season like my senior year all over again because this is when everything counts," Luke said. "This season decides if I have a future in football. I guess I'm still chasing that dream I had in high school."
Along with several hours of working out every day, Luke even brought back the tire pull and the car push. He practically lived on protein supplements and "ate to get big." He added 30 pounds of muscle, improving his bench to 405, his squat to over 500 pounds and his power clean of 375 pounds is an RCC record for running backs.
"I'm even starting to think like a blocking back. Blowing people up is almost as good as carrying the ball -- almost," Luke said.
Three times a week Luke also worked with running back coach Sanford Brown on improving his speed. Even at 240 pounds, Luke clocked a legitimate 4.45 in the 40 at the junior college combine.
Luke also increased his school workload. He had a 3.0 GPA last year to make the dean's list, and this fall he is taking 18 credits so he can graduate after RCC's winter session in January and hopefully transfer to a four-year college."
He's been getting mail almost daily from Arizona State, Cal-Berkeley and Oregon, who have sent him media guides and offers for tickets to their games, but still no phone calls.
USC had a recruiter at RCC's game at Mt. San Jacinto College to scout Luke as a blocking back, but he didn't get to see very much. Luke had only five carries for 25 yards and saw very little action in the second and third quarters since RCC had fallen behind and had to go almost exclusively to the passing game.
"I didn't know anything about it until I saw them on the sidelines. You couldn't help but notice someone wearing those SC clothes," Luke said. "Right after the game I asked Coach Brown and he finally told me they were scouting me.
"I never got a call or even a letter from them after that game so I don't know what they thought me. Or maybe that is their way of telling me what they thought. I have to keep believing I'm going to get a scholarship from somebody, but I've been through this situation before so I know nothing is for sure.
"I'm still waiting for that first recruiting trip, and believe me that when it finally does pay off I am going to appreciate it so much more."
The Journey of Riverside Fullback Luke Rowley
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