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November 17, 2012

Cravens' journey to greatness


MORE: U.S. Army All-American Bowl

Prominence started early for Su'a Cravens because he's always been good at football, but it was ramped up during his junior season.

This was especially true after Vista Murrieta's win at Encino Crespi in late September.

Early in that contest, Cravens took a handoff and blazed up the middle only to endure a tremendous shot from a Crespi defender. Cravens writhed in pain with what looked to be a serious injury. Minutes passed before Cravens would be escorted off the field.

For everyone who came to see Cravens, it looked like his night was over.

Except, a few downs later, Cravens was back. He wasn't faking an injury for dramatic purposes. That's not his style. That night, Cravens showed himself for the player he really could be -- that unique blend of charisma and toughness, of elegance and competitiveness. It was like watching Kobe Bryant on a football field.

Not only did Cravens return, but he dominated the game at running back, wide receiver, safety and outside linebacker. In the win, Cravens caught a touchdown pass, rushed for a score, had an interception, and recorded a sack.

That was the night many people were convinced Cravens was one of the top players in the 2013 recruiting class.

After the game, a cold, windy, rainy Friday night, Vista Murrieta coach Coley Candaele was asked numerous questions about his star player. Candaele, as he does, tempered expectations. He told the media Cravens had a lot to work on. He said it's about the team and not one player.

"I told him when he was a freshman, I said, 'This is how it's going to work, either you're going to be a good high school football player who's going to play in college, or I am going to be -- I can't say it in the paper -- basically I'm going to be in your grill every day you don't give 100 percent effort,'" Candaele said that night.

"If you want to be great, you have to have the work ethic to be the best around. We're slowly getting there."

Hounded by reporters, Cravens showed off his trademark smile and his dyed-blond faux-hawk. He talked about humbleness and teamwork. In Los Angeles, the best high school football players get star treatment. De'Anthony Thomas had it a few years ago. This kid was getting it now.

Cravens was becoming a star.

GROWING UP CRAVENS

Cravens' dad, Kevin, called him a fat kid.

Pudgy might be a softer term. Cravens was thrown on the offensive line early in his playing career and then moved up an age level because he was bigger than his peers. Playing older kids was difficult, but Kevin Cravens said it helped his son get tough.

"He was bigger than everybody so he played above, and in hindsight, it was an advantage," Kevin Cravens said. "He was getting it brought to him in those first years of football. That helped him."

By sixth or seventh grade, Cravens was again playing with his age group and that's when the separation started. His dad noticed his son's exceptional balance and athleticism. This wasn't fatherly wishful thinking -- Cravens was simply better than the other kids.

Never was it considered that he would be one of the top prospects in the country, but Cravens was, well, really good.

Offers from UCLA and Hawaii came early in his high school career. His brother, Siaki, played at Hawaii, so it was a no-brainer that the school offered. Through his sophomore and junior years, the offers poured in. USC, Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Tennessee, you name it.

Cravens committed to USC in June during a ceremony in his family's garage, the least ostentatious setting imaginable. Surrounded by family, friends and a weight bench, sitting next to his mother (it was her birthday) with recruiting letters from everywhere affixed to the walls, Cravens picked the Trojans. It was really no shocker.

He has not looked back, not considered other visits. Cravens made it clear last week at his U.S. Army All-American Bowl presentation that he's sticking with the Trojans even though it's been a disappointing season by their standards. It's USC-UCLA week. This is always a big rivalry, but now even more heated with UCLA's resurgence this season.

Kevin Cravens admits he wouldn't have been upset if his son committed to the Buckeyes or Wolverines, those Big Ten traditions still so appealing, but he is thrilled Su'a picked USC. He's close to home, the family could go to games, and after all, he still needs his mother.

"Su'a is at SC because of the education and the business school," Kevin Cravens said. "It doesn't matter what's going on with the football team right now. That's not going to change a degree from SC. That's what Su'a likes.

"I've had experience with out-of-state kids before. It's just hard. Christmas time, Thanksgiving time, you're 3,000 miles away. Su'a is a momma's boy. He doesn't want to be too far away from his family."

The early days when Cravens was a toddler and would sit with his daddy and watch football games on Saturdays and Sundays are still fresh in his mind.

"I saw his love for football as a baby," Kevin Cravens said. "The way he'd sit on Sunday, sit next to me, and I didn't know if he was watching the game, but he'd sit and watch all the Saturday games, all the Sunday games and then he'd start playing with his older brother. He kept nagging me about playing. The love for the game is what I noticed most."

Those memories quickly recalled. So many memories still to come.

ADVICE: STAY HUMBLE

Cravens is the top-rated safety and the No. 1 player in California according to Rivals.com, and there really is no serious debate about it. He's eighth in the entire class. He's a local kid committed to USC. He dominates in almost every game he plays on both sides of the field.

But Kevin Cravens gives his son one piece of advice: Stay humble.

Over time, that idea has sunk in for Cravens and helped him become an even better player, more focused and engaged.

"That man doesn't let me get comfortable," Cravens said of his father. "He doesn't let me think I'm as good as they say I am. I believe that. I don't think I'm as good as some reporters say I am and I don't think I'm as bad as some reporters say I am. I just go out there and play my game.

"Every time I come home after a big game or after big articles come out about me, he just says stay humble. That's all he says to me and that's all he needs to say. I understand what he means by that and that's all I really need."

Kevin Cravens has a reason he gives that message to his son.

"I tell him to stay humble because if you don't, it's all going to go away," Cravens said. "The examples we get every week from pro athletes when they're not on the field. These guys forget where they came from and all the work and sacrifice they've done to get where they're at.

"To throw it away with domestic violence or drugs, Su'a is very blessed because he's surrounded with the right people with his family and his coaches."

So here's Cravens, in the middle of a playoff run with his Vista Murrieta team, then a chance to prove his lofty ranking at the Army game, then to the next phase of his life at USC.

From those nights as a kid watching games with his dad, to Pop Warner, through that pivotal game at Encino Crespi last year when he emerged as a national prospect, Cravens has grown, developed, matured and gotten smarter.

A lot has been said and written already about Cravens. Candaele can condense it to one poignant sentence that just seems to work.

"His purposes and our purposes are the same -- be the best you can and win, win championships."



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