He dreamed of one day being a feature back like Joe Graziani and Brian Griffin.
And now it’s his turn.
“I think it’s awesome because when I was a little kid, I looked up to those guys. And now I’m kind of the role model for kids now doing the same thing,” said Gross, a senior who is leading a stable of four St. Paul running backs into Saturday’s Division VII Region 23 championship game vs. Berlin Center Western Reserve.
While putting together one of the best runs in area football history since 1995, a common theme in all dominant St. Paul teams has been standout running backs. This season, as 23rd year coach John Livengood has his No. 7-ranked team two wins away from a fifth state championship game, the veteran coach can turn to four of them instead of just one or two.
Gross leads the way with 1,020 yards and 22 touchdowns, but is followed closely by junior is Devin Smith (843 yards, 14 TDs), sophomore Brad Smith (757 yards, 5 TDs) and sophomore Jaret Nickoli (497 yards, 9 TDs).
As a whole, the Flyers have 3,487 yards rushing (290.6 per game) and 53 touchdowns in 12 games.
If Devin Smith can get 157 more yards this season, it will mark the seventh time in 22 years at St. Paul that two running backs in the same season each eclipsed 1,000 yards.
“You can’t really describe us,” Devin Smith said. “We’re all kind of different and it’s always a good matchup between us four.”
All four are considered physical backs, but most of the tough yardage comes from Gross and Brad Smith, while Nickoli and Devin Smith are known more for finding the outside edges.
“They all have different styles,” Livengood said. “Jesse kind of thrives on the contact. Devin more of a slasher who runs hard and is able to make guys miss a little bit more. Brad is more of a bowling ball, but he has some moves too. He reminds me a lot of Matt Wilde (2007-08).
“And Jaret is flat out explosive,” he added. “He’s always looking to punish anyone who tackles him. But the one common theme is they all do a great job blocking and are unselfish. Different guys have stepped up in different games, and this last week it was Jaret’s turn. They are all capable of doing that.”
Nickoli says all four backs appreciate and are aware of the tradition to uphold when they line up in the backfield together.
“We’ve had a lot of great running backs come through St. Paul, and to have us four all rotate together is an awesome experience,” he said. “It’s awesome to be at regional finals now, and hopefully we can keep this run going.
“It’s a great friendship with these guys,” Nickoli added. “We’re always messing around with each other, but our heads are always in the game and we can always count on each other to do our jobs.”
Brad Smith saw his carries increase when Devin Smith went down on two separate occasions with a concussion and an ankle injury. The 5-foot-8 sophomore never missed a beat, as the Flyers take a 9-game winning streak into Saturday night’s game at Medina.
“I’ve done what our coaches have asked me to do,” Brad Smith said. “I stepped in when Devin went down and just ran hard and hoped to contribute. But I have to give credit to the offensive line, they’ve done a great job all year of blocking up the middle for us.”
Gross added when Devin Smith went down, it just proved that the next-man-up mentality fit this year’s team.
“It’s nice to have this kind of depth. We had another guy ready to fill in,” Gross said. “No one cares who gets the ball. We’re an unselfish backfield that all block for each other. We all help each other out.”
After finishing a perfect 15-0 and winning the Division VI state championship in 2009, the Flyers narrowly missed the playoffs by finishing ninth in the region in 2010 and 2011, and were eliminated in the first round last season.
As a result, all the players on this season’s team were in junior high or elementary school the last time St. Paul had won a playoff game prior to the Nov. 9 blasting of Southington Chalker, 55-7.
“It’s the first time for us being in the regional championship, and I can remember watching that team in 2009 playing,” Brad Smith said. “They were able to do what everyone dreams of in high school football, and they are what we all look up to and strive for. It’s kind of great trying to do that again.”