By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (July 13, 2017) — He thought about it for a minute, but gave up. The most accomplished running back in the history of professional indoor football could not recall his first game at Tarleton State.
It seemed pretty memorable back in 2004, when Derrick Ross rushed for a single-game Tarleton record of 260 yards and matched another school mark with four touchdowns. It was technically the home opener for Tarleton, but the new Fieldturf was not ready at Memorial Stadium, so the Texans met New Mexico Highlands at UT-Arlington.
Ross remembers none of it. Not a single detail.
“I rushed for that many?” Ross asked, honestly bewildered by the numbers. “Nah, I don’t remember that at all. That’s like your total for half the season in arena ball.”
He broke his own record with 269 rushing yards against Western New Mexico 2005, but can’t recall that performance, either.
Ross has forgotten more of his own records and accolades than most football players will ever earn, largely for two reasons – he’s been a part of 10 franchises in his 13 year professional career, and because stats and records aren’t what D-Ross has been chasing. If that were the case he may have been satisfied after becoming the all-time leading rusher in the Arena Football League in just his third season, or when he was named Co-MVP of NFL Europe in 2007, or even further back, perhaps after being a All-America and conference offensive player of the year in 2003 at Blinn College and again in 2005 at Tarleton.
But it’s a championship, the feeling of standing alone at the top to end a season, that has always eluded Ross and his teams.
He didn’t win one at Huntsville High School, Blinn or Tarleton as an amateur, and despite reaching the ArenaBowl three times in five record-setting seasons in the Arena Football League, he had never hoisted a trophy or ordered a ring as a professional, either.
Until Monday, July 10, 2017, when all of that changed.
Ross and the Jacksonville Sharks won the inaugural championship in the National Arena League. The D-Train, as he’s been called by some even dating back to this Tarleton days, scored a touchdown on the opening drive and the Sharks led all the way in a 27-21 win over the Columbus (Ohio) Lions.
He finally has what he’s wanted most, more than the AFL career rushing title and more than any of his five All-AFL awards in five seasons, or his numerous All-America, MVP, player of the year and rookie of the year awards. He could finally celebrate at the end of a season, after lamenting so many close calls.
Derrick Ross is finally a champion.
“Nobody can ever take that away from us. Nothing that happened or didn’t happen before this can change it, and nothing that happens or doesn’t happen after this can change it. We’re the the champions of our league for this year, and what’s also cool is we can always say we were the first champions in our league.”
But before becoming the most prolific ball carrier professional indoor football has ever known, Ross thought his career may be over after two frustrating seasons in the Canadian Football League. He did not make it off the practice or off-seasons squads in Montreal in 2008 or Winnipeg in 2009.
The Kansas City Chiefs, who signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2005, had long since forgotten about him, along with seemingly everyone else affiliated with the NFL. There was no more NFL Europe, and it never worked out in the CFL.
“That was tough man. All my life I had been a football player and coaches were always fighting to get me on their team. Then it was like nobody wanted me to play for them anymore,” said Ross, except there was still one place of refuge.
Ross returned to the Lone Star State where he spent a year clinging on to the professional football ladder by its very bottom rung – the Indoor Football League. He was a rookie for the San Angelo Stampede Express.
“It’s a long ways from playing with the Kansas City Chiefs to playing with the San Angelo Stampede, “ said Ross, able to laugh about it seven years later with a NAL championships ring on its way. “My momma was even wondering what I was doing.”
But Ross kept his head up, and did what he knows best – he punished defenses with a powerful style of running that was foreign to indoor leagues. It was enough to earn offensive rookie of the year honors in the IFL and to get one-year contract with the Dallas Vigilantes of the AFL.
There is still a big difference between the NFL and the AFL, but the Arena Football League was a quality alternative.
“I felt like I was really back. I was in a league that mattered again,” said Ross.
A league he would soon dominate in unimaginable fashion.
Ross played five seasons in the AFL and owns the top five single-season rushing totals in league history. He became the all-time leading rusher in just his third season in the league, was a five-time All-AFL selection and led three teams in two cities to the ArenaBowl. There, however, is where he lost each time.
“Three times we got there and couldn’t win it,” Ross said of the ArenaBowl. “As you get older and you see another chance like that go by, you wonder if it will ever happen.”
Other than four years at Huntsville High School, three years with the Philadelphia Soul is the longest Ross has spent with any single franchise or program in his life. And outside two ArenaBowl losses, Derrick says his Philly days were full of good times.
The Arizona Rattlers won back-to-back ArenaBowl championships over Philadelphia, 72-54 in 2012 and 48-39 in 2013.
But 2012 was also when Ross became the AFL career rushing leader, and in November of 2013, his son, Derrick Jr., was born.
“Philadelphia was good to me, real good,” Ross said. “It’s just too bad we couldn’t bring home a championship for our fans and our team. We had some real good teams there. We had everything you needed to win a championship, we just didn’t get it done.”
Philadelphia did finally win its second title in 2016, eight years after its first. But Ross had been traded the year before to the Los Angeles KISS, the first of three team changes he endured in 2015. He went from the KISS to the Las Vegas Outlaws, and finally to the Jacksonville Sharks.
Ross was still learning his way around the city of Jacksonville, Florida when the Sharks reached ArenaBowl XXVIII on August 29, 2015. The San Jose SabreCats, on the other hand, had no trouble finding their way around in a 68-47 victory for the championship, another one that eluded the grasp of the indoor legend.
“Three times, man. I think to get that close and not get it done, that’s hard to swallow any time, but three times, that was tough,” Ross said. “After the third time I thought maybe I was cursed or something.”
Not cursed, just two years early,.
No doubt Ross felt a gamut of emotions when his old Philadelphia teammates celebrated winning ArenaBowl XXIX last August, but there wasn’t time to dwell on that. After rushing for 3,245 yards in a league that hasn’t had a single other player rush for 2,000, Ross, and the entire Jacksonville franchise, would soon be moving on.
The Sharks had their sights set on the new pro arena league, and as the only AFL defect they were the most established of eight team starting the NAL.
Just months later,, Ross would find himself celebrating that elusive title.
He averaged just 9.2 carries per game because no more than that was necessary with Jacksonville outscoring opponents by a 2-to-1 margin in the first halves of their regular season games and a 2.2-to-1 margin overall. He still led the league by 280 yards in rushing (521) while also scoring the most points (162) and touchdowns (27 with 25 rushing).
Ross, now 33, says the reduced work load was a blessing.
“I”m not a young man any more. I don’t dance on my toes quite like I used, too,” said Ross with a laugh. “Early in your career, you look at stats and records and all that, but as you get older, championships start to be what really matters to you. That other stuff, that’s nice and it sounds good and it’s stuff you can brag about to the grandkids one day I guess, but a championship, you ain’t even got to say a word about it. Just hold up that ring and they know you’re a champion.”
He doesn’t know what’s next for his career as his contract with Jacksonville was through this season.
“I would like to stay here in Jacksonville,” he said. “Football is my business and right now, obviously, business in Jacksonville is good.”
But Ross’ life no longer revolves solely around football, or chasing a championship. That doesn’t mean he’s talking retirement, just that he realizes he must formulate plan for life after football.
“I have a son In Philadelphia and the NAL has a team in New Jersey, so if I went there I would be close to Derrick, Jr.,” he said. “And Texas, that’s still the home state, of course, and that’s where my mom and all my family’s at, so if I were talking retirement, that my be the best place. For business, right now it would be Jacksonville.”
For now, all signs indicate “Ross the Boss,” another nickname he’s picked up through the years, will continue to make his living playing football, though he admits becoming a coach has already started to creep into his mind.
As he looks back over his career, the places he’s been, the teams he’s played on, the defenders he’s bowled over and more than anything, the relationships he’s developed along the way, he says he owes it all to one person back in Stephenville.
“I owe Coach Todd Whitten my whole career. He instilled a fire in me and showed me how to stay focused and keep that fire burning,” Ross said. “The fire he put in me is still burning today.”
Maybe not so much today specifically, as Ross says life since Monday night has been pretty laid back. But burning in the sense that he still loves the game and still stops before acting to think, even if just for a second, is this going to get me in trouble? Is this something that can affect me being a good football player?
He says it’s a simple mindset he got from Whiten constantly telling him, 13 years ago in Stephenville, “Derrick, all you’ve got to do is stay out of trouble, that’s it. Just stay out of trouble.”
It worked at Tarleton, where Ross avoided any serious trouble and rushed for 3,072 yard and 35 touchdowns in 19 games over two seasons. Whitten signed Ross and coached him in 2004 before becoming head coach at Sam Houston State – in Derrick’s hometown of Huntsville – in 2005. Whitten returned to Tarleton as head coach in 2016 and is currently preparing for his second season back in Stephenville.
“D-Ross is one of the all-time greats,” Whitten stated, and the The Boss still owns the top two rushing games and seasons in Tarleton history to back it up. He ranked fourth in Division II with 1,560 yards in 2004 and third with 1,512 in 2005. He also owns school marks for most points scored (134), touchdowns (22) and rushing attempts (254) in a single season.
For his college career at Blinn then Tarleton, Ross carried the ball a combined 727 times for 4,926 yards and 59 touchdowns. And he did it all in just 34 games, averaging 6.8 yards per carry and 144.9 per game.
Cam Newton playing at Blinn may have changed the rank of players to pass through the junior college power house in Brenham, but at Tarleton, at least, Ross still must be considered among few others as the greatest football athlete in the school’s history.
Ross ahas been the greatest at his position for the bulk of his pro career, a remarkable journey including 10 franchises, six leagues three countries and two continent.
Best of all, his career finally includes one championship.