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'He is critical to this program'

Playing time has little to do with how much the Bulls value fullback Derrick Rackard.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


TAMPA -- Only those who live up to rigorous standards are welcome in Jim Leavitt's South Florida program, but Derrick Rackard is used to the work.

He took his first job at age 11 when his father left him, his mother and two younger sisters. He picked peanuts and watermelons to help make ends meet. He cooked for his sisters, cared for them and sometimes did their hair before school.

When Rackard was at Citra North Marion High, a fire destroyed his family's home, and he gave up track, his first love, and football, briefly, to earn more money.

All the while -- even though, he said, he could be "devilish or whatever, at times" -- he shined in the classroom. Rackard finished high school with a grade-point average of about 3.8. After turning down football scholarships from smaller schools such as The Citadel and East Tennessee State, he came to USF to be closer to his family. Academic scholarships got him from Reddick, his hometown, to Tampa in 1997, and he walked on to the football team.

Leavitt didn't know at first what he had, and in some ways he still might not. This is not a story about a fullback who is chewing up yards (he has 10 on four carries this season) or is making dazzling plays on special teams, though next season it might be. Rackard's most memorable on-field contribution has come in 1997 in the inaugural game when he had eight carries for 27 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run, in an 80-3 get-'em-all-in-the-game romp over Kentucky Wesleyan.

That night seems long ago. Rackard, 22 and a junior, has been sidelined for much of this season with ankle and groin injuries and might not play against Liberty on Saturday. Sometimes he wonders why he continues with football. But he also believes there are reasons other than playing time that he is on the team.

"Whether Derrick plays or not," Leavitt said, "he is critical to this program."

A leader even in high school, Rackard enjoys his role as an adviser to younger Bulls and even as a diplomat of sorts.

In a sport where players hang out mostly with those who play their position, Rackard's roommates are an offensive lineman, a defensive back and a linebacker.

In practice he works as hard as anyone, Leavitt said, and he works harder in the classroom. Last fall Rackard became a Kosove Scholar for his 3.7 GPA, community service and leadership ability. The scholarship is USF's most prestigious. Rackard is scheduled to graduate next fall with a degree in management information systems, and he plans to get a master's degree in business.

"(There's) no time to mess around," Rackard said. "It's very hard to explain. How do I say this -- a lot of the guys are in some majors that don't require as much studying. They can hang out, party and have fun. I can't really do that. I spent my entire off week (last week) studying."

Roommate Kenyatta Jones, a senior offensive tackle, considers Rackard a role model and said others think the same.

"He's a workaholic," Jones said. "He never quits. Even if he's hurt, he's going to keep going. He is a key. We're always talking about him getting his chance. He understands his role right now."

Rackard, who redshirted in 1998 (to help better distribute the running backs among classes) and played on almost every special teams unit in '99, could reap the rewards of his patience next season, after fullback Otis Dixon graduates. But Rackard said he spends little time thinking about it. God has a plan for him, he said, and the plan will be revealed eventually.

He said it is that attitude -- and not necessarily his stellar academic record or tough family situation -- that makes him unique among USF players. What defines him is a relationship with God that has strengthened in recent years.

"I feel so alone a lot of the time," Rackard said. "It's not really because of my past. It's because like now I'm taking more of a spiritual stand. I go to church a lot. I try to live my life by the Lord. I know everyone will come to God sooner or later. It's my time now. It makes me seem a lot different from the other guys."

After God comes his family -- mom, sisters, grandmother and even his father, with whom he has renewed a relationship. His family expects him to live up to his academic potential. "He puts football probably third," Leavitt said. "But that, from a quality person, is probably better than some people who put it first."

Rackard admits he sometimes wonders whether it's worth putting forth the extra effort to play football. "But I know it is," he said. "It's not all for myself. It's helping out some of the other guys; they need someone to talk to. God put me here, and he wants me to be here. ... It really hasn't been what I thought it would be, or maybe even what I thought it should be. It's just a learning process. I know everything happens for a reason."

Whatever the reason Rackard is with the Bulls, Leavitt hardly could appreciate him more. "I'm glad he's on the team," Leavitt said. "I've learned a lot from Derrick Rackard."

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