This story appeared in the Los Angeles edition of the November ESPN RISE Magazine.
Ronald Powell has always looked the part of a football star.
During the summer before his freshman year at Rancho Verde (Moreno Valley, Calif.), he traveled with the team to camps at the University of Arizona and Arizona State. Already 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds with the freakish athleticism to match, Powell turned quite a few heads on appearance alone.
"Here was this big guy running around and people asked, 'Who was that?'" says Rancho Verde head coach Pete Duffy. "I said he was a freshman and they said, 'Are you kidding me?'"
Powell, however, was far from a finished product. He may have resembled a Pac-10 player in size, but he had a lot of growing up to do. From bad grades to a bad attitude to a bad work ethic, Powell was heading in the wrong direction.
It took some help from his coaches and teammates, but Powell gradually turned things around. The senior now boasts a 3.0 GPA and is one of Rancho Verde's team leaders. He also refined his work habits to maximize his raw football talent and blossomed into the state's top recruit and the nation's No. 3 overall player in the ESPNU 150.
A multi-purpose star who plays linebacker, wide receiver and running back for the Mustangs, Powell is projected to be a defensive end in college. As of press time, he was deciding between scholarship offers from BCS juggernauts USC and Florida.
Powell's football career at Rancho Verde started off strong in the ninth grade. He earned a starting spot at tight end and wowed observers.
"You wouldn't have thought he was a freshman, you would have assumed he was a senior," says current Riverside North head coach Scott Pearne, who coached against Powell and Rancho Verde that season while with Yucaipa. "He was a man among boys. I've never seen a freshman as physical and fast with his size."
Impressive as he was on the field as a freshman, Powell struggled just as badly off it. He was in serious need of a wake-up call if he was going to realize his huge potential, and Duffy served as his alarm clock.
The coach warned Powell that if he didn't improve his grades and stay out of trouble, he wouldn't have a future in the Rancho Verde program.
"I knew I wanted to be on the team," says Powell. "It was one of the things I really looked forward to. For someone to say they were going to take that away from me made me make that change."
It helped to have role models on the team like former Rancho Verde stars Tyron Smith and DeShawn Grayson, who are now at USC and UTEP, respectively. Despite all the attention Smith and Grayson received throughout their recruitments, they stayed grounded and remained team leaders by always giving 100 percent in the weight room and during practice.
"They stayed humble," says Powell. "I've seen for some people that's real hard to do. These guys were heavily recruited and you would never know it. I learned to be that way."
After making major strides in his turnaround during the spring of his sophomore year, Powell appeared ready to take the next step. With his young star's grades and attitude no longer an issue, Duffy pushed Powell to improve in all facets of the game. He became a beast in the weight room, and the payoff came during a terrific junior season in which Powell tallied 61 tackles and 13 sacks. He also ran for six scores as Rancho Verde went 10-1 on the season, falling to Norco in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Inland Division playoffs.
The new-and-improved Ronald Powell was on display in a 13-12 win over Murrieta Valley last season. On one play, Murrieta Valley's quarterback dropped back with Powell rushing off the edge. Sensing the pressure, the QB rolled out as Powell was forced to the ground by an offensive lineman. But Powell wouldn't quit. He picked himself up and chased the quarterback across the field for the sack.
"We were in a dogfight and I wanted it more than they did," says Powell.
He also had two sacks in a win over Los Angeles Fremont and brought back a fumble 14 yards for a score to help upend Yucaipa.
But Powell didn't stop to enjoy his breakout season. Realizing enormous expectations were going to be thrust upon him this year, he got after it in the weight room and with his conditioning during the offseason. The result is a frame Duffy compares to that of USC All-American safety and physical marvel Taylor Mays.
Powell can bench 370 pounds, power clean 315 and squat 475. He can also run the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds.
"They say he's a first-round draft pick waiting to happen if he continues to put in the effort," says Duffy.
Powell's added strength and speed has given him an extra edge at game time.
"When it comes to Friday nights, it's you and the man across from you," he says. "It's who's going to be the biggest, strongest and fastest."
Powell knows all too well not to get ahead of himself. Just three years ago he didn't know if he'd still be playing high school football as a senior, never mind becoming a prospect coveted by elite college programs across the country.
Is he a finished product? Not even close.
"I still have a long way to go," says Powell. "As far as playing ball, I've got a lot more to learn. And in life in general, I have a lot more to learn. It's not over."