There is little resemblance between Louis Ruesing and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but Ruesing sees a lot of himself in the latest big screen character played by “The Rock.”
“This is the real ‘Gridiron Gang’ right here,” Ruesing said as he watched his Canyon State Academy football team practice on Wednesday. “Our mission has been, ‘This is our rite of passage, to go week to week and be perfect,’ and we’ve done that so far.”
In the movie version of the Gridiron Gang, Johnson plays a coach at a juvenile detention facility who brings together some of the troubled young men and turns them into a successful team. Ruesing has been doing the same under similar circumstances at Canyon State Academy.
After going 8-2 last year, Canyon State raced through the regular season 9-0 and is a favorite to win the 1A Conference title. The Rams begin their playoff push tonight with a first-round game against Fort Thomas.
“Last year’s team was a lot more athletic and the guys depended on their athleticism,” Ruesing said. “This year, they believe, number one, in our system and number two, they believe in themselves.”
Canyon State is a residential facility for at-risk youth who come into the program with emotional and behavioral issues. The young men come and go, depending on their circumstances. Some stay in the program for a year, some two. For Ruesing, just three players returned from his 2005 team, meaning he pretty much had to start from scratch.
One player who started from scratch this year is Jordan, the Rams’ starting quarterback. He attended Canyon State last year but did not play football and had to learn the offense at a foreign position.
“It was a real hard thing for me because it was my first time being a quarterback,” Jordan said. “I had my coaches there to help me out and I asked a lot of questions. It’s helped me grow up a lot.”
To a man, Ruesing and the three returning players felt that last year’s squad — which lost in the first round of the playoffs to eventual champion Pima — had more talent on the field but was lacking the togetherness that defines this year’s team.
“Last year, there were so many athletes on the field that when we would score a touchdown, there were at least four other guys coming to the sidelines complaining that they were open and they could have scored,” Ruesing said. “This year, it’s more of a buy-in to the system and the team concept.”
The last two seasons have helped the Canyon State players mature and build confidence, attributes that will aid them as they move on from the program.
“A championship would be a big event, like graduating high school, maybe bigger than that, because you only get one chance at a thing like that,” said Wesley, a senior defensive end. “It would be a big confidence booster. Because if you play on a team and play together, you can take that role into a job or something and work as a team and be a success.”
Fort Thomas at Canyon St.
Address: 20061 Rittenhouse Road, Queen Creek
Records: Fort Thomas 5-3, Canyon State 9-0
Last meeting: Aug. 25, 2006: Canyon State 36, Fort Thomas 8
Other first-round pairings: Valley Union at Mogollon; Bagdad at Pima; Superior at Mayer
TO OUR READERS: Due to legal reasons involving privacy issues, the Tribune cannot use the full name of some of the players at Canyon State Academy. To protect their identity, just their first names will be used.