John Ross III has been fast for as long as he can remember.
In fact, his speed was the catalyst for him getting into organized football in the first place. As a boy growing up in Long Beach, California, Ross was always too young and too small to play tackle football with the neighborhood kids. But one day, he finally weaseled his way into a game in his grandma’s front yard. As soon as he got he ball, it didn’t matter how big or how old the defenders were—no one could catch him.
“My grandmother used to grow these plants in her yard. I was making kids run into the plants. I made my brother and my cousin run into each other,” Ross recalls.
His mom had heard from others that her son possessed incredible speed and quickness—how he could outrun kids four years older than him—and she’d been thinking about putting him in organized football. When she finally saw how effortlessly her son evaded would-be tacklers, she was convinced. “My mom saw and was like, ‘I need to put you in football,’” Ross says.
Soon enough, Ross found himself competing in one of the most exclusive youth football leagues in the nation—The Snoop Youth Football League. Founded by Snoop Dogg in 2005, it is a non-profit organization that provides opportunities for inner city children to participate in youth football.
Ross’s speed was what drew Snoop’s attention. The rapper noticed 9-year-old Ross zooming through the parking lot outside a youth football game. Snoop approached Ross about playing in his league, Ross gave him his mother’s number, and soon enough, Ross was a member of the Compton Titans of the SYFL. The talent level was elite, but Ross still stood out. Snoop Dogg recently recounted Ross’s first game with him to NFL Network. “The first game I took him to was in the Pontiac Silverdome for an all-star game,” Snoop said. “He ran for three touchdowns and 165 yards at 9 years old.” Ross played in the league for three years and became a “Snoop Youth Football League legend” (Snoop’s words, not mine).
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By the time Ross got to high school, he was faster than anyone on the field. Combined with the fact that he had already established himself as one of the best players in the area, that led to an issue—complacency. Why train hard when you can just run right by everyone?
Ross said, “I had a problem with working hard early in high school. I always felt like, ‘well, if I’m faster than these kids, why do I still have to work?’ That [kind of thinking] got me early in my career.” He was content with just going through the motions. But as Ross began to realize his potential, he discovered his drive.
“My junior year [at Jordan High School], I really saw my potential and started working hard. I thought, ‘maybe I can be the best on my team, maybe I can be the best in the league.’ I knew that I could do more on the field the more work I put in. So I started to work harder, and I could tell I was getting faster and stronger,” Ross said. “[I realized that] if you work hard today, you’ll improve tomorrow.”
That attitude helped Ross make a major jump in his junior year. His uncanny ability to turn a sliver of daylight into six points attracted a number of powerhouse programs. Thomas Barnes—who served as Ross’s head coach at Jordan—estimates that Ross returned at least 20 kickoffs for touchdowns during his three seasons on varsity. Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols, a close friend of Ross’s who played against him in high school, recalls that slippery player with breakneck speed. “John was a really electric player. He could make a play at any moment,” McNichols told STACK.
Soon enough, Ross had offers from schools like Michigan, Oregon, UCLA, Miami, Wisconsin and Washington. He committed to Washington during January of his senior year, citing a familiarity with their players (many of whom he had grown up playing with) and comfort with their coaches as deciding factors. Ross entered Washington with high expectations. Before he had even played in a game, his then-head coach Steve Sarkisian compared him to Reggie Bush. Ross made a quick impact on special teams, handling kick return duties for much of the season. His 100-yard return for a touchdown in the Huskies’ bowl game that year was a scintillating display of his turf-melting speed (skip to 4:10 for the highlight):
During his sophomore year, Ross bounced between receiver and cornerback, flashing occasional brilliance at both positions. However, he felt frustrated with his sporadic playing time. He envisioned himself as a star wide receiver, not a utility man. There was also something else holding him back—a torn meniscus in his right knee, which he suffered in the third game of the season. He gutted it out the rest of the way, but secretly he wasn’t anywhere close to 100 percent.
After post-season surgery, Ross entered the spring of 2015 ready to prove himself as the team’s top receiver. But during his first full practice of spring ball, a non-contact “freak” injury caused him to tear the ACL and meniscus in his left knee. He was forced to take a medical redshirt for the 2015 season. “Facing the fact that I was going to sit out a whole year with that injury—that was hard to deal with,” Ross said.
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But Ross was diligent with his rehab, allowing him to have a full offseason of training prior to the 2016 season. He made the most of it, putting in extra work whenever he could. “When I got into  spring ball, I felt like I could really become an even better player if I continued to work. So I would set up cones on off days and after practices and do stuff by myself until I was tired. I would get sore, but I felt like if I wanted to reach my maximum potential, then that’s what I had to do,” Ross said. That work ethic led him to clock a 4.25 40-Yard Dash at UW’s annual offseason “Husky Combine.” He also worked closely with Bush Hamdan, his receivers coach, on route running.
“We got in the film room and got on the board and I was learning stuff each and every day,” Ross said.
Last Summer, Ross connected with NFL star DeSean Jackson, also a Long Beach native, with whom he shared many mutual acquaintances.
“He’s from my side of Long Beach,” Ross said. “He and my dad are good friends, and we just got connected. It almost felt like it was bound to happen eventually.”
A noted speedster himself, Jackson invited Ross to train with him for a few days in Los Angeles. Ross graciously accepted. During their sessions together, Jackson taught Ross how to smartly implement his speed for maximum effectiveness. “He showed me how to control my speed,” Ross told NFL.com. “Before [training with DeSean], I just figured, I’m faster than this guy, so I can just outrun this guy. That doesn’t work all the time . . . it was good for me to get with DeSean and learn how to use [my speed] and when to use it and when to turn it on and when to turn it off.”
Ross went on to have an exceptional redshirt junior season, compiling 81 receptions for 1,150 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. He earned a plethora of accolades, including a spot on ESPN’s All-America First Team. With nothing left to prove, Ross declared for the 2017 NFL Draft.
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Shortly after declaring, Ross began training with McNichols at Athletic Republic in Irvine, California. The two also worked with noted speed trainer Gary Cablayan, who counts DeSean Jackson as a long-time client. Cablayan honed Ross’s technique to sharpen his already supersonic speed, focusing largely on his starts.
When we watched Ross blaze through a speed and agility session prior to the NFL Combine, one thing stuck out in particular—his legs. He’s built like a centaur. His upper-body is muscular, but his lower-body is on an entirely different level. Massive hamstrings and glutes allow him to gallop downfield at the speed of light. When we spoke with him after the workout, Ross hinted that he believed he had a chance to do something special at the Combine. “I love competition. I love competing. If you feel like you’re the fastest guy, you’ve got to compete. You can’t go in and not want to compete,” he said.
So Ross did exactly that. Despite the fact he was nursing a torn labrum and battling leg cramps, Ross stepped up to the line in Lucas Oil Stadium and shocked the world:
A new record in the most-publicized event of the entire Combine. How’s that for competing? Ross also promised to surprise people in the Broad Jump. He delivered with a monstrous 11-foot-3-inch leap that tied him for the sixth-best result of any participant this year.
Ross recently underwent surgery to repair the torn labrum in his right shoulder, but that should do little to affect his draft stock. Some analysts have predicted Ross will be a top 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but no matter where he ends up, Ross is predicting pure joy when he hears his name called.
“I’m a very positive person. No matter what happens, I’ll get super happy,” Ross said.
In the meantime, Ross will continue working toward his degree at the University of Washington. He’ll be the first one in his family to get a college degree, and that’s something he takes a lot of pride in. “I’m about to graduate soon, and I’m more excited to see the reaction on my family’s faces than just me,” Ross said. “I’m first-generation, so I know how much it means to them.”