His coach says he's a "big puppy." An adviser likens him to "Gentle Ben," the bear. Yet City's Ernest Rhoney is a paradox whose friendly, humble demeanor off the field belies the sheer power generated when he hurls his massive, 6-foot-3, 294-pound body into an opponent on the football field.
Not that he becomes mean as a junkyard dog, but the laws of physics say that a mass that size, when moving at great speed (he has been timed at 40 yards in 4.75 seconds without pads), produces enormous energy and force.
"He's not as aggressive as he could be," said City coach George Petrides. "He takes it easy in practice sometimes, especially on the younger kids. If he ever got mad, there's no telling what he could do."
Getting mad doesn't come naturally to Rhoney, a first team All-Metro defensive lineman who plays center on offense. "He's not a roughhouse kid," said his father, Ernest Rhoney Sr. "He was brought up in church, not in the streets."
"I still ask my parents if I can stay out late," said his son, a senior.
"One time, when he was a freshman, I was trying to get him to be more aggressive," said Russell Perkins, City's band director and formerly an assistant football coach. "I grabbed him on his chest and I knew right away I'd made a mistake. You could just feel his natural strength."
Strength (he bench-presses 300 pounds now without a dedicated lifting program) is but one of Rhoney's athletic attributes.
Speed is another.
In fact, last week Petrides moved Rhoney, who plays every down except kickoffs and kick returns, from the middle of the defensive line to an end position to take advantage of his mobility. "He can get to the quarterback more and stop sweeps. He has good lateral speed and quickness," said Petrides. Rhoney responded with three solo tackles and seven assists.
Besides his remarkable speed for a big man, he has good hands. "He uses his hands well when he blocks," said Petrides. "That'll help him in college a lot. He's got real nice, soft hands, and a real nice touch on outside shots in basketball."
Yes, Rhoney also plays varsity basketball. Imagine running into an Ernest Rhoney pick. Actually, basketball was his first love and his father, a former high school athlete, encouraged him.
"I wanted him to go to Dunbar for basketball," Rhoney Sr. said. "I didn't care if he played football or not. He came home one evening and said he wanted to play football. He'd never played before . . . He's the kind of kid who, if you say he can't do something, he'll try real hard. So we started running together, working up to 5, 6 miles a day in Druid Hill Park. We still run together every day we can."
That same determination shows up in the classroom. An average student at City, Rhoney has enrolled the past two summers in Gilman's Upward Bound, an academic support and cultural enrichment program. "It helps because you get a head start on the subjects you take the next year," Rhoney said.
William Greene is the Upward Bound program director. "Ernest is a sincere, hard-working kid," he said. "He wants to work to his fullest potential. You won't find a more honest person. If he doesn't know something, he'll say so . . . Most kids have cliques, but Ernest gets along with all of them: girls, boys, younger and older."
A legion of recruiters are now climbing all over each other to get along well with Ernest. Michigan, Notre Dame and Alabama are just some of the schools after him. He gets five to six calls a night and more letters every day. "I'll pick a school on academics," he said.
So, despite the attention, Rhoney will keep his head turned straight and his feet on the ground.