Ever since he can remember, Dustin Ross has been called "Dud." In the halls at Salamanca High School, and at football, basketball or baseball practice, it's "Hey, Dud." "Nice game, Dud." "See ya, Dud."
That's his nickname, but it doesn't mean it fits. Because Dustin Ross is no dud.
The hard-hitting senior was explosive on both sides of the ball, scoring a school-record 30 touchdowns as a running back, recording 122 tackles at linebacker and making some of the biggest plays of Salamanca's championship season as a receiver to become the 26th recipient of The Buffalo News Player of the Year award.
Ross rushed for a school-record 1,466 yards on 194 carries and amassed more than 2,200 all-purpose yards to help the Warriors make their third straight trip to Ralph Wilson Stadium and their second state final four in three years. He made the All-Western New York team on defense as a linebacker, while he was named an offensive MVP in the Warriors' last three playoff games.
What does he do best? Try asking his coach.
"Whoa. I don't know that I could, because he did so many things," Salamanca coach Rich Morton said. "At middle linebacker, he's everywhere. He had the 30 touchdowns, and he was our team leader in tackles.
"He's so talented. He was our punt returner, our kickoff returner, he was on the punt team, the kickoff team, the extra point team, at middle linebacker and running back, and he never took a play off in any game. There's not one thing that that kid didn't do for us that we could have done without."
Watch No. 44 during a game, and you see pad-crunching hits no matter whether he's carrying the ball or not. Walk up to Ross afterward, you see he's 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, and you'd wonder if you have the right guy.
"He's not like a Greek Adonis, but he hits you through his hips," Morton said. "If you watched him at The Ralph (in a 28-7 win over Eden), he was dragging kids with him. He's uncanny."
At running back, he was a bowling ball that just kept rolling, with tacklers caroming out of his path. Let Cleveland Hill coach Dennis Mason describe Ross' defense: "A ball carrier would get in a pile, and he would come out the same side -- because Ross came in the other side."
"We couldn't block him and we couldn't tackle him," said Mason, whose Golden Eagles beat Salamanca in the 2000 Section VI final but this year lost to the Warriors in the regular season and the playoffs. "He was excellent on both sides."
And he has the same approach on both sides.
"I like playing defense -- I like just seeing a guy come straight up through the hole and . . . laying him out pretty much," Ross said. "Like a dive right up through there, your eyes just light up just waiting for it.
"(On offense) it's the same thing. You see the guy standing there -- I mean you try to make a cut if you can -- but if you can't, you just run them over pretty much. A lot of people try to tackle high, and that's what you love to see. You just go through 'em."
Not that it's all smashmouth for Ross. He turned in one of the season's most amazing plays on a 54-yard, momentum-changing touchdown reception in Salamanca's come-from-behind, 28-23 win over LeRoy in the Far West Regionals. He somehow corralled a pass from quarterback Cameron Haines that appeared as if it was going to be deflected away.
"It just got tipped and it was just reaction and I tipped it up again, and it came right in stride," said Ross, who also had a 35-yard reception in a regular season comeback win over Portville, 19-18. "It was amazing."
Ross thinks he got the "Dud" tag from older brothers Darren and Dana, but he doesn't know why. "I have no idea," he said, smiling. "I've had it since kindergarten."
He surely got called that during many backyard football games with Dana and Darren, both of whom played football at Salamanca. Sports may have meant a little more than most for Dustin and his brothers after their father died when Dustin was only 4 years old.
"I don't remember him a whole lot. My mom has done a great job raising us, doing the best she can. Three boys can be kind of tough . . . we broke some stuff now and then," he said. "I think my brothers and I kind of went into sports because there's male role models in sports, just dealing with that to help us out."
Ross cited JV coach Jay Whitesall, current Athletics Director Jerry Trately and Morton as some of the coaches who have helped him along.
"He's just an outstanding person," Morton said of Ross, an honor student who has grades good enough that Dartmouth, UB, Ithaca and Hamilton are on his list of college choices and he's considering engineering as major. "He's a very polite, well-mannered kid. He helps out in school, never asks for any attention."
He's even polite during games.
"He'll run the ball and have the opportunity to score, and he comes out of the game and says, 'Thanks coach for letting me run the ball,' " Morton said. "Some kids complain about not getting the ball enough. Here's a kid that thanks you when he comes out."
"We've got other backs that can run it, too," said Ross, who had a 7.52-yard rushing average on a team featuring Haines (90 attempts for 906 rushing yards), Derrick Murphy (111-613) and Mike Liberatore (79-567). "We had a great backfield this year."
"The biggest thing that stands out in my mind is that he's a great person, a great kid, moreso than a great athlete," said Morton. "I can't say enough about him."
CHART: NEWS PLAYERS OF YEAR
2001: Dustin Ross, Salamanca
2000: Aaron Leeper, Jamestown
1999: Joe West, Lackawanna
1998: Sandro DeAngelis, St. Joe's
1997: Frank Pavicich, Niagara-Wheatfield
1996: Frank Pavicich, Niagara-Wheatfield
1995: Malik Campbell, Turner/Carroll
1994: David Hinson, Jamestown
1993: Warren Miles, Lackawanna
1992: * Teddy McDuffie, Grover Cleveland
1992: * Anthony Scott, Grand Island
1991: Bob McDonnell, Grand Island
1990: Randy Smith, Lockport.
1989: * Kevin Mason, West Sen. East
1989 * Cliff Scott, Grand Island.
1988: Jim Snyder, Medina
1987: Mark Anderson, Orchard Park
1986: Ray Braxton, Lackawanna
1985: Kevin Deakin, St. Joe's
1984: Dan Mettica, Wmsv. South
1983: Daryl Johnston, Lew-Port
1982: Ken Johnson, Jamestown
1981: Shane Conlan, Frewsburg
1980: Ron Pitts, Orchard Park
1978: * Carl Chase, Canisius
1978: * Alan Copeland, Lancaster
1977: Mike Wallace, Fredonia