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At 8 years old, Jonathan Hernandez repeatedly begged his father, Cesar Batallas, to sign him up for Pop Warner, a non-profit football organization for kids from the ages of five to 15. Despite being financially strapped, Batallas caved in and allowed Hernandez to play.
Before long, Hernandez developed a love for the game and brought his talent to the high school level. Hernandez attended Leominster High School in Leominster, Mass., where head coach John Dubzinski built a team predicated on running the football. Prior to Hernandez, LHS had a feared running back duo that featured Anthony Bizzotto and Adam Cordio.
Hernandez did not have to wait long for his opportunity. As a freshman he saw reps at the varsity level, a rare feat for a Dubzinski-coached team. In his junior and senior seasons, Hernandez led the Blue Devils to Super Bowl bids against Western Massachusetts powerhouse Longmeadow, before losing both games.
Perhaps Hernandez’s best high school game of his career took place on Central Massachusetts’ biggest stage. The Leominster High vs. Fitchburg High Thanksgiving Day football game — commonly called the Turkey Bowl — has been played since 1894, and is a huge event for the two neighboring cities.
In the 2006 contest, Hernandez ran for 315 yards and three touchdowns as Leominster beat Fitchburg, 34-6.
By the end of his high school career, Hernandez became the most productive football player in Leominster High School history. He rushed for 3,985 yards and 47 touchdowns — yet the humble Hernandez did not receive a single Division 1-A scholarship.
“I wanted offers from schools who believed in me and wanted me on the team,” Hernandez said. “Whatever school didn’t offer me did not see the athlete in me.”
In fact, Hernandez received very little publicity. Rivals.com, which is arguably the most reputable recruiting service, failed to even list Hernandez on the site. Meanwhile other high school running backs in the Northeast region received big-time scholarships.
Malcolm Harris, of Paterson, N.J., who got offers from Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Rutgers during his senior campaign in 2007 — the same year Hernandez graduated — rushed for 1,285 yards less than Hernandez and was similar in size at 5’9″, 170.
Across the way in New York, 3-star recruit Doug Hogue generated interest from Syracuse, Penn State, Rutgers and Wisconsin. In comparison to Hernandez, Hogue rushed for 1,933 yards less and scored 28 fewer touchdowns in his career.
Ultimately, Hernandez accepted an offer to a join Division 1-AA school: UMass.
“I thank UMass for giving me the opportunity in being apart of their football program,” Hernandez said.
After being redshirted his freshman season, an experience that helped him learn the system and terminology of the playbook, Hernandez got a chance to see the field for the first time in 2008. During that season, Hernandez played in just six games, rushing for a total of 20 yards.
Hernandez saw exceeding reps at running back in 2009. Starting four games — playing in 10 total — for the Minutemen, Hernandez scored eight touchdowns and rushed for 577 yards. Quickly, the redshirt sophomore was making a name for himself at the collegiate level.
The big splash for Hernandez came just last season. As a redshirt junior, Hernandez started nine games, where he accumulated 938 yards on the ground and nine touchdowns. But, it’s what Hernandez did in one of the biggest college venues in the world that has opened people’s eyes.
In mid-September, No. 20 Michigan hosted UMass in front of 110,187 fans in Ann Arbor. It was a day Hernandez will never forget.
“It was a great experience and the stadium and fans were amazing,” Hernandez said. “The atmosphere and energy was incredible.”
Hernandez appeared constantly on ESPN game updates throughout as UMass kept the score close for the duration of the game. Hernandez scored two touchdowns — both in the second quarter — and ran for 114 yards, although UMass fell 42-37.
“I had turf toe all season and it bothered me during the Michigan game,” Hernandez said. “The adrenaline took over for a bit because of the atmosphere and the energy the stadium had.”
Heading into his senior season, Hernandez is anxious and excited. Hernandez says that his main goal for the 2011 season is to stay healthy and lead UMass to a winning season.
But, what happens after his time with UMass? Will there be a future for Hernandez in the NFL?
NFLDraftScout.com currently ranks Hernandez as the No. 36 overall running back in the 2012 NFL Draft class. With the work ethic and ability to do so, there is a realistic chance that Hernandez will go under the radar — like he did in high school — and make a mark at the next level.
Just don’t tell him that.
“I’m just looking forward to the 2011 season,” Hernandez said.
Follow me on Twitter: @M_Marcantonio