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White lightning

Two middle-schoolers stood in a backyard in Cypress, Texas, five years ago. Chris Lathrop and his family had recently moved to town, and Lathrop had invited one of his new friends to the house. The kid couldn't stop staring at the Lathrops' jungle gym. Finally, the kid moved. The little bundle of fast-twitch fibers sprinted toward a support post that ran from the jungle gym into the ground. He ran up the post, flipped backward and landed on his feet.

"That's when I knew he was a freak," Lathrop said.

The world beyond suburban Houston wouldn't discover the freakishness of Sam McGuffie until four years later, when "The Hurdle" hit YouTube. If you aren't one of the millions who have already watched The Hurdle, check it out here. We'll wait, because you'll probably want to watch it more than once.

You probably had three questions after watching McGuffie, then a junior at Cy-Fair High, leap over a helpless Cy-Creek defensive back and coast to the end zone.

Question No. 1: Did he really do that?Question No. 2: Where is that guy playing college ball?Question No. 3: That was a white boy?

McGuffie has dealt with those questions since that 20-yard touchdown -- one of eight touchdowns he scored during that 2006 game -- made him the YouTube legend of the recruiting Class of 2008. McGuffie -- whose expanded exploits can be seen in this "McGuffie Mixtape" -- inherited the title from Noel Devine, whose jaw-dropping highlight video made him famous long before he ever carried the ball at West Virginia. Despite all the times McGuffie heard those three questions before the moment he emerged from a prolonged seclusion on National Signing Day to send his Letter of Intent to Michigan, the first was the easiest to answer.

"Everybody talks about the hurdle, the hurdle, the hurdle," McGuffie said. "I don't know what I'm supposed to say. I hurdled the dude, and that's about it. I don't have a mindset to hurdle somebody. I just jumped over him because on that play, you didn't feel like going right or left."

McGuffie will explain the answers to the second and third questions soon enough, but first, it's important to understand how he evolved into a 6-foot, 190-pound streak of lightning who can bench press 355 pounds, tightrope the sideline and flip over 6-7, blue-chip offensive linemen without dropping the football. His genes help. When coach John Basel met a young McGuffie in the late '90s, Basel knew just by watching McGuffie run that he'd stumbled upon a superior athlete. Basel also noticed something else.

"He could walk on his hands from day one," Basel said.

Basel isn't a football coach. He has owned Basel's All-Star Gymnastics and Cheer Academy in Spring, Texas, since 1992. McGuffie honed his handstands, flips and tumbling in Basel's beginning boys' gymnastics program for a short time before McGuffie's family moved to Cypress. Basel believes if McGuffie had stuck with gymnastics, he might have made a college team. That said, Basel isn't heartbroken McGuffie took the strength and agility he learned in gymnastics to the gridiron.

"I'm glad he's doing football. He could end up making some money at football," Basel said. "You just don't make any money at gymnastics, so I'm kind of happy for him."

When he began playing football at Cy-Fair, McGuffie took every practice handoff to the end zone. Most coaches encourage that sort of thing, but usually only on plays that begin in opposing territory. Even when the Bobcats lined up at their own 1-yard line, McGuffie would sprint 99 yards. Finally, Cy-Fair coach Ed Pustejovsky told McGuffie to limit his yards after the play. McGuffie complied -- sort of.

"Our team would run a million plays in practice," said Lathrop, a Cy-Fair offensive lineman who signed with Texas A&M. "Sam runs about 60 yards every play -- against no one. He just runs."

Outside practice, McGuffie didn't stop training. During sleepovers at Lathrop's house, he would ask Lathrop if he wanted to "run curbs." I want to sleep, Lathrop would say, but McGuffie would head outside and sprint along the curbs, trying to keep his feet from hitting the street or the shoulder. Compared to sprinting on a curb, staying in bounds while running at top speed was easy.

The Texas colleges began recruiting McGuffie after his sophomore season. Most of the nation's elite schools followed. After gaining 1,711 yards and scoring 24 touchdowns while playing most of his senior season on a sprained ankle, McGuffie went to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, where his fellow blue-chippers learned firsthand what he could do. R.J. Washington, an Oklahoma-bound defensive end from Keller, Texas, who watched McGuffie somersault over him during practice one day, remembers trying to tackle McGuffie:

"I was trying to chase him down. We were still in the backfield. I reached up to grab him. He planted and cut the other way and started running up the sideline. I was like, 'What? What? How did that happen?' ... There's a lot of people that are fast, and there's a lot of people that are quick. He's fast and quick."

Still, any discussion of McGuffie's abilities begins and ends with The Hurdle, which was the most famous of the 43 touchdowns McGuffie scored in 2006.

"I moved up to the linebackers, and all of a sudden I just hear it just get quiet," said Lathrop, who played left guard when McGuffie made The Hurdle. "Then you just heard, 'Yeaaahhh!' I thought, 'Oh my God. What just happened?' I look up and I see Sam running into the end zone. The [Cy-Creek defender] is just waving his hands like, 'Aw man.' "

Meanwhile, college coaches waved scholarship offers at McGuffie.

A Houston television station broadcast McGuffie's commitment to Michigan last July. Unlike many Texas high school players, McGuffie never dreamed of becoming a Longhorn or an Aggie.

"It depends who you are," McGuffie said. "If you're a guy who likes fishing and hunting and you're a big, home-grown Texas boy, then you can't imagine yourself anywhere else but Texas. But if you're one of those guys who is into new experiences and seeing the world and seeing different things and experiencing a whole new life ... I just want to see all the most beautiful places."

One day, McGuffie said, he wants to travel to Rome and see the Coliseum. He decided last year that the Big House in Ann Arbor would make an adequate substitute. But in November, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season. Though McGuffie liked Carr's replacement, Rich Rodriguez, a slight pang of doubt crept into McGuffie's mind.

McGuffie had always liked Cal coach Jeff Tedford and the Bears' high-octane offense. McGuffie decided to visit Berkeley the weekend before Signing Day. For a guy who wants to see the world's most beautiful places, a trip to the Bay Area can leave a distinct impression. Suddenly, McGuffie faced a dilemma. The following Monday, McGuffie and Lathrop joined several other Houston-area players for a photo shoot at the Houston Chronicle. McGuffie told Lathrop he was struggling with the decision. "I had a feeling something crazy was going to happen on Signing Day," Lathrop said.

The coaching staff and parents at Cy-Fair threw a grand party for their college-bound athletes that Wednesday. Each player had his own cake. Lathrop's featured a Texas A&M logo. Wesley Cobb, McGuffie's backfield mate, had an Air Force Academy cake. McGuffie's cake was black and white, with a blank spot reserved for either a Michigan or a Cal logo. There was only one problem. McGuffie wasn't there.

Friends' and coaches' calls went to voicemail. Lathrop's mother knocked on McGuffie's door, but no one answered. Inside, McGuffie huddled with his mother and father and tried to choose a school. Part of the deal, McGuffie said, was that his mother, father, brother and sister would move with him wherever he went to school. There was nothing keeping the family in Cypress, he said, so he wanted them to come along. McGuffie loved Cal and Tedford, but he also understood certain financial realities. According to Yahoo! Real Estate, the average home for sale in Berkeley this week costs $629,000. The average price in Ann Arbor is $228,500.

McGuffie finally took one of Lathrop's calls. "He said, 'My head wants me to go one way. My heart wants me to go the other,' " Lathrop said. That afternoon, McGuffie emerged. He signed his Letter of Intent that evening and faxed it to Michigan. His family will join him in Ann Arbor, he said.

"If I'm going to be freezing," McGuffie said, "I might as well freeze with my family."

So McGuffie will go to college in the same state where a young Marshall Mathers honed his craft. Don't recognize the name? Professionally, Mathers goes by Eminem, which is what McGuffie's U.S. Army All-American Bowl teammates nicknamed him in January. The comparison is apt. When he emerged from Detroit, Eminem was the rarest of commodities, a white rapper. McGuffie, a white guy who may become a feature back at a BCS-conference power, is not quite as rare, but there aren't many like him.

Admit it, you couldn't help but notice the color of McGuffie's skin when you watched the YouTube clip. That doesn't make you a racist. It's just not something you're accustomed to seeing. Of the top 100 rushers in 2007, only 13 were white. Of those, eight were quarterbacks. Of the five running backs, only two (LSU's Jacob Hester and Kansas' Jake Sharp) played at BCS-conference schools.

But football is the ultimate meritocracy. After Warren Moon, Doug Williams and other trailblazers rose above the overt and covert racism that once helped determine who played quarterback, most on-field positions at every level of the sport have gone to the best player. That's why the coaches recruiting McGuffie didn't dare mention a position switch. They believe he can play tailback.

Still, McGuffie gets the white-boy question all the time. He answers it as matter-of-factly as he does questions about The Hurdle.

"People are going to look at you how they look at you. I can't change how I'm going to be," he said. "I'm just going to train as hard as I can to be better than the black guy, white guy, green guy, orange guy. You just have to be best at what you can control. I can't control how white I'm going to be. I'm just going to be me."

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