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TACOMA, Wash. - It's a few months from his high school football head-coaching debut, but Hershel Dennis is out hustling.

He's running around in the cool spring-time temperatures of Washington instructing Life Christian Academy's middle-school players - all part of his new position at the small private school in south end.

His energy is contagious. His patience is unwavering.

This, he says nearing his 38th birthday in July, is what he's meant to do.

"A big part of my purpose is that I am able to relate to these student-athletes," Dennis said. "A small percentage of them will make it through (to big-time colleges). A big percentage of them will have to deal with adversity and tough times.

"They can make it ... if they have somebody mentoring them."

Dennis isn't just some former football player who is getting a late start in manning a high school sideline. He is one of the best blue-chip recruits to come out of California over the past two decades.

Before he arrived at USC in 2002, he was a near-consensus All-American performer by all the notable national publications after his eye-popping senior season at Long Beach Polytechnic High School - 1,740 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns (playing mostly the first half of games).

It came on the heels of his even-bigger numbers as a junior - 2,106 yards and 32 touchdowns, which were Moore League records.

And at USC, he joined one of the deepest running-back rooms in the country under former coach Pete Carroll - at first with Sultan McCullough and Justin Fargas, and later with Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, Lendale White, Chauncey Washington, Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson.

"When I got to college, I thought all I needed to do was work out, be a great teammates, show up on time and play good football," Dennis said. "But you have to sacrifice more than that, and raise the bar of your work ethic."

Dennis was part of one of the program's best two-year runs in history as the Trojans split the national championship with LSU as the Associated Press' top-ranked squad in 2003, then won it outright a year later in the Orange Bowl.

During a practice leading up to the BCS National Championship Game, Dennis suffered a serious left knee injury and not only missed the game against Oklahoma - he was forced to use his redshirt season the following year.

Preparing to resume his role as a starting running back as a senior in 2006, he tore ligaments again in the same knee during spring ball. He returned as a sixth-year senior a year later as a backup running back - and left as college football's all-time winningest athlete (70-8).

On NFL Draft weekend in 2007, Dennis - once considered a shoo-in - went undrafted. And it was devastating to his psyche, he said.

"That was my whole passion, and I had no doubt in my mind I was making it to the NFL - knee injuries or not," Dennis said. "When it did not happen, I was heartbroken.

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"And I was lost just trying to figure my life out."

As part of his bouncy journey, he continued on as a professional hopeful: He had a blown NFL free-agent workout with the Buffalo Bills (2008); he played one season in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the Arena League (2012); and he even dabbled in rugby, working out in a National Rugby Football League combine (2014).

Dennis got into football instruction: He started a southern California-based offseason football-training organization for local high schools (2009); he was an offensive coordinator for Snoop Dogg's 13-year-old son, Corde Broadus, in the rapper's new "Snoop Youth Football League: (2011); and he was the running backs' coach at two-year Southwestern College (2017) and St. Bernard High School (2020).

And for work, after taking on a job on the USC campus, he started his own construction brokerage company.

Last year, Dennis was contacted by Dequin Evans, his cousin and former defensive end for the Cincinnati Bengals, about a new sports-training venture opening up in Washington.

Evans invited Dennis to come up and be one of his trainers and coach a 7-on-7 football team at Tacoma/Lakewood-based Gridiron Sports and Performance.

As Dennis was taking care of his dying mother, he told his cousin he'd be there in a few months in December. And he did, packing up his car and all of his belongings to move north.

"I was ready to leave," Dennis said.

As Dennis was looking for a private school in which to enroll his four children, he attended an open house at Life Christian Academy with Evans in February. He immediately liked the infrastructure and curriculum.

Off-handedly, he asked longtime Life Christian Academy golf coach Don Gustafson if the school has a football team.

Gustafson said it did - and that the head-coaching position was open.

Dennis applied - and was hired as the program's new leader in mid-March.

"It sounds like a whole lot to take in, but I also saw it was a perfect opportunity," Dennis said.

The Eagles are in the early stages of spring ball, then will off to summer camp. They open their 2022 fall schedule Sept. 9 against Clover Park.

"Every day I wake up, I remember I am a head coach," said Dennis, flashing a smile as wide as a 120-yard football field. "And I've learned so far it's a little bit of coaching, and a lot of managing.

"I know it will be a learning experience."