Track star girlfriend pushes Texas' Ross

AUSTIN, Texas -- Former Texas Longhorns cornerback Aaron Ross might have an extra edge among NFL draft hopefuls. He gets to train with a world-class athlete whose Olympic gold medal reminds Ross that hard workouts produce shining moments.

Sanya Richards, the world's top-ranked 400-meter runner, also happens to be Ross' girlfriend of 3½ years. She has helped position Ross, the 2006 Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back, as a projected first-round pick in the NFL draft April 28.

When Ross first glimpsed Richards at the Texas Relays, he had no idea of her achievements. The attraction began with the most basic of instincts.

"I saw her," he said, a grin widening across his face, "and I really liked how she looked."

But their rapport deepened, the relationship bloomed, and he has been keeping up with her ever since. Well, maybe not every step of the way.

Their 20-minute runs and weight-lifting sessions have given them time together in their fast-paced lives and have helped prepare Ross for the NFL. Her influence spread from the track to the dining table; Richards said Ross will pass up a steak to follow her lead of grilled chicken and steamed veggies.

She really puts him to the test, however, when he joins her in one of her track workouts.

"Sometimes, it's maybe 10 200s," Richards said of her sprint series. "He'll do as many as he can."

Not that other support systems didn't kick in for Ross. A loving family and high school sports success boosted his chances at Texas, where Ross helped lead the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship.

"They were made for each other," Ross' mother, Cheryl, said of her son and Richards. "They're so close. They encourage one another. They remind each other that good things come to those who wait."

Waiting forced Ross, 24, to do some soul-searching between his high school and college careers. But he made crucial strides after a setback that would have demoralized many promising young football players.

After he signed a letter of intent in February 2001 to attend Texas the following fall, a high school transcript mix-up forced him to wait two years to become a Longhorn. The missing credit involved a ninth-grade course that was not offered every term. A paper chase ensued. Ross had split his high school years between San Antonio, his birthplace, and Tyler, Texas. The transcript resolution was so protracted that Ross stayed in Tyler and worked odd jobs before eventually retaking the class in question with high school freshmen and sophomores.

He felt out of place and frustrated while waiting to get to UT. But writing poetry helped Ross cope with his emotions. As a high school junior, he had discovered the art of putting rhyme to words when adversity overwhelmed him. His mother, a San Antonio resident, said her son found solace in writing poetry because it instilled patience. And it was a poem that first allowed him to tell his mom how much she meant to him.

"I'm not good with words," Ross said, "but I speak from the heart."

He said he's now grateful for having sat out the two years because he continued to work out and gain maturity.

"The most impressive thing about Aaron is that he has a great heart and he wants to do what's right," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "He's been so passionate about trying to do what's right to be successful. He's not sensitive. He doesn't get his feelings hurt easily when you try to coach him."

Ross, named Longhorns captain his senior season, won over teammates, coaches and others with his attitude.

"He's so patient," said Richards, who last season broke Valerie Brisco's 22-year-old American record in the 400 (48.83 seconds) with a time of 48.70. "He had to sit out two years and then as a second-string player at Texas, he always had a smile on his face.

"He'll always be a trouper."

Projected as first-round pick

Ross and Richards fed off each others' insights to post career years in 2006. Although both said they look forward to the draft, they expect the day to be suspenseful.

Ross is one of four cornerbacks projected to go in the first round in the latest mock draft by ESPN.com draft analyst Todd McShay. The others are Michigan's Leon Hall, Pittsburgh's Darrelle Revis and Arkansas' Chris Houston. Ross' teammate, safety Michael Griffin, is also projected to go in the first round by McShay.

The 6-foot-½, 197-pound Ross led Texas last season with six interceptions, and his 80 tackles ranked third on the team. His position coach, Texas co-defensive coordinator Duane Akina, said it shortchanges Ross to call him merely a cover cornerback.

"We talk about that like it's an insult," Akina said. "He's very much an excellent cover cornerback, but he's also a very tough and physical player. He's very unselfish."

Said Ross: "I feel like I'm one of the best defensive backs. I hope the [NFL] coaches see the same thing. [But] you don't know until the phone rings."

That's why he and Richards, 22, have left little to chance.

"We always watch film together and pick out things we see," said Richards, who was born in Jamaica and became a U.S. citizen in 2002. "The No. 1 thing is that we always talk things over."

Richards finished 2006 ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400 by Track & Field News. She went undefeated at that distance and posted the four fastest times in the world. Track & Field News named her the Woman Athlete of the Year, as did the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Ross, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at the combine in February, and Richards said they have never officially raced each other. They vary their running and weight training based on where they are in their respective seasons. Richards, who graduated from Texas last year, lives in Austin and trains three or four days a week in Waco, about a 90-minute drive north.

Despite having speed in common, Ross and Richards aren't taking the fast track to the altar. Patience has factored into their life plan. Both now focus on what they want to achieve in their respective sports.

Richards said they plan to get married in 2009, after she competes in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she could be the face of Team USA. Ross was practicing with the Longhorns and couldn't attend the 2004 Games in Athens, where Richards helped Team USA win a gold medal in the 4x400 relay.

"Man, the 400 is a beast," said Ross, who ran the 100 and 200 in high school.

But as is sometimes customary with two-career couples, Ross and Richards will be together only in spirit April 28. He expects to be surrounded by family and teammates in Austin during the draft while she is competing in the Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

Richards said she expects to receive Ross' draft news by text message. Perhaps he will send word in a poem.

Ross read one of his poems when he accepted the Thorpe Award. It honored those he loved. In one of the couplets devoted to Richards, Ross acknowledged how much of a game-breaker she was in his development:

"Before the season we vowed to be our best
and with you at my side it was hard to be anything less."

Cathy Harasta is a freelance writer based in Dallas. She may be reached at jcrasta@aol.com.