It was Week 2 of the football season and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s was playing powerhouse Toledo Whitmer.
St. Mary’s was clinging to a 10-3 lead late in the game and Whitmer was making a last-gasp drive down the field when the quarterback went back to pass and St. Mary’s linebacker Josh Ross thought he recognized the play.
“The thing was, I knew they were running that play,” Ross said. “They ran it like five times and I knew they were running the wheel route.”
As the play began to develop Ross made his move.
“I dropped back and the running back came out on the same route,” he said. “So I went underneath him and caught the pick and ran out of bounds. I should have run to score, but I felt the game was over and we could take a knee.”
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The amazing thing about Ross’ play is that it the Whitmer game was in Week 2 of the 2013 season when Ross was only a 13-year-old freshman starting for the Eaglets.
Long-time St. Mary’s coach George Porritt can only remember a couple of other freshmen who started as freshmen, but only Ross earned a starting spot for Week One.
The play against Whitmer confirmed Porritt’s faith in Ross at such a young age.
“He dropped back and the next thing you know he takes off and picks the ball off as a freshman,” Porritt said, shaking his head. “I was going: ‘Holy Cow!’ It was against a really strong, physical team.”
Ross has always been a strong, physical player himself, even when he was a freshman.
“My mindset that whole year was I don’t have anything to lose,” Ross said. “If I make a bad play, I’m a freshman. Just go as hard as I can and see how everything plays out.”
It has played out to the point that Ross is trying to lead St. Mary’s to its third consecutive Division 3 state championship heading into Friday’s 7 p.m. regional final at DeWitt.
Porritt was surprised that Ross could earn a starting spot as a freshman, but when you think about it, it should not have come as a surprise. After all, Porritt was used to having a player named Ross leading the Eaglets defense.
Ross is the younger brother of James Ross, a two-time Free Press Dream Team all-stater who played in 50 games at Michigan, starting 21 times and was with San Diego in training camp before being cut.
Like his older brother, Ross has committed to U-M.
“They’re five years apart and I thought that was going to be a good thing and it wasn’t for me,” said Shantel Ross, their mother. “Joshua, part of who he is, always strives to be better than his brother and it took him a long time to realize five years was a big age gap. The things that the oldest son can do, you can’t necessarily do yet because you’re five years younger and it took him awhile to really internalize that.”
Ross grew up following in his brother’s footsteps and it all began with hockey when his father, James, enrolled him in a learn to skate class, just as he had done with his older son.
“My brother played hockey and he was a lot more physical on the ice,” Ross said. “He used to be knocking people out on the ice _ it was ridiculous. I had a couple of knockouts, but I don’t think I had as many as him.”
He may have wanted to knock out his older brother for some of the things he went through as a youngster before he began catching up in heights and weight.
“We had some pretty bad stories,” James said, laughing. “It was kind of fun when I was younger. I did some things to him that weren’t too good. He’s gotten too big to do the things I used to do then.”
The worst may have taken place in the middle of the night when Ross had sleep-walking issues.
“He’d wake up and walk around, not knowing where he was,” James said. “So I’d lead him outside in the complete dark. I’d lead him into some bushes. It was some of the funniest stuff in the world.”
Ross laughs about those times now, but it didn’t seem funny at the time.
“I’ll tell you this, my brother made me cry every day, just messing me when I was younger _ beating me up, teasing me, whatever you call it,” he said. “It was pretty funny.”
One incident both of them remember is when Ross was in the seventh grade and James was a senior at St. Mary’s. Push led shove between them and all of a sudden Ross went flying over the couch.
“He was getting a little bit older and kind of thought that he could beat me,” James said. “I kind of had to show him he was nowhere near that. I gave him a little extra hip toss over the couch and after that moment right there he didn’t want any part of me.”
The thing is, Ross desperately wanted a part of his older brother. He wanted to share in his success on the football field and find a way for himself to experience the same thing.
“I definitely learned a lot from him,” Ross said. “When I was younger I saw all the things he did and all the things he had to go through and it definitely taught me a lot of things. I’m glad to have him.”
He may not have been so glad about six year ago when his little league football practice was cancelled on an extremely hot day. James told him to come to the field with him and do some extra drills.
“He was telling me no,” James recalled. “I said: ‘I’m going to ask you one more time. If you say no, I’m not going to speak to you for a very long time.’ He said no and I was really upset. I didn’t speak to him for about a month. It really affected him to the point that whenever I asked him to do something he did whatever.”
James often used the drills he learned at U-M with his brother, who became a willing participant.
“He said yes every single time,” James said. “It was probably that moment right there when he finally bought in to everything that I would be able to bring to him as far as teaching him stuff.”
One way or another, Ross was going to buy in to what his brother was selling. The truth is, for as long as he can remember, Ross idolized James.
“Looking at my brother when he was younger I thought nobody could beat him, he was invincible,” Ross said. “Now I’m getting as big as him. I learned how hard he worked and how good a player he was.”
The five year gap may not have been a good thing for Shantel when the boys were growing up, but it has been a blessing in recent years. In James, who family nickname is Biggs, Shantel has another person keeping Ross on the straight and narrow.
“To be very honest with you, Biggs is like a second father to Joshua,” she said. “If Joshua does something wrong and Biggs finds out about it, he’s on him like he’s his father. They do have an open relationship whereas if Joshua can’t come to me or his dad, he’ll go to Biggs, but he will get the right advice from Biggs. Biggs has never mislead him. Biggs has always been in his ear.”
He has been in his ear with sound advice and how to avoid pitfalls that can derail a promising athletic career.
Over the years the relationship has evolved. Ross is no longer viewed as the irritating little brother and James is not the unapproachable big brother.
“We’ve bonded more and are closer now that he’s older,” James said. “It’s kind of tough when he was five years younger, to really have a relationship like friends. Now that he’s older we can sit down and talk about things. I can talk to him about football in ways I’d never been able to talk with him before. We’re breaking down film together.”
Breaking down film with big brother may be one of the reasons Ross was ready to start at St. Mary’s as a freshman and able to recognize when a team was running a play he had seen before.
And it may play a part in Ross’ opportunity to do something even big brother didn’t _ win three straight state championships.
“It would mean the world,” Ross said. “Our school has never three-peated ever so we’d be making history here. Our whole school is behind us and we’re ready to perform.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.