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.
Josh Merwin/US PRESSWIRE
Cornerback Aaron Ross, who led Texas with six interceptions last season, is also a fine punt returner. He returned three punts for TDs at UT.
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."
Erich Schlegel for ESPN.com
Ross and Richards balance their relationship and sports careers. "The No. 1 thing is that we always talk things over," she says.
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."
[FONT=Helvetica]Projected as first-round pick[/FONT]
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.
Scouting report: Aaron Ross Strengths:
Has fluid hips, shows a second gear when tracking the ball and can turn and run with receivers vertically.
Lacks ideal upper-body strength, hasn't shown the ability to consistently slow receivers down at the line of scrimmage and frequently gives receivers a big cushion.
• Complete scouting report
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."