In 1987, Elyria Catholic coach Fred Schmitz assigned the number 44 to junior running back Corey Hodge.
It is a hallowed number in the Panthers’ program, worn by the likes of Al McKinney and Bryan Thomas … both among the top names in Elyria Catholic football history. Heading into this season, Hodge was the last junior running back bestowed the honor of wearing it.
That changed this summer.
After watching Justin Rankin fall just shy of the 1,000-yard rushing plateau as a sophomore last season, Panthers coach Mike Polevacik knew what his running back could provide on the field.
However, after watching his development as a team leader, Polevacik decided Rankin had set the kind of example he wanted the rest of the Panthers to follow. He decided the traditional honor of wearing 44 was something Rankin had earned.
“I know what 44 means here and how big a deal it is, so I don’t take it lightly when I assign that number,” Polevacik said. “Justin earned it. He made a big commitment to this team during the offseason and made that step into a true team leader.
“I saw the maturation of him as a young man and his commitment to this program. I knew he had the ability to wear that number, and the reason to give it to him this year when he was a junior was because of his hard work in the offseason.”
Polevacik isn’t alone. McKinney, who won a pair of state championships at Elyria Catholic in 1983 and ’84, walked the same path as Rankin 30 years ago. An Oberlin resident like Rankin, McKinney found his way to the EC campus.
He saw something special in Rankin when he watched him run the ball as a freshman.
“I was at the opening game against Clearview two years ago and was very impressed with his speed and cutting ability as a freshman,” McKinney said. “I remember telling him that a bright future is on the horizon, and it’s great to know that has come to fruition.”
Rankin burst onto the scene in that Clearview game. He carried the ball just three times, but picked up 124 rushing yards.
He hasn’t slowed down since.
His statistics this season are eye-popping. In three games, Rankin has carried the ball 54 times for 425 yards and four touchdowns. He has caught seven passes for 74 yards, returned two punts for a 23.0 yards-per-return and one touchdown and five kickoffs for a 47.6 yard average and two touchdowns.
Rankin leads the Panthers with 261 all-purpose yards per game and in scoring with 44 points (seven touchdowns and one 2-point conversion).
One thing about those numbers is worth noting: Rankin really doesn’t care about them.
“I don’t have any specific personal goals,” he said. “I’d like to break 1,000 yards because last year I was really close. I think I fell about 20 yards short. So I would like to break 1,000, but if I don’t it really doesn’t matter to me as long as we win. I want to do what’s best for the team, that’s what’s important.”
Even after such a solid sophomore year, Rankin was surprised when Polevacik handed out the uniform numbers this season.
“They usually don’t give (44) to juniors and I really didn’t expect to get it my junior year,” he said. “When he gave it to me I felt really honored. It really meant something to me that he would give it to me as a junior. It had a big effect on me and I was really emotional that day.”
It’s not surprising Rankin did not expect to be honored with the historic number. Its meaning runs deep within the Panthers’ program and through the years it has come to represent more than just a talented player.
“The number 44 represents the entire organization,” McKinney said. “It is the embodiment of teamwork, trust and belief amongst one another, and an unrelenting desire to perform at the optimal level.”
These are the things that brought Rankin to Elyria Catholic in the first place. After junior high school in Oberlin he was thinking about leaving his home district to play elsewhere. Elyria Catholic wasn’t even on his mind.
“I had never even really heard of Elyria Catholic,” Rankin said. “I’m from Oberlin and was originally looking at going to St. Ed’s. Then I came to a camp here and shadowed Jamal Williams, one of my buddies from Oberlin, and I loved it here.
“It’s such a great atmosphere here … like you have a second family.”
Polevacik is happy Rankin decided to become a Panther.
“Justin is a high-character kid, especially regarding his commitment to his teammates,” he said. “Justin is exactly the kind of kid we want here at Elyria Catholic.”
After earning his varsity stripes as a freshman and sophomore, and earning the honor of wearing 44 as a junior, Polevacik thinks Rankin will be earning bigger and better things in the near future.
“He already has offers from a couple of MAC schools — Toledo and Buffalo,” he said. “I think his ceiling is bigger than that, and if he turns out another year like he’s having this year I think he will get a lot of attention. He gained 20 pounds of muscle during the offseason and got faster. His upside is unlimited.”