In the third quarter of the Central Red Devils’ quarterfinals game against Auburn, Justyn Ross couldn’t help but smile.
The Red Devils were rolling. After holding a 23-17 lead at halftime, Central started landing shots that equated to knockout punches to the reeling Tigers.
No play during this run was bigger than one by Ross, who stood behind the 3-point line on the left side of the key and fired a pass to teammate Tremere Brown, who dunked the basketball to cap a 9-0 scoring run.
As Ross ran back on defense, he grinned and mouthed a scream to the fans.
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Ross was also beaming after the victory, which landed the Red Devils a trip to Birmingham for the Class 7A semifinals Thursday. It’s been an unusual year for Ross, who’s balanced the attention of being the top football prospect in the state with doing what he wanted in his final year at Central.
Among Ross’ list of to-dos was playing basketball for Central once again, which was something he questioned before the season. Ultimately, Ross decided to give basketball one more go, which has put him and the Red Devils on the verge of an unforgettable season.
“It’s been a great run,” Ross said. “With the basketball players we have here, I wanted to come back and try to help them get to Birmingham. That was really my main goal, and we’re back now.”
This winter, Ross’ football pursuits almost ended his basketball career, but not long ago it was the other way around.
Ross has been playing basketball since he was about 4 years old. He joined the Central basketball program as a seventh grader, which gave him an early taste of what it meant to be a Red Devil.
Ross joined the Central football team as a ninth grader. The move was a difficult one, as Central football coach Jamey DuBose pulled the freshman up directly to varsity. The competitive nature of varsity along with leaving behind boys in his age group made him think twice about football.
Naturally, if football was out, basketball would be Ross’ sole objective.
“At one point, I was all basketball. I was ready to quit football my ninth-grade year,” Ross said. “I just didn’t have a love for football like I do now.”
DuBose and the other coaches convinced Ross to stay. His football highlights quickly attracted more and more eyes, but he continued to play basketball in the winter. The Red Devils played for the Class 7A championship in his sophomore year then followed that up with a quarterfinals appearance last season.
When it came to both sports, Ross’ 6-foot-4 frame made him a coveted recruit at wide receiver. That height, however, was much less advantageous when it came to college basketball. Central basketball coach Bobby Wright agreed Ross was better off pursuing a scholarship in football.
Ross’ two-sport narrative was up in the air this past fall. Now the No. 1 football prospect in Alabama, Ross led the Red Devils football team to a November playoff run. After a semifinals loss, Ross had a decision to make.
Playing basketball included the risk of injury, which could derail the start of his freshman year of college. On the other hand, this was his last chance to play with a group he’s grown up with, which also meant one last shot at his first state championship in any sport.
Ross said the college coaches recruiting him encouraged him to play basketball, which lessened the burden. Ultimately, Ross saw too many benefits to walk away from basketball his senior year.
“It was kind of back and forth, seeing if this was really what I wanted to do and leaving sometimes because I had visits (to colleges) at the beginning of the season,” Ross said. “I realized it’s a sport I love, and it’s a lot of fun.”
It was a welcome decision for Wright, the veteran coach who said he’s never had a football player leave his team in his senior year. Of course, most of those past players weren’t in the spotlight quite like Ross was.
“Most kids in his situation — who have already signed and are going to a good school — you would think they would give it up and concentrate on football,” Wright said. “I think because he wants to win a state championship and finish his career with the kids he’s played with all these years, that pumped him to play. It’s really been a big deal for us and this team.”
Despite sticking around, Ross still wound up taking a break from basketball.
He played in Central’s season opener then tweaked his left ankle about one week before the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game. He went to the football exhibition less than 100 percent, leading Central coach Bobby Wright to make a cautious decision.
Ross had an invitation to play in the Under Armour All-American game on Jan. 4. Until that time, Wright shut Ross down.
Ross still traveled with the team but sat on the bench once the games got going.
“It was tough,” Ross said. “I saw them having a lot of fun. I had to realize what I had at stake and the big opportunities I had for the season.”
Before too long, Ross was back to help Central take care of business. The Red Devils won 22 games en route to the area championship, setting up the team’s latest playoff push.
Ross isn’t the team’s top scorer – that would be Donald Jackson – or top rebounder, an accolade which often goes to Brown. Instead, Ross does a little bit of everything to keep Central in contention.
“Justyn’s vital to this team,” Wright said. “There’s no question he can be one of the best basketball players on the floor for us. His presence alone, with his athleticism, is great for this team. He’s not just a great scorer. He plays the point guard and rebounds for us. He’s our second-best rebounder we have. He leads us almost every game in assists.”
Wright is convinced Ross could have signed a Division I scholarship to play basketball had he decided to take that route. Instead, Ross’ basketball days are coming to a close as he gears up to play football at Clemson.
When Ross steps on the court against Mountain Brook on Thursday, he’ll have a chance to extend that career by one game, the Class 7A title showdown in Birmingham on Saturday night.
There was a time when Ross had his doubts about playing basketball one more year. Thanks to his dedication, he and the Red Devils are two games away from calling themselves champions.
“It’s very special,” Ross said. “I’ve been playing with these guys since I was 5 or 6 years old. It means a lot for us to get here for our senior year.
“I haven’t gotten (a championship) yet, so that’s the main goal.”