Ask Kennedy High School senior running back Damian Veloz what his No. 1 goal is this season and he'll answer as quickly as he slips past would-be tacklers on the football field.
"I want us to make the playoffs," he said at a workout this week. "That's the big cheese right there."
Veloz has been the big cheese for the Rockets' offense this season, rushing for 369 yards and six touchdowns to help Kennedy jump out to a 2-0 start. Averaging nearly six yards a carry, Veloz has picked up where he left off last year.
Veloz missed all but one quarter of his sophomore season with a knee injury that required surgery, but he bounced back last year with 943 yards and 15 TDs. He was at his best in the Rockets' 28-26 overtime victory against Jefferson last week, rushing 39 times for 257 yards and two TDs and scoring another TD on a 34-yard reception.
After Jefferson went ahead 26-20 on its first possession in OT, Veloz lifted Kennedy to the win by scoring a two-point conversion after he tied the game with a 1-yard run.
It was just another day at the office for Veloz, who is deceptively strong for a guy who is just 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds.
"He's a little stick of dynamite," Kennedy head coach Richard Cerda said. "He's built very well. he works really, really hard in the weight room. One of the reasons he's doing so well is because he had a strong offseason. He was committed during the summer as well."
Rockets have improved steadily during Cerda's watch
Kennedy plays at Pearsall (2-1) on Friday night in its last tuneup before hosting Uvalde in its District 29-4A opener next week.
The Rockets made the playoffs in 2009, but have just missed qualifying each of the past two seasons. Kennedy jumped out to a 6-0 start in 2010 -- its best record since 1972 after six games -- but finished out of the money after going 1-3 the rest of the season.
Last year's team went 6-4 overall and finished fifth in 29-4A with a 3-4 record.
Cerda, in his eighth season as the Rockets' head coach and 15th on the Kennedy staff, expressed confidence this year's squad will break through.
"This is a special group of kids," he said. "They've worked very hard."
Cerda has been credited for changing the culture at Kennedy, which has made the playoffs only four times since opening in 1963.
"It's taken a lot of bumps and bruises," said Cerda, a 1989 Edgewood graduate. "We've had to overcome a lot of obstacles. We've had to change the mindset, not only within our kids but within our community as well. One of my biggest goals taking over as head coach was to tell these kids that there are things we can achieve if we work hard.
"Now we don't have a choice but to win. That's our motto. We don't speak about anything but winning. It's taken us a long way. One of the things I preach and my staff preaches is that losing is not an option. The only thing we're going to come out and do Monday through Thursday is prepare for a victory on Friday. And that's it."
Cerda: Veloz 'a very elusive runner'
Veloz embodies that mindset on and off the field with his commitment to excel. Driven by his desire to help Kennedy return to the playoffs, Veloz holds his teammates and himself to a high standard.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Veloz said. "We can be better. It's simple things that can be fixed. We get those simple things fixed, we'll be all right. The offensive line is one of the biggest things. We've got to get to our blocks. We've got to keep moving our feet. Getting to where we need to be just to make a certain play work."
Veloz usually make plays work with his quickness and ability to evade defenders.
"He's a very elusive runner," Cerda said. "He's one of those runners who is very shifty. It's hard to get a good hit on him. He gives us great second effort. That's where a lot of his yards come from. There have been situations where he has two tacklers in front of him, and he makes a little move and the next thing you know, he's behind those tacklers.
"He can make people miss. Last year, he broke a 70-yard touchdown run. When we were watching the game film, I kid you not, the way he ran the ball on that play reminded me of Emmitt Smith. He runs with his hand open, slouched over. It was very satisfying to see him run like that."
There may have been some who wondered if Veloz would lose a step after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the first quarter of Kennedy's season opener against Crystal City two years ago.
"It was tough just to get back in the swing of things after I had my surgery, but I knew I had to work hard," Veloz said. "A big part of my success last year was my team. My line did a great job. I just needed to trust my instincts and play hard. I came through. I was just shy of 1,000, but I was up there."
Veloz takes pride in representing Kennedy, community
Senior center John Rodriguez and senior guard Fred Carrasco, the only returning starters on the offensive line, have led the way for Veloz.
Veloz grew up wanting to be a Rocket after watching his cousin, Frank Ybarra, play linebacker at Kennedy in the early 2000s.
"Seeing him play and wear the green and white, that's all I wanted to do when I got to middle school," Veloz said. "That's what I strived for. I'd lift weights during the summer. It was all about playing for Kennedy.
"My cousin was my role model and still is. He buys my football cleats and anything else I may need."
Veloz said he relishes the opportunity to represent his school and community every time he steps on the field.
"Friday nights are about having fun, first and foremost," Veloz said. "Second, getting that win. To me, I try to play for my school first. And second, where I'm coming from. We've got to represent where we're coming from because people have us down there just because we're from the Edgewood district. It gives me reason to play."
Veloz said he is considering a career in the military after he graduates.