North Bergen’s Fuentes surprises despite lack of size

You know the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Well, that motto could certainly be applied to North Bergen High School running back Ronald “Axel” Fuentes.
At first glance, Fuentes doesn’t appear to be a standout football player. After all, he stands only 5-foot-7 and that’s when he’s standing on a milk crate. He weighs about 175 pounds, but that’s only after indulging in a seven-course meal.
Even opposing coaches don’t take Fuentes seriously.
“When they see him at first, they say, ‘That’s your tailback?’” North Bergen head coach Czar Wiley said. “They sort of look at me funny and say that he can’t be the main running back. They see a short, little kid.”
A year ago, even Wiley had his doubts that Fuentes could become the Bruins’ main cog in the backfield.
“I have to be honest,” Wiley said. “We were looking at other guys. I thought we had other guys who were going to be the ball carriers.”
But all Fuentes needed was a chance.
“For whatever reason, he just kept doing good things,” Wiley said. “He kept jumping into the picture, getting yards left and right. I didn’t expect the results that we got from him. I think because his body is so unique and the way he runs. He’s not your typical running back.”
Fuentes made the most of his chances last season, becoming the first Bruins running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season since Mike Novembre in 1995. Even Wiley himself – the 1996-97 Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year and a great running back in his own right _ never eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark.
So expectations were high once again for Fuentes to duplicate the feat — or gain even more yards — this season.
“He’s our main guy in our offense,” Wiley said. “He’s the one who gets the offense rolling.”
However, there was an unexpected turn of events during the preseason. Fuentes suffered a severe hamstring injury that kept him on the sidelines for most of August into September.
“When I got hurt, in my head, I never knew if I was going to get better,” Fuentes said. “I tried to recover fast, but there is no fast recovery. I was going to physical therapy three days a week to get back playing.”
The Bruins opened their season Sept. 11 against Bloomfield and Fuentes thought he might be able to give it a go.
“Everything was going well with my treatments and therapy,” Fuentes said. “I wanted to start the season off well. But when it came time to play the game, I knew I wasn’t right. That was upsetting to me.”
“I always ask him how he’s feeling and he never complains,” Wiley said. “But when I asked him this time, he looked at me funny and I knew he wasn’t right.”
Fuentes tried to play on the injured leg and the results were disastrous. He managed just 10 yards on four carries before coming out of the game, which the Bruins lost, 37-6.
“I wanted to play so badly,” Fuentes said. “It was so frustrating.”
“After the third carry, there was no sense trying to force him,” Wiley said. “He wasn’t running at his full potential. We weren’t going to jeopardize the whole season. He had to get some rest, get some treatment and make sure he could play at full speed.”
The next week, the Bruins faced Columbia. This time, Fuentes felt a little better and managed to eclipse the 100-yard mark (19 carries, 110 yards), but the Bruins dropped to 0-2 with a 24-22 setback.
“Each week, I feel like I’ve been getting better,” Fuentes said. “It’s been giving me confidence.”
Two weeks ago, the Bruins got back on the winning track against St. Anthony, thanks to Fuentes, who had 192 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns.
It brings us to last week and the Bruins showdown with neighboring Memorial.
“Before the game, Coach Wiley told me that I was going to get five touchdowns,” Fuentes said. “I believed him. I said, ‘Ok, five touchdowns, no problem.’ I always believe what the coaches tell me.”
Sure enough, Fuentes lived up to his coach’s prophecy by rushing for 164 yards on 16 carries and scored five touchdowns, leading the Bruins to a 47-0 victory, evening their record at 2-2 in the process.
And for his efforts, Fuentes has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” Fuentes said. “I had the right mindset going in. I was going to come back even stronger this game than the last two. I wanted to get my game going, help the team, but I would also love to get to 1,000 yards again. I want to be remembered.”
Fuentes should forever be thought of as the kid who overachieved with not the greatest physical stature in the world.
“He’s not going to give you the 80-yard runs, but he can go for 25-to-30 yards easily,” Wiley said. “He’s been a very big part of our team for the last two years. We rely on him so much. When he’s healthy, no one can stop him. I don’t see one guy tackling him. It always takes more than one. His leg drive is amazing. His legs are huge for a small kid. He just keeps his legs driving and he’s able to get the extra yards. You can’t get lower than he gets. He drops his shoulder and takes on everyone.
Added Wiley, “I’ve never seen anyone quite like him. He’s a very unique and very spirited runner. He also gets better as the game goes on.”
Fuentes was asked if he used his lack of size and the perception that he can’t be a standout running back as an inspiration.
“People always ask me that question,” Fuentes said. “I have the mindset that it’s not about my size. It’s about my heart. I play with my heart. Every time I get the ball, I’m always thinking that it doesn’t matter the other guy is bigger than me, because he’s not going to stop me. I don’t think anyone should take me lightly because of my size. I think my legs are important. Because I’m short, I need to have strong legs. The stronger my legs are, the better I am. That’s my main focus. My legs get me going.”
Fuentes’ running style brings back memories of the 1970s All-Pro back Mack Herron of the New England Patriots, who stood all of 5-foot-5, but had 2,444 all-purpose yards rushing and kick returns in 1974.
Of course, Fuentes never heard of Herron, but he was told to check Herron out on YouTube to see if there is a resemblance _ which there is an uncanny similarity.
“Nothing ever fazes him,” Wiley said. “He’s always mellow, always smiling. He also likes to help out the other running backs. He’s just a great kid. He’s not looking for the spotlight. He just finds it.”
Fuentes would love to get a chance to play college football next year.
“I think he definitely could play somewhere in college,” Wiley said. “He would be very beneficial to a D-III [NCAA Division III] school like Montclair State or William Paterson. He’d find a way to get yards, because he’s just a tough runner.”
“If I ever get the chance to play in college, I’d love it,” Fuentes said. “That would be even more of a challenge for me and I love challenges.”
Now, about this nickname. Curiosity made one believe that it might be tied to Axel Foley of “Beverly Hills Cop” fame, but it has nothing to do with Eddie Murphy. And it has nothing to do with truck axles or car axles either.
It stems from current Bruin teammate Nathaniel Zamot, who when the two were in seventh grade, thought that Fuentes looked like pro wrestler Johnny Axel.
“Just like that, it stuck,” Fuentes said. “There was no meaning to it. Nathaniel called me Johnny Axel and that was it. I liked it. It’s more intimidating. It gives me that edge.”
So he’s now known as Axel for good. Some of the high school sports websites have listings for two North Bergen players, Ronald Fuentes and Axel Fuentes, not realizing that they are one and the same.
In this corner, he’ll always be Axel, like the truck rolling axles, the guy who resembles a fellow grid running back who got his name for being like a Mack truck. See, it all comes full circle. – Jim Hague

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