It's an overused cliché to say that a young athlete is mature beyond his or her years, but if it's going to be said about anyone, Bellingham quarterback Justin Pruett definitely is worthy.
Sure Pruett's maturity shines in his on-field play, where he's quickly adapted to first-year coach Steve Wilson, new offensive coordinator Paul Stoddard, an entirely different offensive system, an increased role in that offense and a team hungry for his leadership. Those qualities once again will be on display on Friday, Oct. 5, when the Red Raiders travel to Lynden for a Northwest Conference 2A/3A game.
But it's after the final snap and once all the stadium lights have been turned out on Friday when the 18-year-old Pruett is so mature you'd think he's an adult and not just a high school senior.
"Justin has had to grow up awfully fast," Wilson said in a phone interview. "He's really mature. When you talk to him, it's like your talking to a senior in college, not a senior in high school. His attitude and effort - there's no goofing off with him. This game means so much to him because he's had to sacrifice to play. He's paid the price to play."
Quite literally - though only a senior in high school, Pruett is financially self sufficient.
He pays for his own rent at an apartment he shares with a couple of roommates.
He pays his share of the bills.
He pays for his own meals and his own clothing.
And yes, he paid his own athletic fees at Bellingham for the right to play football.
"It's like becoming a man," Pruett said in a phone interview. "It makes you realize what's important in life - what's reality. I have to make priorities for what's important in my life."
One of those priorities, Pruett said, was not being "a burden" on his mother, so when he turned 18 last summer, he made the decision to move out on his own.
Pruett wasn't pushed out of the nest - he jumped.
"I've always been pretty independent," Pruett said. "I don't want to rely on anyone else. My mom had me at a pretty young age, and I didn't want to be a pest or a burden to her. I really needed my own space and to be my own man. ... I always know my mom's there, and I'm real close to her now. We're not on bad terms, or anything. It's kind of neat to stop in and visit her or help her out with things now. I just had to have my own space. I felt it was the best thing for me."
To make that move, Pruett obviously had to grow up in a hurry - much faster than most of us do.
Without mom to fall back on, Pruett had to learn about earning and budgeting money right away so that he could pay for the necessities of life.
While his peers were enjoying the local lakes or catching movies or even working part-time jobs over the summer, Pruett was working at least 40 hours a week at the Bornstein Seafood cannery.
"I had to work full time at the cannery and make sure I saved all the money I could," Pruett said. "I knew my situation with football. I knew there would be four, five, maybe six months that I would want to focus on football and school and I wouldn't be able to work, so I had to make sure I saved enough over the summer to support that. If anything, it made me want to work harder."
Once football is over, Pruett said he will return to work as he finishes out the rest of his senior year, which is filled with Running Start courses.
In fact, by the time Pruett graduates from Bellingham next spring, he figures he'll be only 10 hours short of his Associates degree. He said he plans to take a few classes over the summer to finish it up, and he'll be ready for college next fall.
"He's incredibly mature," Wilson said. "I had him as a sophomore in geometry, and the amount of growing he's done in the past two years is unbelievable."
In addition to his personal and school life, that growth has been seen on the field.
As a sophomore, Pruett transferred to Bellingham from Mountlake Terrace, where he lived with his father, and decided not to go out for the football team, "because they had already had a couple weeks practicing together by the time I got here," he said.
Then last year he expected to step in as the team's starter behind center, but ended up splitting time with talented all-purpose player Oliver Dougherty, who is now a freshman receiver at Simon Fraser University.
"Honestly, last year was a little bit of a struggle for me," Pruett said. "Oliver is a really good athlete, but who doesn't want to play? Coming in, I was a new player on a new team, so I just kind of had to go with the flow."
But when Wilson took over last spring, he said he knew right away that he had his quarterback in Pruett.
"There was never any question," Wilson said. "His arm strength and accuracy, it's pretty good. I think he's gotten better at reading defenses as each week progresses. ... He's really mobile, too. He made a few nifty runs against Blaine. He's pretty darned good."
Through the first five weeks of the season, Pruett is second in the NWC with 999 yards passing and 11 TDs. He's also rushed for 105 yards and two more scores.
And he keeps getting better - a result of the work ethic he learned at the cannery.
"He studies hard," Wilson said. "He spends time studying game film, and then he evaluates himself. He's the first one to blame himself if he had a bad night, and he has that willingness to get better - probably more than I've seen from any other high school-aged kid."
But for all his independence outside football, Pruett admits he wouldn't be able to accomplish anything without his teammates and a talented corps of receivers that includes Darice Haywood, Kyle Redmond and Nicholas Estrada.
"I love it to death having those guys," Pruett said. "I feel like that I would walk into war with them, because they work just as hard as I do. It's really neat as a quarterback, because the defenses have to worry about more than one key guy. ... I feel like I've got a number of all-star athletes and all I need to do is get them the ball in space and let them do the rest."
If anybody understands how that philosophy translates to life outside football, it's probably Pruett's mom, who had to let her son find his own space at an early age so that he could thrive.
"At first, I think it was tough on her and me - our relationship," Pruett said. "Now she sees that I wanted to give her her space and have my own space to live in. She knows I'm fully capable of living on my own, because she sees it now. I think inside she knows that I'm going to be fine because I'm a product of her."
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.