RIVERBANK -- German Fernandez walks the halls of Riverbank High School with a group of schoolmates. He wears a beanie, hiding his tousled hair. He's as anonymous as anybody, just another face in the crowd.
But the 5-foot-9-inch, 155-pound Riverbank High senior receives rock star treatment at cross country meets. He's the best cross country runner in Stanislaus District history and the fastest runner in the country this fall.
In a sport often decided by a few seconds, he routinely has won races by more than a minute.
He signs autographs on dollar bills, has a Wikipedia entry and is the topic of debate on running Web sites across the nation. German is being heavily recruited, and Riverbank cross country coach Bruce Edwards says he'll be able to go "almost anywhere." Thousands of fans waited until the final race of the day to see the teen win a state title Nov. 24 in Fresno by a margin of 49 seconds.
Fans will line the course again Saturday, when German runs in the Foot Locker National High School Cross Country Championships at Balboa Park in San Diego.
"What German's done this year is nothing short of amazing," Edwards says. "We kind of expected him to have a great year, so it isn't a surprise. But it's still amazing."
German has shattered course records -- cross country races generally cover 5 kilometers on a dirt path -- this fall. On
Nov. 24, he broke the 21-year-old mark at the California Interscholastic Federation state meet by
14 seconds. The record was held by Olympian Marc Davis. German won his second state title in his third season of cross country competition. And he became the first Stanislaus District athlete to win the Foot Locker West Regional championship at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, a race that featured some of the top runners in the West among the field of 211. German beat Luke Puskedra of Utah by
15 seconds. The two are considered the top two runners in the nation.
But there's more to German than his running ability.
He's a merry prankster who is adept at hiding friends' cell phones and car keys. He's a fiery competitor who, when playing "horse" with friends in his driveway, adds letters and extends the game until he wins. And sometimes, he's a painfully shy teenager who won't wear a shirt given to him by his girlfriend because he feels it makes him look too confident.
The practical joker
Jokes and tricks come easily for German and his friends.
Junior teammate Chris Nunez remembers the Trans-Valley League championships at Legion Park in Modesto in October. German cruised to a victory in course-record time -- after stopping to tie his shoe midrace. Later, German, Chris and the rest of the team were waiting for the post-race awards ceremony.
"Everybody was there, and German pantsed me," Chris says. "Everybody laughed, although I didn't think it was too funny."
German took off, teammates in hot pursuit.
"Then he just runs away," sen-ior teammate Octavio Vigil says. "He knows we can't catch him."
Everybody on Riverbank's team has to know where their keys and cell phones are at all times.
"If they're laying around, he's going to grab them," Chris says. "When something's missing, just look at German. If he's got that smirk, I know he's done something with them."
He liked all sports
German and his family lived in and around Watsonville when he was a child. The family moved several times. He at- tended 10 schools before the sixth grade.
"When I was young, I was pretty shy," German says. "But I got pretty good at making friends."
The family settled in Riverbank when he was 11.
"In Watsonville, I remember starting in the second grade, then moving back to first grade, then doing second grade all over again," says German, 17. "I was happy when we got to Riverbank. I didn't want to move any more."
He met Chris and Octavio and made other friends.
"We'd play football, baseball, basketball, just about anything," Octavio says. "He's a pretty fierce competitor in everything."
German won the first competitive race he ran, the mile, when he was in fifth grade. He played several other sports -- espe- cially soccer -- but every time he ran, he won.
That competitive spirit extended into high school, where he was immediately good on the track as well as the cross country trails. He won a Division IV state cross country title his sophomore year.
German battled injuries last year. First came a torn meniscus in his knee sustained while playing basketball. Shin splints followed. He still placed second in the Division IV state cross country race. He was third in the state track and field meet in the 3,200-meter run in the spring.
"He had those finishes with almost no training," Edwards says. "It was pretty much a lost year."
German has been healthy this season, and course records have fallen. Even with a strained calf muscle that has limited his training this week, German enters Saturday's national championships with the top 5-kilometer time in the nation.
The only Stanislaus District athlete to compete at the same level in high school over the past 20 years is Downey High's Suzy Powell, whose discus throw of 188 feet, 4 inches in 1994 remains the national high school record. Powell drew large crowds when she threw, just like German at a race.
Sierra High cross country coach Lisa Shrock was a finish-line judge when German won his state title in November.
"I saw a group of kids from Bellarmine (in San Jose) who stayed around to watch him run," Shrock said. "When he crossed the finish line, they were saying they'd just witnessed history."
German is the best Shrock has seen.
"In my era -- I've been here for 15 years -- I've never seen a kid so talented," she said. "Then you talk to him, and he's so unassuming and humble. He's a really nice kid."
Shrock uses German as a training tool for her runners.
"All his mechanics are there. He's such a smooth runner," she said. "You point to him and tell your kids, 'This is how you want to look when you run.' "
His popularity has grown
German has been swamped by admirers at his last three races. Two runners asked him to sign their shoes after he won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Masters Meet in Folsom. He won the race in a course-record 15:03, then sprinted back onto the trail to cheer on his teammates to a team title. He has signed countless autographs at races over the last month. Several runners have posed with him for pictures. Someone has even created a German Fernandez entry on Wikipedia, a Web site similar to a self-edited encyclopedia.
But the attention sometimes weighs heavy on German, who can get a little shy beyond his friends' company.
"Once, I made him a 'Stop German' shirt," says his girlfriend of two years, Georgina Arnold.
It's a reference to the "Stop Pre" shirts made during the heyday of runner Steve Prefontaine, considered one of the top runners in the nation's history. At one point, Prefontaine held every U.S. record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.
"He didn't want to wear it because he didn't want people to think he was comparing himself to Prefontaine," Georgina says. "He's a friendly guy who's nice to everyone and just thought that shirt sent the wrong message."
German has seen his MySpace account flooded with new friends as well.
"Runners from all over the place write to him," Georgina says. "He gets like hundreds of notes a week. And he writes every one of them back. It's crazy. It's like he answers all his fan mail."
He's also well-known in Riverbank, but maybe not on the same level.
"He'll win a big race, and our teachers will be like, 'German won another race,' " Chris Nunez says. "We say, 'It's a course record, it's a state title.'
"It's such a huge deal."
Bee staff writer Will DeBoard can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.