Stars to Shine for Shrine Benefit

Times Staff Writer

'I'm pumped up for this game. Inside I want it. . . . I want a sack. I want this, I want that. I want a scholarship.'

Mauricio Gutierrez, Shrine All-Star gridder

For most of the 56 high school players competing in Saturday's 34th Shrine All-Star Football Classic at East Los Angeles College, it is the last hurrah before reporting to college training camp. With a college scholarship in hand, these players can relax and enjoy their last high school football game.

But for a few who have not secured a scholarship, like Gardena High's Mauricio Gutierrez, the Shrine Classic represents more than a game--it's their last chance to impress a college recruiter.

Gutierrez will be fighting for more than just a victory when he suits up for the South squad Saturday. The Gardena linebacker will be vying for an elusive scholarship.

Gutierrez knows that the odds and his size are against him. Most colleges have met their scholarship quotas for next year. And most colleges believe that Gutierrez, at 6-1 and 190 pounds, doesn't have the size to play major college football.

Recruiters and Hope

He knows, however, that there will be a few recruiters in the stands watching the distinguished all-star game, which highlights some of the most talented graduating seniors in Southern California, and the recruiters will have a few free rides in their back pockets.

That's all he needs to know. Those are the people he hopes to impress.

What he lacks in size, Gutierrez said he makes up with speed and desire. The scrapper was selected to the All-Pacific League team twice.

"I just go out there and play football," said the fleet Gutierrez, who runs 40 yards in 4.7 seconds. "I do what I'm supposed to do. I'm always doing my job. It's just a pleasure to play football. It's better than going to a party.

"It doesn't matter what school I play for, whether it be a junior college or a university. I'm going to give it 100% both in the classroom and on the field."

Gutierrez knows what he has to do to earn that scholarship. It's as if he has played this game a thousand times in his mind.

Goal: Tackle Hard

"I'm going to have to do a lot of hard hitting . . . do my assignments. I've got to make a lot of tackles. I want to get a least two interceptions or two sacks. I'm pumped up for this game. Inside, I want it. . . . I want a sack. I want this, I want that. I want a scholarship."

Gutierrez, 18, had a scholarship. At least, he thought he did.

After he achieved consecutive league honors and was named team most valuable player after playing linebacker and offensive guard, people began telling Gutierrez he was going to get a scholarship. The more times players, coaches and relatives told him about his scholarship chances, the more Gutierrez believed them, he said.

Gutierrez thought the people were right when he was approached in February by a San Diego State recruiter, who he said promised him a scholarship.

But Gutierrez found out the hard way that promises are made to be broken.

Five minutes before a scheduled meeting to discuss the scholarship with Gutierrez and his parents, Gutierrez said, the recruiter called to tell him the scholarship was off. Gardena teammate Lyndon Earley, who will also play in the Shrine Game, received a San Diego State scholarship.

He Was Crushed

Gutierrez was crushed, he said.

"About a quarter of the way into the second semester, not getting a scholarship set in. Friends, relatives . . . everybody told me I was going to get a scholarship and I started thinking I was going to get it, too. That's what brought me down."

Feeling betrayed and disillusioned, Gutierrez began to skip classes. At one point, he said he missed about two weeks of school. His grades began to fall because of poor attendance, he said.

"I was down and I didn't care about nothing," Gutierrez said. "I wouldn't go to class. I would go to the liquor store or the beach. I wanted to avoid everything. School and me were just separated."

School was not the only thing that Gutierrez separated himself from. Football also took a back seat to his depression. He said he no longer looked forward to playing in the Shrine Game, which he now considers the highest honor he has received.

Friend to the Rescue

Finally, with the school year about over, Gutierrez awoke from his depression with the help of a friend--Dale Hirayama, a Gardena assistant football coach. Hirayama knew something was wrong when Gutierrez began to miss school.

"I had to go look for him," said Hirayama, who will be Gardena's defensive coordinator next season. "I had to get the word out to his buddies that I was looking for him. I got hold of him and sat him down and told him that not getting a scholarship was not the end of the world . . . football was not everything."

Said Gutierrez, "I wanted to avoid him (Hirayama). He told me I had to get my things together. He told me I could if I set my mind to it. A lot of people consider football players dumb, but he never did. He said I was smart, and treated football players like people."

Gutierrez began to plan for the future, which included the Shrine Game.

"I always figured this (the Shrine Game) was the top of the line, you can't get any higher. If you can get here, you're good . . . you can play," said Gutierrez, who remembered when former Garfield standout running backs Gaston Green, who now plays for UCLA, and Marcel Williams played in the game. "When they told me I was nominated, I was surprised. When they told me I was on the Shrine team, I was in a daze for weeks."

Coaches Weren't Surprised

Gutierrez might have been surprised with his selection, but Hirayama and Garfield Coach Bill Partridge, who will co-coach the South squad with Riverside Poly's Mike Churchill, were not.

"He's an all-around football player," said Hirayama. "He's intense, strong, intelligent and fast. He plays faster than his uniform."

Partidge considers Gutierrez one of the top players he has coached in his six years at Gardena.

"There is no question that he is a good football player," Partridge said. "He has all the qualities you like in a guy--team player, leadership and a better-than-average student."

Gutierrez, who plans to attend El Camino College if not offered a scholarship, still thinks he can play major college football.

"I've seen players that have gone to Division I schools, and I feel they are no better than I am. They may have more speed or be bigger, but I can pick up things really fast."

Gutierrez is a quick learner. His family moved from Honduras in 1970 when he was 4 years old. Speaking only Spanish, Gutierrez quickly adapted to his new life, he said.

He also learned to play football quickly.

"Most of these guys (in the Shrine Game) have told me they have been playing seven, eight years or longer. I've played only half of that. But when I began to play I wanted to learn. If somebody's willing to teach me, I'm willing to listen."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World