When Cobras Called, Mendoza Put Career on Hold

Times Staff Writer

Picture yourself at a crossroads in your career, when the phone rings. The man on the other end of the line asks you to quit your job in the financial community and play indoor football instead.

It happened to Mike Mendoza on Memorial Day.

The following week the former Harbor College quarterback was in New York as a holder for field goals for the Los Angeles Cobras of the Arena Football League.

In order to play, Mendoza, 24, gave up a good job as a loan representative for a company that handles business investments. He decided that the opportunity to play at least one more year of football was enough to put his other career moves on hold.

"It's strange," he said. "To get back into football. . . . You play so many years (when you are growing up), then you go to work. To play football one more time. . . . I had a real good time."

Not that Mendoza wants to see his football career come to an end, again, as it did after he was cut from a Raiders training camp in 1986 after two stellar years as a starting quarterback at Northern Arizona University. He figures he has another shot at making the Cobra roster next season, even if it is as a back-up to Matt Stevens, the league's leading passer.

"I think I have a good shot," he said. "I'd certainly like to be back next year."

Mendoza has two pluses working in his favor. In his only action over center, he spelled Stevens with a 268-yard passing effort in a 37-37 tie with the Chicago Bruisers. He also had four touchdown passes.

And, because arena football is constantly refining its product and there is talk of adding new teams to the league, Mendoza's numbers against Chicago could translate into a job somewhere else if the Cobras lose their interest in him.

But what about the career crisis off the field? His decision to try football one more time hasn't helped.

"I'm at a crossroads right now," Mendoza said.

One reason could be money. A bargain-basement product, arena football paid Mendoza $1,000 a game, plus $300 for each win. Since the Cobras made the playoffs, Mendoza picked up a little extra cash, but he figures he made "maybe $7,000" for his half-season of work. Not exactly the kind of cash flow a prospective executive with a degree in business looks forward to.

"It wasn't the money," Mendoza said. "It was just fun. Just getting the call was worth it."

"The call" was from Cobra Coach Ray Willsey, who first met Mendoza when the San Pedro resident was trying to make it with the Raiders as a free agent. Last spring Willsey invited Mendoza to a tryout camp for the Cobras. But Mendoza was not invited to Florida, where all six arena teams trained.

"It was kind of like 'We'll call you,' " he said.

Mendoza was in Arizona at a friend's wedding last Memorial Day. The inaugural arena football season was about half over, and the Cobras were looking for a backup quarterback. When Mendoza returned home, there were three messages from Willsey.

"I was surprised that they would call me at first," he said. "I think they looked at everything they were doing and were trying to see what they could get (to make a mid-season improvement.)"

Mendoza hadn't picked up a football much in the two years since he left the Raiders. He spent most of his time playing in a 6-foot- and-under basketball league ("I'm really 6-foot-1") and playing slow- pitch softball. His first couple of times down the field in Arena ball were more than he expected.

"Field goals are like punts. You have to cover them," he said. "You have to watch out. I tried to go down the field (and tackle the ballcarrier) the first couple of times, but after that I laid back."

In the Chicago game, Mendoza said, he "got slammed around pretty good."

"It was the first time in three years," he said of the punishment. "You get hit on every play. In college I got used to it. But after that game I was sore for two days."

Mendoza found arena football to be markedly different than the brand of ball played in the National Football League.

"They're still working out the kinks in arena football," he said. "It's a fast-paced game. The football goes into the stands and fans can hear the hits. Your reaction time must be quicker."

Playing professional football--even indoors--lends a twist of irony to Mendoza's life. A graduate of Bishop Montgomery High School, he was named the offensive player of the year in the Angelus League as a quarterback in 1981. He led Harbor to two Southern California Athletic Conference titles and a pair of post-season bowl berths, then started two seasons after accepting a scholarship at Northern Arizona.

The irony of his successes, he said, is that he didn't really care for the sport as a youngster, preferring instead to think of himself as a baseball player.

"I didn't want to play football in high school," he said. "I still don't know why I did play. My friends were playing, so I did."

By the time he made the decision to go to Harbor College, Mendoza could see that football was his ticket to a scholarship on the four-year level. Once he got to Northern Arizona, he had grown to appreciate what football had done for him.

"At NAU I wanted to do well," he said.

As for the career decisions that lay before him once he is completely out of football, Mendoza is realistic.

"I need to make some decisions soon," he said.

But he'd like to have until next spring when arena football kicks off its second season.

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