HIS GAME'S GROWING AGAIN : Stunted for a Time, George Fernandez's Soccer Skill Is Re-Emerging

The lights had just been shut off at the San Diego Sports Arena following the Sockers' practice. Cory Fernandez, clutching a can of soda that looked gigantic in a 3 1/2-year-old's hands, was less than thrilled. He could have done without the sudden darkness.

George Fernandez, the defender with the two-octave smile, "Dad" to Cory and "Keoki" to his family in Hawaii, patiently explained to his son that keeping the lights on costs money. That was good enough for Cory, who ran off to play.

Cory is one of the responsibilities that have snuck up on Fernandez. Life has become complicated, certainly when compared with his childhood. He has to think about more than just soccer. More than just himself.

A look back.

Age 5. George Fernandez, born in California but often in Hawaii to visit relatives, spent most of his days running through the sugar cane fields with his dog, Lani. No worries.

High school. Fernandez's focus was sports: soccer, football, badminton. He was a natural. Football was his favorite, though he was only 5-feet-7, 155 pounds as a senior. University of the Pacific offered him a football scholarship. He declined, deciding he didn't want to get his bell rung, and decided to play soccer at Cal State Hayward. No worries.

College. Soccer became his life. School meant very little. Fernandez would skip classes and spend hours by himself dribbling and juggling a soccer ball, refining his skills. It paid off. He was a two-time All-American and considered one of the top college prospects in 1983. He was drafted by the Cleveland Force and the Chicago Sting. No worries.

Soon after, the worries began. Fernandez decided to go to the balmy city of Cleveland after he took a trip to Chicago and nearly froze. He had brought only T-shirts to wear.

Cleveland, the city, was great. Fernandez loved it. Cleveland, the team, wasn't so great. He played in just six games in two years. He says that set his career back several notches. His college coach, Colin Lindores, can only speculate as to why Fernandez didn't do better.

"I think maybe their expectations were much higher than he performed," Lindores said.

Fernandez made $50,000 in each of his two seasons in Cleveland.

"But it was money I didn't earn," Fernandez said. "It was, like, a waste of time."

He was released after the 1984-85 season.

Next stop, Los Angeles. More worries.

Fernandez played in 64 games in two seasons with the Lazers. From a soccer standpoint, he was happier. But Los Angeles was not his idea of an ideal place to live.

During training camp, the players would run on the beach at 7:30 a.m. Under normal traffic conditions, Fernandez said, it was a 45-minute drive. But this wasn't normal. He had to leave at 4:30 a.m. to get there on time. He hadn't seen traffic like that since he was in China with the Junior World Cup Team. There, he said, people drove at two or three miles an hour because there were so many people walking in the streets.

Fernandez formed some rather strong opinions about L.A.

"I'll tell you," he says, "the psychologists up there must be making some big bucks. I spent more time driving than I did playing. It's the worst place to live. It's just mayhem 24 hours around the clock."

OK, George, how do you really feel?

"It's terrible," he continues. "I can't see how people can live there."

The fast lifestyle doesn't fit Fernandez's personality. Despite his enthusiasm during games, in which he might wave the towel to stir the crowd or jump up on the glass to slap hands with fans, Fernandez isn't the rock-and-roll, party-all-night type. He would much rather spend a quiet evening at home. Socker defender Gus Mokalis, Fernandez's roommate on the road, says sometimes they'll sit in the room for hours without talking.

In that respect, Fernandez hasn't changed much since high school, when he would sit home a lot and watch sports on television, hardly saying a word. His parents used to try to get him out of the house.

"We used to feel sorry for him because he wasn't one to go out with his friends," said Fernandez's mother, Lynette. "He'd sit with us on weekends."

Fernandez's version?

"I never dated because I was too afraid to ask them if I could go out for a date."

He's still not much for a social life. "I've always been a loner," he said. "I have a good time by myself, read the newspaper. Nobody yapping in my ear."

San Diego is perfect. Reminds Fernandez of Hawaii. And it's here, for the first time in his professional career, that Fernandez is pleased with his role on a soccer team. He was one of three Sockers who played in all 48 regular season games in 1988-89. His teammates respect his ability and, perhaps more importantly, his intensity. Fernandez, said teammate Kevin Crow, stays at the same level throughout the game, giving the rest of the players a lift. Fernandez is also the best defender they have on the penalty-killing unit.

It could be said that Fernandez had had a belly full of professional soccer by the time he came to San Diego. He was released by the Lazers, and he had become extremely wary of pro soccer in general. He'll never forget when the Lazers let two players go on Christmas Eve.

"Nothing in this league shocks me," he says. "In this profession, I consider your job never safe."

Yet Fernandez has found some security. Sockers Coach Ron Newman was impressed enough to select Fernandez out of 50 players who tried out for one spot before the '87-'88 season. Newman hasn't been disappointed. One gets the feeling Fernandez is one of his favorites.

"He has an infectious appetite for the game," Newman said. "He enjoys every second he's on the field. I'd shudder at the thought of not having him. He'd throw himself in front of a freight train if you asked him to. Brave as you can be. He's just a lovable character."

And finally satisfied. Nothing sums it up better than the picture on this year's Sockers media guide. Fernandez is standing in the middle of his teammates, smiling like a butcher's dog. The Sockers MISL championship trophy is being held over his head. It's his first championship. What's the man behind the smile thinking?

"It felt good to win a championship and have a ring and stick it in everybody's face that said I couldn't do it."

Got it? George Fernandez may keep to himself a lot. He may appear to be a nice, friendly guy who jokes with his teammates, gives his shirt or cap to a homeless person or spends time with kids teaching them soccer skills. But deep inside, there is an intensity. A desire to win.

"I want to win a championship, and I want to win it every year," he said. "A lot of people think I'm too into it. But I know what it takes to win."

He has the same intensity in all sports, not just soccer. He'll talk of playing tennis with his wife, Jennifer. She doesn't hit the ball over the net consistently enough for George. It's no challenge.

"Take lessons," he'll tell her. "Get better, or I'm not going to play."

He's also a pinball wizard.

"Like a little kid sometimes," Jennifer says.

Amid the intensity is also unselfishness. In high school, Lynette says, George would often pass the ball to other players to allow them a chance to score goals. Sometimes people would say 'You shouldn't have passed that ball.' "

"He wanted those kids to be in the limelight," Lynette said.

Just this year, Fernandez has become more secure with what he will do with himself after he is out of pro soccer. Teammate Brian Quinn quips: "He's at his peak now. He can't go anywhere else except down."

Funny. But there's some truth to that too. Fernandez, 27, is coming off his finest season. He was chosen defensive star of the game four times, selected the MISL's defensive player of the week earlier this month and was recently chosen by his teammates as the Sockers most improved player with forward Paul Wright.

What's next?

For a while, Fernandez wondered if he would have to flip hamburgers or pump gas to provide for his family when he was no longer able to play soccer.

That doesn't worry him anymore. He's taking classes. Preparing for life after soccer. He plans to go into commercial real estate or maybe become a teacher.

"This is the first year that he's really looking ahead," Jennifer says. "(Before) he just wanted to play soccer."

So he'll play as long as he can, or as long as he can play the way he wants to play. Then he'll move on.

"Before I was scared, nervous," he said. "Now I can deal with it. I have no worries."

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