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ALL-STAR PREP FOOTBALL GAME : RISKY BUSINESS : For Most Players, Chance to Show Off Talent Far Outweighs Threat of Injury

Times Staff Writer

El Modena’s Craig Gibson knows the story of George Tuioti all too well.

He remembers how Tuioti, the flamboyant linebacker at Santa Ana High School, tore ligaments in his left knee while practicing for last year’s Orange County All-Star football game. He knows how Tuioti underwent arthroscopic surgery and missed his freshman season at USC, where he had landed a football scholarship.

And because he has heard Tuioti’s saga, Gibson understands the risk he will take Friday night when he plays in the Orange County All-Star game at Orange Coast College’s LeBard Stadium.

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Gibson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound offensive lineman with the North team, knows his future in football, and his career at USC, could be at stake every time he throws a block.

“It’s a pretty big risk to play,” Gibson said, “but if you love this sport, you want to play as much as you can. A game like this is a lot of fun, too.

“It’s too bad something like that happens (to Tuioti). But it’s something you can’t control.”

Several of Gibson’s teammates and opponents will risk college careers on Friday night. North Coach John Barnes said about half of the 72 players in Friday’s game have scholarships to such schools as USC, UCLA, Air Force, Nebraska and Brigham Young. About 15 others will attend community colleges, he said.

Servite running back Derek Brown originally turned down an offer to play in the Orange County game. He had planned to work part time this summer in Nebraska, where he will play next fall, but changed his mind after attending a banquet for the players.

“I wanted to get the feeling of playing with new people,” said Brown, who also will play in the Shrine All-Star game on July 29 in the Rose Bowl. “This is just for the fun of it.”

And that’s why it’s a risk. Scores and records don’t matter. The games are a showcase for talent. Most of the players already have signed letters of intent and have little to gain, but a lot to lose.

Brown said it’s worth risking injury to play against the best players in the county.

“If you think about getting hurt, you will,” he said. “If you think about playing hard, you will. Life is one big risk, and I’ll take it.”

Mike Petko, a former Servite teammate of Brown’s, decided not to take the risk last year. Petko, now a second-string linebacker at Nebraska, turned down an offer to play in the all-county game to train at Nebraska.

Petko said Nebraska coaches didn’t like the idea of him playing in the game, but “they left it up to me.”

“I think they didn’t want their investment to get hurt,” he said.

USC made the same investment in Tuioti, a 6-foot-4, 229-pound linebacker who blew through offensive lines like a twister in a trailer park.

Tuioti still takes on an angry edge when he recalls the day he injured his knee. He usually wore knee braces during practices and games, but didn’t think he needed them because the South team was working on pass-coverage drills. After all, there was little, if any, contact, he thought.

In fact, Tuioti tried to avoid contact when he covered a tailback who had just caught a swing pass.

“I tried to hold off from hitting him,” Tuioti recalled. “My leg hyperextended in front of me. I did a flip and heard a loud pop.”

As coaches and teammates rushed to his side, Tuioti remembered how his parents had warned him about the risk of playing. And he thought about how the USC coaches would react.

“Most parents don’t want their kids playing in a game because of the risks,” he said. “I kept telling my parents it would be OK.”

It wasn’t. After surgery, Tuioti underwent months of rehabilitation. He never attended USC because he didn’t meet the freshman eligibility standards under the NCAA’s Prop. 48 rule.

“The (injury) was definitely a turning point in my life,” Tuioti said. “I had to humble myself after this.”

He has since enrolled at San Diego State and hopes to play this fall.

“I don’t have any regrets about playing in the game,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve learned from this. If you regret things, your life falls apart.”

Tuioti hopes he’s as fortunate as former Sunny Hills quarterback Jim Karsatos, who recovered from a knee injury he suffered in the 1982 Orange County All-Star game.

After surgery and a redshirt year in 1982, Karsatos passed for 5,089 yards in four years at Ohio State. He led them to a 9-3 record and a victory over Brigham Young in the Citrus Bowl in 1985 and a 10-3 record and a victory over Texas A&M; in the Cotton Bowl the next season.

A year after he injured his knee, Karsatos told reporters he would play in the all-star game again, if given the chance.

“In fact I kind of wish I did have a chance to go back again,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets.”

Neither does Jerry Gillespie, an offensive guard from Westminster who’s wearing a knee brace and will watch Friday night’s game from the sidelines. Gillespie, who plans to attend Golden West College in the fall, strained tendons in his right knee while practicing with the South team on Saturday. “It didn’t even come to mind being a risk,” he said “I would do it all over again. Injuries are part of the game.”

Because of the risks, college coaches wonder if they should let their recruits play.

USC Coach Larry Smith said the games reward athletes, but added that they should consider the consequences before playing.

“I tell them, ‘You’re the guy who achieved this, so it’s up to you,’ ” he said. “I just want them to make sure they’re in condition when they play.”

Bill Workman, Orange Coast College coach, watched 11 of his current players in last year’s county all-star game. He said he encourages his recruits to play in postseason games.

“It’s a great culmination to a high school career,” he said. “I think it’s a shame if they don’t play.”

Tuioti said players should keep the games in perspective when deciding whether to play.

“It’s a real hard decision,” he said. “All they think about is that it’s an all-county game. They don’t think about the negative side.”

Tuioti said he supported the decision by former Capistrano Valley quarterback Todd Marinovich to sit out last year’s game.

“Nobody should be forcing them to play,” he said. “No one gave Marinovich a hard time when he said no. If you play, you should protect yourself. It’s just a game. You don’t have to go all out and bust your head or anything.”

Smith said he thinks college seniors take more of a risk when they play in all-star games such as the Hula Bowl and the East-West Shrine game. College players are trying to increase their bargaining power with professional teams, while high school players already are committed to a college.

“A scholarship won’t be taken away because of an injury,” he said. “But it will still have a drastic effect on (a player’s) performance.”

Gibson said conditioning helps the players avoid injury.

“Everyone showed up in pretty good shape,” he said. “Everyone has been doing their running and conditioning. But a game like this gets you used to hitting again.”

In some cases, hitting too hard.

“This game is meant to show what these athletes have,” Tuioti said. “But they shouldn’t put all they worked for in high school into this game. If they do, they’ll just break down.”


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