Childhood Friends Reunited on Field as Top Quarterbacks

Times Staff Writer

Tim Gutierrez, Jason Isaacs and Johnel Turner began the 1980s as impish 9-year-old pals smacking golf balls onto the roof of Kern Elementary School in Oxnard until dusk and clowning all the way back to their homes on Douglas Avenue.

They are closing out the decade as perhaps the most talented trio of high school quarterbacks ever to play at once in Ventura County.

The boys from the modest suburban block will lead their teams in three separate stadiums at 7:30 p.m. Friday, the kickoff of Ventura County's high school football season. Win or lose, the eyes of fans in Oxnard and Ventura will be upon them--as will the eyes of scouts from colleges across the United States.

All are seniors in their third varsity season. Gutierrez attends Santa Clara High School, where he holds the state record for passing accuracy. Isaacs is the mobile, strong-armed gunner at Buena High who holds a school record for passing yardage. Turner is the explosive multiple threat in Oxnard High's wishbone attack who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.

They have gone separate directions--only Gutierrez still lives on Douglas--and developed distinctive styles. But friendships are easily rekindled as they discovered last week while lunching as only three hot-shot high school quarterbacks can lunch.

That impishness? It's now full-blown impudence.

Huddled over platters of steak and all-you-can-eat shrimp, they skewered one another with all-you-can-take barbs and laughed too loudly for most restaurant patrons. Only when the conversation turned to knee injuries or the Scholastic Aptitude Test did the silliness subside.

Quarterbacks have long been synonymous with brashness. Joe Namath's autobiography is titled "I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow, Because I Get Better Looking Every Day." Isaacs and Turner fit the mold to a T-formation. Gutierrez is normally more reserved, but in the company of his old pals, he quickly loosened up.

The three QBs hadn't been together in six years, but as a car carrying Isaacs and Turner pulled into the Santa Clara parking lot to pick up a smartly dressed Gutierrez from his first day of classes, they dispensed with the pleasantries.

Rather. . . .

Turner to Gutierrez: "Nice cords, Tim. Do they squeak?"

Isaacs to Gutierrez: "Look at you, man. I should have worn a tux."

Being rushed from both sides doesn't bother Gutierrez, who shows off his quick release. "You'd have to rent one," he gleefully snaps at Isaacs.

Gutierrez became a quarterback first, tackling the position as an 8-year-old in the Oxnard Chiefs youth program. Turner, a tough, stocky boy, played offensive guard.

Isaacs was off somewhere playing soccer.

Turner shifted to fullback a couple of years later and Gutierrez became entrenched at quarterback.

Isaacs was still off playing soccer. Turner would ask him, "Where you from, Yugoslavia?" Isaacs recalls wryly, "I never liked football. I was a nerd, a lost cause."

He and Gutierrez built a makeshift miniature golf course in Isaacs' back yard. Unless he could take a full swing, Turner declined to form a threesome. "I was off cavorting with the females," he recalls with a laugh.

In the spring, though, the three shared a love for baseball. One year, Isaacs and Gutierrez did the pitching on a team that was 24-1. Another year, Turner and Gutierrez led a Northside Little League all-star team to the state divisional tournament.

Isaacs moved to Alaska from his home on quiet, tree-lined Douglas when he was 11 and moved to Ventura a year later. He and Gutierrez maintained their friendship by telephone and it was during those conversations that a 13-year-old Isaacs was persuaded to try out for the Ventura Packers youth team.

"The first day of practice, I couldn't throw a spiral 10 yards," he recalls.

But Isaacs went on to win the quarterback job and his identity was set as he entered high school.

Gutierrez was also instrumental in Turner lining up behind center.

Early in their 13-year-old season with the Chiefs, Gutierrez injured his right shoulder and the coach surveyed the team for a likely replacement. Turner recalls: "He said, 'Johnel, you have a good arm. Go take some snaps.' "

Will the real Johnel Turner please huddle up?

There is the soft-spoken, straight-forward Turner, the one who carefully measures his accomplishments with neatly told anecdotes, who steadfastly defends the expertise of his coaches.

Then there is the blowing, crowing Joh-nel , the one with the perpetual smirk and the ready reply. "I know, man. I know."

About his ability, everyone knows.

"He's the best pure athlete I've ever had," says Jack Davis, the Oxnard coach who has been in the business for 30 years. "He has the best arm and he's the best runner."

Last season, Davis implemented the wishbone to take advantage of his quarterback's running ability. Turner (6 feet, 190 pounds) rushed for 1,085 yards, 10 touchdowns and a Ventura County-high 8.5-yard average. He only completed 31 passes but they went for 646 yards, a county-leading 20.8-yard average.

His grade-point average has been less impressive. Davis says Turner should have the necessary 2.0 in a core curriculum required by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. for a Division I scholarship. But it has been a struggle at every turn.

"If he feels a teacher doesn't like him, he'll go into a shell and do worse," Davis says. "If he believes a teacher likes him, he'll respond to that and do well."

Joe Davis, Jack's son and an Oxnard assistant coach, helps Turner overcome academic difficulties. Halfway through the spring semester, Turner was failing in math. Joe Davis told him to bring his work to a first-period weight-training class.

"There was this thick stack of work, but I studied math every first period, plus 1 1/2 to 2 hours after school," Turner recalls. "I finished the whole stack by the end of the semester, thanks to Coach Joe."

It's going to take similar diligence this year if Turner is to be in a position to accept a scholarship from one of the big-name schools that are interested in him, schools that include most of the option-oriented schools in the Midwest.

"College was the furthest thing from his mind while he was growing up," Jack Davis says. "Then he came to high school and discovered he has this special football ability."

Turner's awakening occurred while dashing for the winning touchdown in his first varsity game, a 13-7 victory over Camarillo during his sophomore year.

With three minutes to play in a 7-7 tie, Oxnard was faced with a third-down situation on the Camarillo 45-yard line. Davis called for Turner to run a bootleg around end.

"I must have hit six of their guys; I bounced off all of them," Turner recalls. "They hit me but they weren't tackling me. My helmet came unbuttoned but I just kept moving forward. I guess I had that desire to get into the end zone. Finally, I got in and I asked myself, 'How'd I do that?' "

By mid-season, Turner's ability had not only sunk in, it was bubbling over. Moments after Oxnard had whipped Buena, 28-12, Turner dashed past the Buena bench, holding up his index finger and taunting the beaten Bulldogs.

Isaacs, then a Buena sophomore, recalls: "He ran by and said, 'You guys will be good next year.' We remembered that the entire week we prepared for Oxnard last year."

Turner was as prophetic as he was cocky. Buena was good enough last year to defeat Oxnard, 35-15, dashing the Yellowjackets' playoff hopes.

At lunch, Turner was asked if he had learned from the experience.

He pondered the question while peeling the batter from a shrimp. He took a bite, said, "I still like to talk," and threw Isaacs and Gutierrez a mischievous grin.

Perhaps because his considerable athletic accomplishments need no embellishment, Isaacs is perfectly comfortable taking a long laugh at himself. He loves telling of his first play from scrimmage as a varsity quarterback.

The game was in 1987 against Ventura, which that year had a powerful team led by a fearsome middle linebacker named Steve Dailey. Isaacs had spent most of the season playing defensive back, but was handed the quarterback job for the big game against Buena's cross-town rival.

"I crouched behind the center to call signals," Isaacs recalls. "I looked to the left and saw this enormous crowd in the stands. I looked to the right and saw just as many faces. Then I looked straight ahead and saw Steve Dailey staring me in the face.

"I just panicked, I was so scared. I fumbled the snap, fell on the ball and about 10 guys dog-piled on top of me.

"When I stood up, Dailey grabbed my jersey and said, 'Don't you ever do that again.' "

Punch line told, Isaacs throws his head back and erupts into laughter. It was as if the incident had happened to someone else and, to an extent, it had.

The self-described "lost cause" has matured into a seasoned passer who racked up a school-record 2,281 yards last season. Isaacs (6-1, 185) also posted a 10-0 record and 0.68 earned-run average last spring as a pitcher on the Buena baseball team, and next summer he might be faced with a choice between a football scholarship and a professional baseball contract.

His development as a quarterback is linked to the hiring of Rick Scott as Buena football coach before last season. Scott, a former quarterback who is committed to the passing game, quickly recognized Isaacs' potential.

"As soon as I saw Jason's athleticism, I knew we had something to build on," says Scott, who coached Hart High to a Southern Section championship in 1986.

Scott has been more than a coach to Isaacs, who has had a difficult home life. The coach, in fact, had his quarterback over for Thanksgiving dinner last year. "He's a real street kid, that's the only way to say it," Scott says. "But he's got a lot of moxie and a big heart.

"The best things in his life have come through sports."

Although Douglas Avenue is now nothing more than memory lane for Isaacs and Turner, it is still home for Gutierrez, who has lived in the same house all his life.

Serving as the cool, collected man in the middle of their friendship came naturally for Gutierrez. Security and stability are evident in all phases of his life.

Gutierrez (6-2, 195) is the youngest of five children, and the laughing eyes and round features of the family baby are still prominent. He is the only one of the three QBs to have a steady girlfriend.

His three older brothers all attended Santa Clara and Kenny, now 23, was a quarterback. Tim's coach at Santa Clara, Larry Lawrence, was also his first coach at the age of 8.

"Tim was never a loudmouth; he's never been flamboyant," Lawrence says. "With all of his accomplishments, I never once have heard the kid brag.

"He's just always there standing tall."

In the huddle, in the pass pocket, there Gutierrez stands--the cool, collected man in the middle.

Evidence of his composure is the state record that he holds for completing 70.4% of his passes last season. A quarterback does not hit seven of every 10 by throwing into crowds in a panic or by running scared.

"Besides having a strong arm and an exceptionally quick release, Tim is able to read defenses well," Lawrence says. "If the primary receiver is covered, he has the presence of mind to find the next guy."

When starting quarterback Mike Teron was injured during the first game of the 1987 season, Steve Dann, then the Santa Clara coach, decided that Gutierrez was going to be the next guy and he was promoted from the sophomore team the next day.

"I was up in the stands when Mike got hurt and I couldn't believe it," Gutierrez says. "There was no way I wanted to leave the sophomore team. I told my friends that I wouldn't go."

Dann summoned him, however, and the next Friday night, Gutierrez found himself in the middle of his first varsity game.

"Early in the game, I went back to pass and I was aware of pressure coming from both sides," Gutierrez recalls. "I stepped up and remained in the pocket. I threw an incomplete pass and took a hard hit, but when I got back to the bench, the coaches were congratulating me for not panicking."

The reinforcement paid off because on Santa Clara's next possession, Gutierrez capped a long drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass. He's been throwing them with regularity ever since, passing for 20 touchdowns and 2,644 yards last season.

Gutierrez has 4,300 yards passing in two seasons and if he duplicates last year's total, he will rank third on the Southern Section all-time list behind Todd Marinovich and Pat Haden.

Those numbers impress even Isaacs and Turner. But they are envious of their friend for playing in the Frontier League, which contains smaller schools than the Channel League, to which Buena and Oxnard belong.

At lunch, Isaacs' eyes scan the menu. "Who's this Dom Perignon?" he asks, casting a smile at Gutierrez. "Sounds like a defensive back in the Frontier League."

The three QBs put away three platters of shrimp apiece--of course, they had to get back to school for football practice.

Before leaving, they vowed not to become strangers. Isaacs asked Gutierrez to arrange a date with one of those "fine" Santa Clara girls, then he turned to Turner and told him about a girl at Buena who would be perfect for him, saying, "She looks just like Robin Givens."

But friendship has its limits. Buena faces Oxnard in a Channel League opener Sept. 29. Isaacs knows that Turner, who plays defensive back in addition to quarterback, won't be wearing his luncheon smile.

"When I step on the field that night, Johnel and I won't be friends," Isaacs says. "I know that sometime during the game he's gonna hit me. It's inevitable."

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