Now, Gittens Plays Just for the Fun of It : Football: Semipro league helps former Fountain Valley standout keep his life in order.
Willie Gittens, former Southern Section player of the year at Fountain Valley High, starter at Arizona State, Canadian Football League washout, former drug abuser and ex-convict, wheeled his black Volkswagen into the parking lot at Ponderosa Park. It was 10 minutes until 7 p.m. and he was early.
Wearing a black turtleneck, white football pants and worn-out sneakers, Gittens was dressed like most of the 45 other members of the Orange Coast Dolphins’ semipro football team assembled for an evening practice.
He pulled his shoulder pads, a white No. 11 jersey, and shiny, black cleats from the car and waited patiently for the pickup soccer game on the field to end, so the Dolphins’ practice could begin.
Three times a week for the past five weeks, Gittens has been coming to Dolphins’ practices, trying to earn a starting spot in the backfield after eight years away from football.
Others may expect greatness from Gittens, but he said he’s content to have fun. Unlike many Dolphin players, Gittens is not hoping to land a tryout with an NFL, CFL or World League of American Football team. Those dreams are long over, said Gittens, 31.
Last month, a friend talked Gittens into joining the team. Gittens was in good shape, healthy and drug-free, so he figured why not? Maybe it would instill some needed discipline into his life.
“Once I got out here I smelled the grass and said, ‘It’s football season,’ ” Gittens said. “I just love the game so much, I had to give it another try.”
Real life had been tugging at Gittens since he left Arizona State with a bum knee in 1984. He felt it, but somehow ignored its call. He’d grown accustomed to doing things the easy way, even if he knew it would some day land him in trouble.
At Fountain Valley, he relied on finesse and cuts against the grain to compile huge rushing statistics, but everybody thought he had blazing speed. He was bright, engaging and quick to smile, but he was almost ruled academically ineligible as a freshman and rarely cracked a book later.
At Arizona State, he was called undersized, but he could have bulked up if he had spent more time weightlifting. He stayed eligible, but again did only enough to get by.
He suffered torn ligaments in his right knee in the 1983 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma while returning the opening kickoff, could have returned to full strength by the time the Calgary Stampeders signed him in 1984, but didn’t do all he could to rehabilitate his knee.
“I was thinking I was going to play regardless,” Gittens said. “It just didn’t work out.”
It got worse. In September, 1988, Gittens was arrested with two other men near Blythe and charged with smuggling 120 pounds of marijuana, with an estimated street value of $372,000, into California. At the time, he was on probation in Arizona for drug-related charges and possession of stolen property.
He spent eight months in prisons in Riverside County and Arizona and is now on probation.
Until recently, it was a perfect summary of Gittens’ life after high school.
“It’s funny how it happened,” he said. “When I knew I had to stop (taking drugs) it was hard. Then I knew I had the addiction. I did cocaine. . . . I did a lot of drugs. Finally, it came down to a point where I didn’t want to run my life that way.
“I feel good now. It’s hard to believe but I have less frustration in my life. I feel like every morning I can accomplish something new.”
More than a year ago, Gittens moved to Huntington Beach, landed a job as a supervisor with Carl’s Jr., and began to see a drug counselor.
Slowly, he’s started to turn his life around.
Where do you go when you’re already at the top?
Gittens was so good, Fountain Valley Coach Bruce Pickford often pulled him to avoid charges of running up the score. In one game, Gittens scored four touchdowns in his first five carries. He averaged 8.4 yards a carry as a senior in 1977, and won Southern Section player of the year honors. He gained 2,700 yards and scored 53 touchdowns in his career.
USC called, but Gittens said no thanks. ASU was where he wanted to play.
Doug Thompson, Fountain Valley quarterback, and Bryan Caldwell, another high school teammate, had signed with the Sun Devils, too. The three friends were planning on a great four years in Tempe, but first Gittens had one final high school game to play.
Before 40,214 at the Rose Bowl, Gittens rushed for 221 yards and three touchdowns in 27 carries in the 1978 North-South Shrine Game.
“He ran all over those people,” Pickford said in 1984. “He got hurt and was knocked out of the game but came back and got some more.”
All was right in Gittens’ happy life.
A few weeks later, Gittens and Thompson set out for ASU in Gittens’ 240Z, driving at night to avoid the intense desert heat. Caldwell flew to Phoenix, expecting to meet his friends the next morning.
Somewhere around Blythe, Gittens fell asleep at the wheel. He snapped awake as the car rolled over. Thompson died in the crash; Gittens suffered bruises on his knee and pelvis.
Gittens wanted to quit, but ASU Coach Frank Kush talked him out of it. He redshirted his first season, then failed to fulfill the promise he’d shown at Fountain Valley.
He topped 100 yards only once, gaining 113 yards in 12 carries against the University of Houston as a senior.
“I think people overestimated me in high school,” Gittens said. “Actually, I had 9.8 (100-yard) speed. That’s not very fast. The hype threw everybody off. My best qualities were that I didn’t make a lot of mistakes and, somehow, I came up with the big play.
“Even at ASU it helped me. There were so many running backs, the only thing that kept me going was I made less mistakes.”
Gittens took a pitchout and ran left. The blocks were good and he slipped through a hole, made a cutback, then another, slipping past the last line of defenders before a whistle sounded to end the play.
“It was like he wasn’t off at all,” said Gil Harris, the Dolphins’ owner, coach and starting safety who stood on the sidelines watching the scrimmage. “He’s got great instincts. He’s making people look silly.”
Mark Miller, the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator who saw Gittens play at Fountain Valley and ASU, said the back is still impressive.
“There are a few guys shining out there, and he’s one of them,” said Miller, who also coaches at Rancho Alamitos High. “I really like his attitude. He seems like a genuinely sincere guy.
“I don’t know this for sure, but his motivation is different from the other guys. I think he’s just playing because it’s fun. He doesn’t have any aspirations beyond that. Perhaps, that (football) was a real good part of his life and he’s still trying to do it while he can.
“If some (pro team) wanted a really experienced back, who can run and catch the ball and still has speed. . . . “
Not everyone watching practice feels the same way, though.
“He’s old . . . washed up . . . knees are broke . . . can’t run,” said Dave Gittens, Willie’s 13-year-old nephew. “Don’t tell him I said that, man. Don’t tell him, OK?”
It has been a tough road back to physical fitness, but not that tough, Willie said. He had been lifting weights and playing recreation league basketball in Orange to stay in shape, and he had a doctor’s clearance before he began workouts with the Dolphins.
If he’s not as fast as he once was, so what? He’s not out to land a pro contract, only to have a good time.
“I really don’t think of it as a comedown,” Gittens said. “I probably realized four or five years ago that my career was over.
“It’s a slow building process. I’m getting back, doing the right thing. I’ve stopped doing the kids’ stuff. Every day I take another step and get better and better.”
He could be talking about football, but in this case he’s talking about his life. Right now, that’s the most important thing for Gittens.