DiFonzo Sorted Out His Priorities : College football: He baffled his family by walking away from the game at 15, not returning for eight years. Now at Oregon, he might have a future in the NFL.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Louis DiFonzo can hardly describe the emptiness he felt when his youngest son, Mike, announced that he didn't want to play football anymore.

Mike DiFonzo--then a big, tough offensive lineman at Chatsworth High--quit after his sophomore year in 1983.

Eight years went by before Mike would play again. Now a 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior guard at Oregon, DiFonzo, 26, is a candidate for All-Pacific 10 Conference honors and could be playing in the NFL next year.

Louis loved to watch his boy play football. And when Mike decided to quit the Chatsworth team, Louis felt he lost part of the father-son bond he shared with his son.

"I wasn't big enough or heavy enough to play football," said Louis, 56, a refrigerator repairman. "So it was like I was fulfilling my own dreams when I watched him play.

"Sometimes I got a little too animated in the stands. I think I embarrassed myself a little too much. But I loved to watch him. He was always very aggressive and gave 100% all the time. He was really into it."

Mike admits he loved the on-field combat.

"It's a great sport," he said. "It not only makes you mentally strong and goal-oriented, I can apply what I learn from football to other parts of my life."

From Day 1, it seemed football would loom large in the future of Mike, a two-year starting offensive lineman at Oregon. He always seemed bigger and tougher than everybody else.

"We kinda knew Mike would be special on the first play of his first game in Pop Warner, when he knocked the helmet off the guy who lined up across from him," said Mark DiFonzo, 29, Mike's older brother. "And, immediately, people started asking for his birth certificate."

In 1982, Louis not only had visions of watching his son play on the Chatsworth varsity but started dreaming of watching him play in college. Then Mike, 15, said he was quitting football for a job in a now-defunct fast-food restaurant called "39th and Hamburger."

The father was stunned by his son's decision.

"I was saddened when Mike decided not to play anymore," Louis said. "But what really made a bummer out of it was he decided not to go to college."

Over the years, the family didn't talk much about Mike's decision. They grew accustomed to Mike jumping from job to job: grocery-store clerk, security guard, night-club bouncer, etc. And it was useless to try to stop him.

"If you know my brother," said Mark, "once he gets something in his mind, he's bullheaded about it."

Indeed, when Mike has plans--unorthodox as they can be--it's best to get out of his way.

Then in 1990, Mike decided to take another flight to fancy. He decided to play football again.

It had been eight years since he had worn pads. He was 23, and had never played beyond the junior varsity level in high school. At an age when most college players were finishing their careers, Mike announced that he was trying out at Pierce College.

Since then, nobody has stood in his way. Oregon listed him as a preseason All-Pacific 10 Conference candidate, and the Ducks' line coach, Steve Greatwood, would be the first to vote for him.

"He's the kind of guy who won't back down from anyone or anything," Greatwood said. "If I had to choose somebody to go into a dark alley with, it would be Mike."

DiFonzo had always seemed at home on a football field. He showed up at Pierce out of shape and out of touch with football, but that didn't faze Coach Bill Norton.

"You wouldn't believe the calls I get in the off-season," Norton said. "You hear from guys who have never played football but would like to try it, guys who haven't played in years, guys who want to know if they're still eligible. . . .

"Mike had been out in the work force and he just kind of showed up one day. He fit right in."

Several years earlier, Chatsworth Coach Mryon Gibford tried to make DiFonzo fit in, but it didn't work.

"As I remember him, he was kind of a pudgy kid with a bad knee who didn't like football," Gibford said. "I talked several times with him and he said, 'Football's not my thing.' "

Had DiFonzo decided to play instead of earning money to repair his car and make insurance payments, Gibford might have different memories today.

"That was so long ago, I don't really remember what was said," DiFonzo said. "I just didn't feel like asking my parents for five bucks every time I needed it."

So DiFonzo started flipping burgers. His odyssey eventually took him to Hawaii, where he worked in a Waikiki gift shop and later for DHL, an overnight shipping company. He became homesick and DHL granted him a transfer to its Los Angeles International Airport outpost.

But DiFonzo grew weary of that job, as he had others. He was shuffling cargo at L.A. International Airport when it struck him: He could return to the crossroads where he stood in 1982 and this time choose the other path.

"I was making pretty good money, but I was not progressing," DiFonzo said. "I was stuck. And I began to realize football was a way that I could move forward. Maybe it could pay for an education."

At Pierce, DiFonzo rapidly learned the finer points of blocking. He got into shape and beefed up from 250 pounds to 285. And Louis was back in his 50-yard-line bleacher seat "busting the buttons off my shirt" with pride.

"He was such a superior player," said Mark of Mike, who earned all-state honors with the Brahmas during his sophomore season. "Each play the other guy was on his butt."

Norton thought DiFonzo would redshirt his first year at Oregon, then wait his turn for a chance at a starting job. Greatwood, the Oregon assistant, thought so, too. Both underestimated DiFonzo, who won a job in spring workouts.

"Right away, he just kind of impressed everyone with his toughness and leadership--just by the way he carried himself on the field," Greatwood said. "Then he took our most feared defensive player, (defensive end) Romeo Bandison, and knocked him off the line."

None of this surprised Mark DiFonzo, who was a lineman at Crespi High.

"I wouldn't be surprised if I see him on Monday Night Football one of these days," Mark said.

Said Mike, a sociology major: "If it comes down my road, I'd be more than happy to take it. But my No. 1 goal is to graduate, which I will do this summer. I've been taking care of business. I have 17 credits (to graduate) this summer."

Just a few weeks ago, Mike finally explained why he went to work at age 15. The family was having financial problems during the real estate collapse of the early '80s, Mike said. Louis was a real estate agent then. Mike said he went to work to take pressure off his parents.

"Wow. I didn't realize," said Louis after being told. "But that's Mike."

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