But for eight words, Matt Fuerbringer might be a high school basketball coach somewhere, telling stories of a modest college career followed by a brief professional foray overseas.
But those eight words, a recruiting pitch by Tom Pestolesi at Estancia High in the late 1980s, set Fuerbringer on a path that made him a volleyball icon who only recently shifted from player to coach as an assistant with the U.S. men’s national volleyball team.
“I had never even played volleyball before and I was doing all this basketball stuff,” said Fuerbringer, who starred on Estancia’s 1990-91 CIF State Division III basketball championship team, the only state basketball crown ever captured by a Newport-Mesa school. “But Tom Pestolesi, who was the boys’ volleyball coach at the time, said: ‘If you want, you can be an Olympian.”
The words, designed to get the then-6-foot-6 Fuerbringer into Pestolesi’s lineup, hit the lanky but athletic Fuerbringer like a jump serve in the chest. They also ignited a confidence and competitive fire that would carry him to an NCAA volleyball title, a five-year professional indoor stint overseas, and a 13-year pro beach volleyball career that produced seven Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tournament titles, four Federation International de Volleyball runner-up finishes, nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in winnings and an ascension to the No. 6 world ranking at age 38 in 2012.
"[Pestolesi’s] words really rang true for me,” Fuerbringer, a Hermosa Beach resident, said Tuesday after a national team training session in Anaheim. “For some reason, I really believed it and I thought that was something I could do.”
Fuerbringer turned down scholarship offers from mid-major basketball schools to play volleyball at Stanford. Five years later, the four-time All-American led the Cardinal to the 1997 NCAA title. He also left as the school’s all-time kill leader, though all those swings took their toll.
Three shoulder surgeries during and after college helped put Fuerbringer out of commission for a run at the 2000 U.S. indoor Olympic team, and later spelled doom to his indoor aspirations in European pro leagues.
He made his beach debut in 1999 and now 6-8, his blend of size and grace helped forge an overall game well-suited to the two-man format. He began playing full time on the beach in 2003 and was AVP Rookie of the Year.
He won at least one AVP event in all but one year from 2004 through 2010 and, in the process, took a run at representing the U.S. in beach volleyball in the 2004, and 2008 Olympics. He and then-partner Casey Jennings finished third in a qualifying process that sent only two U.S. teams to the Games in 2008.
Partnered with Nick Lucena in 2012, Fuerbringer was poised to finally achieve his Olympic dreams. But a surprise run by Costa Mesa resident Jake Gibb and Corona del Mar resident Sean Rosenthal once again left Fuerbringer as the odd man out with the No. 3 team. Fuerbringer and Lucena were ranked No. 6 in the world, but could not compete in London.
“In terms of volleyball, there is no bigger disappointment,” Fuerbringer said of the 2012 Olympic qualifying bid that came up short. “We fought so hard, we did so much and we played so well that year. The killer was, we did everything we were supposed to do. But we didn’t know [Gibb and Rosenthal], who hadn’t been in the top 10 in their lives, before that, would be the No. 1 team in the world that year. Even then, we still had chances. There are a few plays that haunt me, but that’s life. If anything, that keeps me hungry for my next job, which is pushing these [American players] for these Olympics.”
Fuerbringer, who has coached club volleyball for many years, runs his own Rockstar boys volleyball club out of Carson. He also served a volunteer assistant for U.S. national team coach John Speraw at UCLA in 2013 and said coaching engages him sufficiently to take the U.S. assistant job that meant retiring from the beach circuit.
“I get to work toward going to the Olympics,” Fuerbringer said. “Having one focus, one drive, is something I’ve always had. So, to be able to use that as a coach is real exciting for me.”
Speraw, who led UC Irvine to three national championships in 10 seasons before taking over at his alma mater last year, said Fuerbringer’s beach experience brings a unique perspective to the Team USA staff.
“Guys with beach experience see the game in smaller pieces,” Speraw said. “When we are raised in the indoor world, we have a tendency to look at a rotation and see distribution on a larger scale. But when you’re playing beach, it’s not about that; it’s about the subtleties of the game and [beach players] can see that really well. So [Fuerbringer’s] vision of the game has added something to our staff and the way we train our team.”
Fuerbringer said he had planned to play a reduced beach schedule this year until Speraw offered him a job with the national team. And now, so close to his playing career, he has yet to reflect on the enormity of his accomplishments. But he is, clearly proud of his impact on the game and is anxious to use the Olympic disappointments in his past to motivate his current players.
“I’ve played at the highest level, but never at the Olympics,” Fuerbringer said. “I know we have some work to do to get to the Olympics [in 2016], but I want to be a part of it. One of the things I do is pull guys aside and say ‘Hey, man, I missed [the Olympics] by a couple points. I’m all in, now. I’m going to give everything I have and when guys are fading, I’m going to pick them up, because I want them to know that I’ve learned that lesson and I don’t want anyone else to learn it again.”