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HIS GAME'S GROWING AGAIN : Stunted for a Time, George Fernandez's Soccer Skill Is Re-Emerging

April 26, 1989|DON PATTERSON

SAN DIEGO — The lights had just been shut off at the San Diego Sports Arena following the Sockers' practice. Cory Fernandez, clutching a can of soda that looked gigantic in a 3 1/2-year-old's hands, was less than thrilled. He could have done without the sudden darkness.

George Fernandez, the defender with the two-octave smile, "Dad" to Cory and "Keoki" to his family in Hawaii, patiently explained to his son that keeping the lights on costs money. That was good enough for Cory, who ran off to play.

Cory is one of the responsibilities that have snuck up on Fernandez. Life has become complicated, certainly when compared with his childhood. He has to think about more than just soccer. More than just himself.

A look back.

Age 5. George Fernandez, born in California but often in Hawaii to visit relatives, spent most of his days running through the sugar cane fields with his dog, Lani. No worries.

High school. Fernandez's focus was sports: soccer, football, badminton. He was a natural. Football was his favorite, though he was only 5-feet-7, 155 pounds as a senior. University of the Pacific offered him a football scholarship. He declined, deciding he didn't want to get his bell rung, and decided to play soccer at Cal State Hayward. No worries.

College. Soccer became his life. School meant very little. Fernandez would skip classes and spend hours by himself dribbling and juggling a soccer ball, refining his skills. It paid off. He was a two-time All-American and considered one of the top college prospects in 1983. He was drafted by the Cleveland Force and the Chicago Sting. No worries.

Soon after, the worries began. Fernandez decided to go to the balmy city of Cleveland after he took a trip to Chicago and nearly froze. He had brought only T-shirts to wear.

Cleveland, the city, was great. Fernandez loved it. Cleveland, the team, wasn't so great. He played in just six games in two years. He says that set his career back several notches. His college coach, Colin Lindores, can only speculate as to why Fernandez didn't do better.

"I think maybe their expectations were much higher than he performed," Lindores said.

Fernandez made $50,000 in each of his two seasons in Cleveland.

"But it was money I didn't earn," Fernandez said. "It was, like, a waste of time."

He was released after the 1984-85 season.

Next stop, Los Angeles. More worries.

Fernandez played in 64 games in two seasons with the Lazers. From a soccer standpoint, he was happier. But Los Angeles was not his idea of an ideal place to live.

During training camp, the players would run on the beach at 7:30 a.m. Under normal traffic conditions, Fernandez said, it was a 45-minute drive. But this wasn't normal. He had to leave at 4:30 a.m. to get there on time. He hadn't seen traffic like that since he was in China with the Junior World Cup Team. There, he said, people drove at two or three miles an hour because there were so many people walking in the streets.

Fernandez formed some rather strong opinions about L.A.

"I'll tell you," he says, "the psychologists up there must be making some big bucks. I spent more time driving than I did playing. It's the worst place to live. It's just mayhem 24 hours around the clock."

OK, George, how do you really feel?

"It's terrible," he continues. "I can't see how people can live there."

The fast lifestyle doesn't fit Fernandez's personality. Despite his enthusiasm during games, in which he might wave the towel to stir the crowd or jump up on the glass to slap hands with fans, Fernandez isn't the rock-and-roll, party-all-night type. He would much rather spend a quiet evening at home. Socker defender Gus Mokalis, Fernandez's roommate on the road, says sometimes they'll sit in the room for hours without talking.

In that respect, Fernandez hasn't changed much since high school, when he would sit home a lot and watch sports on television, hardly saying a word. His parents used to try to get him out of the house.

"We used to feel sorry for him because he wasn't one to go out with his friends," said Fernandez's mother, Lynette. "He'd sit with us on weekends."

Fernandez's version?

"I never dated because I was too afraid to ask them if I could go out for a date."

He's still not much for a social life. "I've always been a loner," he said. "I have a good time by myself, read the newspaper. Nobody yapping in my ear."

San Diego is perfect. Reminds Fernandez of Hawaii. And it's here, for the first time in his professional career, that Fernandez is pleased with his role on a soccer team. He was one of three Sockers who played in all 48 regular season games in 1988-89. His teammates respect his ability and, perhaps more importantly, his intensity. Fernandez, said teammate Kevin Crow, stays at the same level throughout the game, giving the rest of the players a lift. Fernandez is also the best defender they have on the penalty-killing unit.

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