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Hard CoreIs No More

Buena Park's Gonzalez Gets Life Together Off the Field and Stars at Linebacker on It

November 23, 2001|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raymond Gonzalez's reputation as an intense hitter on the football field isn't the only one he carries on his bulky shoulders.

A rock of a middle linebacker for Buena Park High--"our enforcer," says Coach Frank Saiz--Gonzalez laid the foundation for the Coyotes' first football playoff victory in 45 years, a 27-21 win over Anaheim Western last week.

Enforcer? There will be no argument from Western Coach Toby Howell, who said Gonzalez "put three hits on our guys that were the best I've seen all year," including one on the second play of the game. "He knocked one of our best [linemen] down and it took him 30 seconds to get up," Howell said. "They saw [that] these Western guys aren't that tough. One play really set the tone for the evening."

There was something else that Howell learned about Gonzalez from his players in the week leading up to the game: "He's supposed to be a hardcore dude on the street with a bad reputation, and I think maybe our guys were a little intimidated."

Yeah, Gonzalez admits it. He had a reputation, gleaned from being a hard-nosed seventh-and eighth-grader hanging out with local high school seniors in a tough part of Buena Park.

"The wrong crowd," Gonzalez said. "I knew I belonged somewhere else, but I didn't want to go home, so I went with the flow. They had their group, and I would tag along.... I had a bad attitude."

His influences weren't good. He saw guys get jumped on the street and witnessed his share of fistfights. At school, he talked back to teachers, missed classes, didn't do his work. "D" not only stood for detention, but for grades. It was a past that didn't serve him well, nor did it fit him comfortably.

"That's the key word, the past, " said Gonzalez, 17, a senior who began his transformation about one year ago. "Now I understand I have a future ahead of me. People can't tell me what to do anymore, I have to do it myself. I've only had one absence in one class this year. I even have a backpack with folders and books in it--everyone makes fun of me now. I take two city buses to get to school. I'm dedicated. Hey, I can't be screwing around anymore."

So Gonzalez, a 6-foot, 225-pound man-boy, is focused. On football. On school. On success.

"He was always a very bright kid, but he was always very one-dimensional--football, football, football," said Frank Saiz, who last year replaced his brother, Manny, in trying to complete a Buena Park turnaround. "He's a special type of player. A lot of guys go out there and tackle, but he brings a little more to the table when he tackles people."

Gonzalez missed last year's playoff game against Western--a 42-3 loss--because he was academically ineligible. He was sent to La Vista High, a continuation school, where he says he made up 60 credits. He raised his grade-point average to 2.8, plans to attend junior college, and then a university. If he can't play in the NFL, he says he would like to return to Buena Park as a coach, maybe even as a teacher. "Science," he says, "is pretty cool."

"After I went to La Vista, it just clicked," Gonzalez said. "My parents said if I want a good life, I have to have an education, that I can't just think about now , I have to think about the future."

Buena Park (7-4) plays fourth-seeded Irvine University (9-2) tonight at Irvine with a very real chance to advance to the Southern Section semifinals. Buena Park, the perpetual loser that showed last week it may have finally learned how to win--Evan Lopez scored the winning touchdown from six yards with six seconds remaining--has a chance to turn the division upside down with its option offense and a frenzied, bone-crushing defense.

And Gonzalez, a varsity linebacker since midseason his freshman year, continues to turn his own life right-side up.

"If you knew me, you'd know I made a big improvement in my life, both as a football player and a person," Gonzalez said. "I get along with all my teachers, no referrals, no detentions.

"I've been doing good this year, and I don't want anything to mess it up for me. As long as I keep that mentality, who knows where I can go. The sky's the limit."

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