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Strictly Business

It's apparent linebacker Gonzales knows what he wants out of life and is fixated on getting it

June 26, 2004|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Tempo was set to half speed earlier this week as a group of recently graduated high school seniors ran through practice drills in preparation for the 53rd Shrine all-star football game tonight at Mt. San Antonio College.

The fun meter was left wide open, however, during a drill on the two-minute offense late in Wednesday's practice. Some players couldn't pass up the opportunity to poke fun whenever the defensive coverage broke down.

Amid the swagger and playful criticism stood Nicholas Gonzales, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound inside linebacker who kept his back to it all.

Gonzales, who will attend the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., this fall, never altered his defensive stance, his technique or even the way he charged back to his position. His focus was similar to what it was last fall, when he helped lead surprising Hacienda Heights Wilson to a Southern Section Division VI semifinal.

His practice habits have been a refreshing sight for the Shrine coaches. Like the players, they have been chosen from public schools across the Southland to compete against an equally talented team of private-school players.

Pete Duffy, head coach of the public-schools team, immediately recognized a disparate work ethic in Gonzales.

"Some players like to, what I call, 'Cadillac it,' " said Duffy, who coached at Los Angeles Fremont and recently took the job at Hemet West Valley. "They cruise until it's time to play. With [Gonzales], he brings it every time."

Duffy has watched Gonzales perform only on a practice field. Those who have followed him over the years can recite numerous areas in which he stands out.

"He's a very polite and well-mannered kid," Wilson Coach Robert Oviedo said. "He's the kind of kid you'd expect to go to a service academy."

Gonzales, the oldest of five children, has always seemed more mature. While many of his neighborhood friends were immersed in Little League six years ago, he was helping campaign with his father, Henry, in an unsuccessful bid for the State Assembly seat in the 57th District.

When other freshmen were counting the months until they could obtain their drivers' licenses, Gonzales was dreaming of flying jets and speeding through space. He has since held positions in school government at Wilson and has a long list of community involvement.

After Saturday's game, Gonzales will have two weeks off before leaving for the East Coast. He learned he had been officially accepted at NAPS last month, though his pursuit of an appointment to the Naval Academy began about three years ago.

That's when he discovered an interest in aviation and, soon after, was introduced to the Naval Academy by former teammate Eric Shuey, now a kicker for the Midshipmen.

Gonzales began the application process during his sophomore year, attending numerous interviews with high-level officials and getting recommendation letters from the dozens of educators who have played a role in his life. He also secured a recommendation from U.S. Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano.

In the meantime, his gridiron stature continued to grow. He was a three-year starter at tight end and linebacker for the Wildcats, catching 33 passes for 457 yards and eight touchdowns last fall.

He received scholarship offers from Arizona, Nevada Las Vegas and UC Davis, but let it be known early that he was mainly interested in Navy. Although he had to wait longer than most recruits before solidifying his college plans, Gonzales never wavered in his decision to hold out for the acceptance to NAPS.

"It's probably one of the greatest things I've done," he said. "It was a great thing to see a fellow teammate go through the process. It proved that I could do it too."

The 10-month program at NAPS is designed to strengthen the academic background, or physical aptitude, of incoming candidates before they can be granted an appointment to the Naval Academy, a six-year commitment with a taxpayer cost of approximately $300,000.

Gonzales, who said he needed to improve his math scores, planned to play football at NAPS, which schedules other prep schools, community colleges and junior varsity teams at Yale and Navy.

He hopes to pursue a career as an astronaut, possibly specializing in health science, preferably as a heart surgeon. He sometimes imagines himself performing the first open-heart surgery in outer space. He also hopes to someday get back on the campaign trail, this time to endorse himself.

"I just like trying to help people," Gonzales said. "I want to try to do what's best."


Shrine Football Game

Where: Mt. San Antonio College

* When: Tonight, 7

* Format: The 53rd game will feature a public schools vs. private schools format for the second year. Last year, the public-schools team won, 20-13.

* Competitors: The public-schools team will be led by nine Times' All-Stars, including Newhall Hart quarterback Sean Norton, who helped the Indians to the Southern Section Division II title and is headed to Fresno State. Running the private-schools team will be Rocky Hinds, a quarterback from Playa del Rey St. Bernard who is headed to USC. Complete rosters on Page 10.

* Coaches: Pete Duffy of Hemet West Valley will coach the public-schools team and Kiki Mendoza of Bellflower St. John Bosco will coach the private.

* TV: The game will air live on Fox Sports Net.

* Tickets: Price is $12, and funds will benefit the Shrine Hospitals for Children. Tickets are available at the stadium box office.

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