Steve Gatena can’t remember the last time he was healthy.
From recovering from his bout with a collapsed lung to overcoming a torn labrum – twice – Gatena has had his fair share of struggles on his trek toward the top of the mountain.
The 6-foot-5, 285-pounder started at left tackle for the UC Davis football team last season, but the book on his journey to that position – and beyond starting next year – has been a long one.
In the first part of this two-part series, Gatena talks about his transition to UC Davis, overcoming injury and his waiting game for next season. The second part of this story will run in The California Aggie’s graduation issue Thursday.
The road to UC Davis
Coming out of Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Gatena had a couple of dozen Division I football scholarships sent his way.
But he was only waiting to hear from two schools.
Since he was a young boy, Gatena had always envisioned himself playing collegiate football at either Stanford or Air Force.
After falling just 30 points shy of the SAT score he needed to secure a scholarship to Stanford, Gatena said his choice to become an Air Force Falcon was an easy one.
What wasn’t easy, however, was Gatena’s transition to the Academy.
After finding out that his grandmother was dying of cancer the day before he left for Air Force, Gatena arrived at the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“When I got there, I had to go through basic training,” Gatena said. “It was really, really tough, and I started to get sick. I got bronchitis, and during basic training, you’re not allowed to take antibiotics because … they figure if you’re stuck in Iraq, you’re not going to be able to get any help because you have a little cold. It kept getting worse, turned into walking pneumonia, and by the end of basic training, I had lost 50 pounds.”
And then things got worse.
“A week before we played Cal, I dislocated my right shoulder,” Gatena said. “And then about four-and-a-half, five weeks later when I was cleared to come back, I dislocated my other shoulder. The walking pneumonia had gone away at this point, and my other shoulder was healing.
“Then I woke up one morning with a collapsed lung. It was pretty brutal. It felt like a baseball bat to the ribs every time I took a breath.”
At this point, Gatena knew he wasn’t going to be cleared to play football for Air Force anytime soon.
Gatena was given two options: He could either try to become medically cleared for the following summer, or he could take an honorable discharge from his obligation to serve Air Force.
“I started making a few calls to some of the schools that had offered me scholarships in high school, and I got a few offers,” Gatena said. “UC Davis was one of them, Arizona was another, Wyoming was another – I was very academically-oriented, so I decided that Davis would be the best place to go.”
Unfortunately for Gatena, his injury woes did not stay in Colorado Springs.
Gatena was excited to take the field for the Aggies for the first time – but he’d have to wait longer than he hoped for that to occur.
“The week before our first game, I tore my MCL,” Gatena said. “That was a real bummer – basically put me out for the whole season. Now, I’ve missed two years of football due to injury. At this point, I was kind of questioning whether I’d even come back to football.”
But Gatena came back. And once again, that comeback didn’t come easy.
“Then in the next season, I tore my labrum in my right shoulder,” Gatena said. “I didn’t sit out that season – I continued to practice and play as a backup. I didn’t know how bad my shoulder was, though – I thought that I had sprained something really bad, so I kind of just kept trucking along.”
Unfortunately for Gatena, the injury he had suffered was far worse than a sprained shoulder.
“I was really having problems [last] summer, so I went to my doctor in Los Angeles and got an MRI,” Gatena said. “He told me my labrum was torn and that I would need surgery. Now, I’m going into my fourth college season, injured again, guaranteed that I needed surgery, and I haven’t been healthy since high school – well, even in high school, I played my senior year on a broken foot. At this point, I can’t even remember the last time I was healthy.”
While he couldn’t remember what it was like to be healthy, Gatena could remember how hard he had worked to play football. He knew that his team needed him, and that he had worked too hard to hang his cleats up for UC Davis for the final time.
Gatena started all season at left tackle for the Aggies in 2007. Then he tore a labrum, again.
“It didn’t take an MRI this time to find out what happened because I remembered how bad it had hurt the first time,” Gatena said. “I didn’t want to give up on playing, so I kept playing throughout the season with two torn labrums.”
Although he had considered not making a return to football before, Gatena said that this time was different.
“At the end of the season, I went in and got my first shoulder surgery. That was about the time that I started worrying about football again.… I kind of started questioning how strong I’d be for the next season.
“Then I had my other surgery, and that’s when things kind of started to hit me. I said, ‘Is this really what I want to do to my body? Is football worth it anymore? Do I really want to risk lifelong injury – again?’ I kind of started freaking out a little bit.”
Gatena had always planned on a life after football. He just didn’t expect to be executing that plan so soon.
“I started thinking about grad school,” Gatena said. “I had always wanted to be a sports agent, so I started looking at different graduate programs.
“I started looking at schools in Los Angeles. UCLA had their applications due in November, so I started looking at some of the local private schools – Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and USC.”
Then about three weeks into January, Gatena received an internship with the lieutenant governor.
“I kind of started to convince myself more and more that football wasn’t something that was worth doing for me anymore,” Gatena said. “Graduate school began to appeal to me more and more.”
Gatena put his plan into action, applying to two graduate programs at USC: strategic public relations and communication management. He also applied to similar programs at Pepperdine.
“At that point, I went to [UC Davis football head] coach [Bob] Biggs and I said, ‘Coach, I’ve decided to apply to graduate school, and I’m not going to play next year,'” Gatena said. “I think that moment was really hard for both of us.”
“I was disappointed because of the lateness of his decision,” Biggs said. “My initial reaction was surprise because we jumped through a bunch of hoops to get him another year of eligibility – Steve, had he stayed here, would have had two years of eligibility. The fact that he didn’t make the decision till after the recruiting season was tough for us.”
Over the next two months, Gatena talked with Biggs on a regular basis about the decision he was facing.
“He asked me some very good questions that caused me to introspect,” Gatena said. “I really had to ask myself questions about what I wanted to do with my life.
“I kind of came to the point where football had entered my mind again as a positive thing…. I told coach Biggs that if I didn’t get into USC, then I would play football at Davis again next year. At this point, I kind of just sat around and waited.”
ADAM LOBERSTEIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.