Notes: PULL QUOTE: “After all the injuries, I think it’s kind of like you’re at the bottom of the mountain looking up. You’re just asking yourself, ‘Will I ever get there?’ You climb and you climb and you climb, and then you fall off – fall all the way to the bottom – and you’re looking back up again. Right now I feel like I’m climbing. It’s so close – the top of the mountain is so close.” – Steve Gatena
Headline: King of the mountain: part two
Layercake: Gatena gets the chance to pursue two passions
By ADAM LOBERSTEIN
Aggie Sports Editor
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 second part of this two-part series, Gatena talks about his acceptance to USC, his difficulty in saying goodbye to UC Davis and getting to the best of both worlds – a chance to play football at USC while pursuing a graduate school degree.
The wait is over
With spring football on the horizon, Gatena began to hit the weight room hard, and went to UC Davis football meetings, as well.
“I was attending the meetings because I didn’t think that I would get into USC, and if I didn’t, I still wanted to be part of the team here,” Gatena said.
But then about a week into spring training, Gatena learned that he had been accepted to USC.
“That was a very bittersweet moment,” Gatena said. “I got into one of the best communication schools in the country, and things are looking bright as far as graduate school goes. But at the same time, I’m leaving my best friends. I didn’t know how they were going to take it.“
The first thing Gatena did after getting accepted to USC was to leave the lieutenant governor’s office to find his roommate, Jon Compas, captain of the UC Davis football team.
“It was kind of tough – I felt like crying,” Gatena said. “I went straight to the locker room because I knew that’s where he’d be. Still wearing my suit and everything, I told Jon and I gave him a hug, and then I went and told Coach Biggs. Coach Biggs was happy for me, but at the same time, it’s hard to replace a starting lineman that you’re expecting to come back.“
At that point, Gatena’s career in Aggie blue had come to a close.
“I kind of left it at that because my grad school program was fulltime,” Gatena said. “I really kind of just gave up the idea of football because I knew it would be the best thing for my life as opposed to the moment.“
Men of Troy come calling
Gatena then learned he had received admittance to the second program he had applied to at USC, as well. It was also a fulltime program, but it was geared toward working professionals – classes didn’t start till 6:30 p.m.
“Once I got into that program, I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I could play football and do grad school.‘ I decided that I should give the coaches a call to see if they had any room on the roster.“
Up until this point, Gatena’s decision to leave UC Davis was solely to pursue his education – not to play football elsewhere. In order to play at USC, Gatena would need to get his release from the UC Davis football program from Biggs.
Having heard that Gatena was accepted to the program, Biggs‘ decision was an easy one.
“It was a no-brainer,” Biggs said.
Gatena then gave the coaching staff at USC a call to see if there was any room on the Trojans roster. Gatena was asked to send the coaches game tape so they could evaluate him before granting him a position on the team.
“I sent them some tape, [USC head coach Pete] Carroll seemed very pleased with it. He told me that he would make room on the team, and now I’m coming in next fall to be a Trojan.“The wait was worth it
A broken foot in high school, walking pneumonia, a collapsed lung and two dislocated shoulders at Air Force, and a torn MCL and two torn labrums at UC Davis.
After all that, Gatena was finally getting it all: A chance to study at one of the top graduate programs in the country, and a chance to play football for one of the top teams in the nation.
“It’s definitely special,” Gatena said. “After all the injuries, I think it’s kind of like you’re at the bottom of the mountain looking up. You’re just asking yourself, ‘Will I ever get there?’ You climb and you climb and you climb, and then you fall off – fall all the way to the bottom – and you’re looking back up again. Right now I feel like I’m climbing. It’s so close – the top of the mountain is so close.“
But before Gatena can make his climb to the top, he must first say farewell to UC Davis – a farewell that won’t be an easy one to make.
“It’s just kind of the way it worked out,” Biggs said. “He didn’t really know that this was something he could pursue till the recruiting season was over with. I was tough on him at first. Given all the things we had done for him over the years, I was disappointed that he didn’t let us know. But after it looked as if he was going to get a chance to get [into USC], it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.“
“The one thing I’m really going to miss is the guys on our team,” Gatena said. “The relationships I’ve built with these guys – it’s hard to leave that. USC is going to be a different environment. You have kids thinking, ‘I’m coming in, going to play three years, I’m going to start, then I’m going to the NFL.‘ I can only speculate, but I’m sure that they don’t have the bond there that we have here at UC Davis.“
Although his journey has taken him far longer than three years, Gatena is now thinking about the NFL, too.
“I definitely think about the NFL all the time,” Gatena said. “I’m not going to bank on the fact that I’m going to play in the NFL, but I’m going to push myself beyond limits to be the best possible football player I can be. That way, if the opportunity does arise, I’ll be ready for it.“
But if it does not, Gatena will have a graduate degree from USC – which is the real reason he’s leaving UC Davis.
“I think he needs to be congratulated on being able to overcome the injuries, but he needs to keep his focus on his academics,” Biggs said. “If he’s able to do both (go to graduate school and play football) and do both well, then I think that’s awesome.“
ADAM LOBERSTEIN can be reached at email@example.com. XXX