Over the first couple of weeks in the new basketball season, the Cal State San Marcos men’s team circled up on the gym floor for warmups and almost immediately noses began to twitch.
There is nothing quite like the nostril-burning menthol smell of ICY HOT.
“Who is that?” someone would groan.
It was always the same guy raising his hand. It became a running joke.
“Do you have to guess?” would say, enjoying the needling as much as anybody.
When you’re a 31-year-old freshman on a team of 18- to 20-year-olds, you have to be prepared to get the needle when you’ve slathered too much soothing but stinky ointment on your aching knees and back.
Oh, but it hurts so good.
is experiencing something of a sporting rebirth, and his story is like few who have played at any college level.
Most guys age are settling into the rhythm of their chosen career. He’s already experienced a lifetime of rewards and challenges as a 14-year veteran of the Marines who has been on eight deployments. He has been married five years to his wife, and any day now Cindy will give birth to their first child, son Camilo.
An active duty staff sergeant, has begun the rigors of the Marine officer commissioning program and is being paid to attend college. When he completes his degree in Global Studies at CSUSM, he will become a second lieutenant, on his way to leading warriors.
Yet, through it all, was nagged by one goal that had gone untested: trying to play college basketball.
Most people would have chalked it up as to an opportunity missed. They’d be too embarrassed to be the old guy on the court. The Semper Fi spirit in wouldn’t accept that.
“It’s been kind of how I’ve lived my life,” said. “Doing what I did in the military and the level I reached, the attitude was, ‘If I’m selected for this unit or not, at least I have the guts to try.’ The guys around me in the Marines all had that mindset. We may not be the best or the fastest, but we’re going to give it everything we have.
“If I didn’t make the basketball team, I could say I tried at 31. At least I know I tried and gave it my all.”
, who played high school ball in Orange County and hundreds of games on the Camp Pendleton base traveling team, approached the Cougars coaches over the summer about trying out. He was one of a couple dozen who showed up for the walk-on camp. Then something extraordinary happened.
“He comes out and he’s trying out with these 18- and 19-year-olds, and he’s making every shot, and he’s beating up on these little young guys,” Cougars head coach B.J. Foster recalled. “With his background it was a no-brainer to keep him on the team. People with military training have all of those tools that we try to teach the guys.”
laughed at the thought of his tryout performance.
“That day I went home and thought, ‘If they don’t take me after shooting like that … ‘ I couldn’t shoot the ball any better than I did.
“Honestly, I think it was because we had a doctor’s appointment that day. I saw the first ultrasound of my son. Just seeing him put me in a great state of mind — basketball was just a game. I really didn’t feel any pressure when I showed up.”
It’s about perspective.
The son of a dad, Steve , who served 30 years in the Marines and whose own father fought in Korea, thought from an early age he’d be a Marine, and then 9/11 happened during his junior year in high school and that sealed it, he said.
He enlisted out of high school in 2003, and a year later was deployed to Iraq as a radio operator to a unit based outside of Fallujah. One day, was handed a metal detector and told to sweep for IEDs.
“As a 19-year-old kid, you’re like, ‘OK,’ ” said while trying to replicate his blank expression. “It definitely makes you grow up faster.”
That first of his three deployments to Iraq would be the most trying, said, although no one in his unit was seriously injured. Among the other deployments was an assignment in Afghanistan and a stint on a ship off the coast of Africa.
only significant injury was a broken elbow suffered on the ship when he fell hard while exiting a helicopter by rope.
After first enlistment was up in 2007, he briefly left the Marines in the hopes of playing college basketball. He worked out for a time with coach John O’Neill’s Palomar College team. But the Marines asked him to come back, and he did so within a few months.
“Best decision I ever made,” said.
At the walk-on tryout, the CSUSM players were somewhat startled at first to see a muscular, 6-foot, 190-pound guy who was clearly older than them.
“First playing against him, you could tell he’s a grown man,” said junior guard Ethan Alvano, a first-year transfer from Eastern Michigan and the team’s leading scorer at 16.7 points per game. “He’s strong. He has stature. He has that presence.
“Playing against him was fun at first because you think you’re going to be able to go by this old guy. But he’s a competitor. He doesn’t let that stuff stop him.”
Once on the squad, knew he’d be in for some kidding, and he was more than prepared to dish anything back. Marines usually aren’t shy.
The team challenged him with some funny stuff, beyond making fun of the ICY HOT. Best nickname: “Just For Men,” because of his graying whiskers. A pre-game meal turned into a debate about whether could beat MMA legend Ronda Rousey in a fight.
When Rousey was demolished in 48 seconds by Amanda Nunes in UFC 207, group texted his teammates, “Still think she can beat me?”
Foster has enlisted for some serious stuff, too. When players have needed encouragement or extra motivation, he’s asked to intervene.
“He’s a great leader off the court and in the locker room,” Foster said. “Everything you’re teaching the guys in terms of teamwork, and sacrifice, and work ethic, and fighting through adversity, he’s lived.”
Well into the season, a Cougars team that lost all of its top scorers from last season is managing fine, with four players averaging in double figures. CSUSM is 10-5 overall and 5-3 in the CCAA and has won three straight heading into Thursday night’s game against Cal Poly Pomona in its impressive new home, the Sports Center.
has appeared in five games, totaling 13 minutes playing the tenacious defense for which he’s known. He’s only attempted two field goals and has two points.
“He hadn’t played in a long time,” Foster said. “We have a bunch of really good guys who have been playing consistently for a while. But he’s a good shooter and every day he practices hard. He’s physical.
“He’s a 31-year-old freshman,” Foster added with a smile. “We’ve got three years to groom him into something.”
scoring line hasn’t diminished the team’s regard for him one bit.
“He understands his role perfectly,” Alvano said. “He’s a guy who’s looked up to for advice. He’s a true competitor. Every day in practice he’s the guy who brings energy and effort. One thing I like to do is lead by example, and he does, too. I’ve texted and talked to him on multiple occasions. He’s a mentor, a teammate and a friend.”
Said , “I see the bigger picture. When guys are having a bad shooting night or they’re going through some adversity, I’ve been through that already. I pull them aside with quick words of encouragement — trust it; keep grinding; don’t second-guess yourself.”
views his mentoring as just one more part of his training to be an officer. One day, young men in very different uniforms will put their trust and faith in him.
“The whole point of all of this,” said, “is to be a better leader of Marines.”
By Tod Leonard
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