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Columbia WR/FS Gutierrez Training Hard for Sophomore Season
At first, it was painful, but nothing too terrible.
Nico Gutierrez just lay there in the initial seconds after he was hit in the knee with a helmet of a player that was vying for more playing time.
But then, he got up and walked back to the sideline. There weren’t too many people in the stands that day, but it didn’t matter. He would play in front of plenty more once he rested his right knee a little bit.
This was in September 2006.
Flash forward to December of last year. Gutierrez is playing for Columbia and, again, is on the ground, looking up at the sky facing the same exact injury that prevented him from playing his senior year of high school.
Not many people suffer the same injury twice, but Gutierrez has had to go through it with 16 months between occurrences, ironically bookending the end of his high school career and the beginning of his college one.
Gutierrez went down with the first injury during a scrimmage against Brunswick, believing it, at first, to be only a minor setback. He soon would find out that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament - an injury that is becoming more and more common in football and basketball.
The 19-year-old former wide receiver/free safety at New Canaan High School saw his senior season end before it began
“At first I didn’t know it was season-ending,” Gutierrez said. “I was going into that season with a lot of high expectations. When the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to play the rest of the season, it was hard to cope with.”
A two-way player with plenty of agility, speed and smarts, Gutierrez was a college prospect when he became a game-changer in his sophomore season. Before word of the injury was out on Gutierrez, he had been become sought after by many in circles outside New Canaan. His grades were good enough to get him into and have him playing at almost any Ivy League school. In fact, most Ivy League and some Patriot League colleges were interested in him. The phone calls, letters, text messages - they were all there. Gutierrez was experiencing what so many high school athletes dream of: courtship from a bevy of college coaches.
Then the Brunswick scrimmage happened. Suddenly, his incoming calls were only from supportive friends and family. Those names and numbers he had memorized and programmed into his phone weren’t popping up anymore. To most of the coaches, his identity had changed. At 17 and with a senior season that would never be played, he was already washed up.
But one coach stuck around.
Norries Wilson, who was entering his first season as head coach at Columbia, kept in contact with Gutierrez. He wanted to see how well he was recovering, and he wanted to know if the knee would be back in shape by spring.
So Gutierrez went his entire senior year on the bench. He became a sentimental figure. People around the community felt sympathy for a player with so much potential who had, seemingly, gone to waste (in football terms).
One of his best friends, Dan Neeleman, even decided to wear Gutierrez’s number, 13, in support of his fallen teammate.
Gutierrez watched as his team won a state title without him. It was fun to be a part of from the sidelines, hanging out with the guys who would come off the field after some plays required them to take a breather - but it was tough to swallow, too.
“We had a great season. We won states. It was awesome, but I really wanted to be out there, you know,” Gutierrez said. “We had a great team that year, and I knew I could still play football. I wanted to contribute and be part of a team again on the field.”
So Gutierrez had to sit out his senior year of indoor track, but he continued to rehab his knee. Like so many athletes before him, Gutierrez had to prove the other coaches wrong. He had to show them that he was an uncommon kid with a common injury.
He recovered completely by May, and started testing his limits as early as March by competing in outdoor track events. By then, he had been accepted into Columbia, had committed to the football program and was ready to give another four years of his life to football.
Gutierrez started the training camp sessions in New York City in the second week of August with more than a little hesitation.
“Despite (running) track, I was still a little nervous about playing football,” he said. “You know, after an injury like that, it takes a little while for you to get completely comfortable on the field.”
After the first couple of days, Gutierrez warmed up to all of his fellow freshmen - and that’s what helped him find his niche.
“All of us became really tight, and we were getting along so well. The older guys brought us in and made us feel a part of the team right away,” Gutierrez said. For the first month of school, he went through the motions, the actions, the protocol of everyday college life.
“I kept improving every week,” he said.
Before Gutierrez knew it, he was starting in the fourth game of the season. After a senior wideout had missed a number of blocking assignments and dropped a few passes, Wilson opted to give the freshman with zero competitive football experience in more than a year his chance not only to play, but to start.
Gutierrez had adapted to the three-inch-thick playbook and said he was feeling like he was in the best physical shape of his life. Those two-a-days in mid-August had paid off. He earned himself a starting spot. In six starts, he averaged 12.8 yards per catch, caught two touchdowns and made 29 catches.
It would have been 30 had two defenders not collided with a familiar place - his right knee.
Gutierrez had left the huddle and lined up on the right of the field. The call was for him. It was a post pattern. There were less than five minutes to go in the final game of the season. Columbia trailed by five and was moving the ball up the field.
Then it happened.
“I knew right away,” he said. “I knew it was the same injury. The first one was a freak accident. The second time it was serious damage.” He knew his season had ended-just like he had known 16 months earlier.
Of course he hadn’t wanted to have the reset button hit on his athletic life, but he now seems OK with everything and how it happened.
“Obviously, I wasn’t as upset [as the first time] because I got to play an entire season,” he said. “I guess if you could pick any time to have your knee injured, the final minutes of the last game of the season would be the time to have it happen,” he joked. After the almost-immediate surgery last December, Gutierrez thought about his future with the team.
Wilson assured him that he would still have a spot - if healthy - on the team in 2008. Since then, he’s been rehabbing to an even harder extent than he had after his first injury.
“My coaches tell me that I’m still the starter,” he said. “In the beginning, when we go to camp, I’m only going to run once a day instead of twice. Still, when I get there, I’m going to go all the way. What good does it do me to only go 75 percent if I can go more? I will go 100 percent.”
For the remainder of the summer, Gutierrez will train and rehab his knee at the local YMCA, do underwater strength conditioning and build up his stamina every day of the week.
Gutierrez claims his body has nearly healed. Like before, he said he’s feeling more and more in shape and ready to play. At last, he can use both of his knees again to walk and run and jump.
At last, he can have another chance to show he’s 19 and anything but washed up.
At last, he can play football again.
Gutierrez Training Hard for Sophomore Season
By Matt Norlander, New Canaan News-Review