By John Philip Wyllie
The start of the Arena 2 Football League season has been a frustrating one for the San Diego Riptide’s Steve Gonzalez. After scoring three touchdowns in the Riptide’s season opening victory over the Birmingham Steeldogs, he injured his shoulder and has been forced to watch the last four games from the bench. Without his swiftness afoot and scoring ability, the Riptide has fallen upon hard times. They have dropped their last four. With his shoulder now almost fully healed, Gonzalez is anticipating his return to the field. Like many of his Riptide teammates, he views his participation on the team as a stepping stone for a more prosperous future playing in the larger Arena League. That is the league that developed players such as NFL quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Tommy Maddox.
Gonzalez grew up in a bilingual home in a tough, mostly Puerto Rican and Black New York neighborhood. He moved west to play his college football at Modesto Community College and then Menlo College near San Francisco. Selected by the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena League, Gonzalez was placed on the Riptide for some additional seasoning.
“I was in camp with the San Jose Sabercats and they were the (2004) Arena Bowl Champs,” Gonzalez said. “They wanted me to gain some experience because I was so young (23). So, I figured I would come here for a year and then try to move up to the big league.”
The Arena League pays its players only a small fraction of what they would make in the NFL. Arena League 2 players are even farther down the food chain. Riptide players receive a base salary of only $200 per game. Clearly, everybody in this league is playing for the love of the sport and not for the meager monetary reward that it brings.
The players are not the only ones struggling. With average game attendance hovering around 3,500 fans, team owner and Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman, Jon Runyan, is fortunate to have his hefty NFL salary to rely upon.
“I think arena football is catching on here in San Diego and that it could really become big once the fans get to know it. We have some good athletes, we just need to start bringing more (spectators) in here,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez believes the Riptide can lure many Chargers fans into the fold.
“If you are a Chargers fan and a true football fan then you like football no matter which team it is. After the Chargers season ends, fans can enjoy football all year long now that they have arena football to watch. Once they see a (Riptide) game they will want to come back.”
Played on a smaller field with lots of passing and scoring, arena football is substantially different for NFL-style football.
The bottom line is that it is a lot tougher,” said Gonzalez. “It is a lot different from playing outside. Your reactions must be quicker. A lot of players play both ways, so that makes it tougher too.”
“I enjoy being around my teammates. I love this game and I plan to play it for a long time,” Gonzalez said. “Now I just have to get healthy.”
The Riptide returns to the I Pay 1 Arena on May 14 at 7:00 p.m. to take on the Birmingham Steeldogs.