Gustavo Villarroel Sr., was mad when he thought his son’s brand-new Nike Dri-Fit undershirt was ruined.
He was washing Gus Jr.’s football practice gear and was astonished to find his son had written on his shirt in permanent marker.
“I asked him, ‘What is this, Gus? Who tell you to put that?’ ” said Gus Villarroel Sr., a Venezuelan-born former golf instructor whose English is a bit broken and heavily accented. “He said, ‘No dad, I put that myself.’ ”
Inside the back of the banded collar, his son, a rising junior defensive tackle at Orlando Freedom High, had written in all caps, “HARD WORK PAYS OFF.”
“He said, ‘Because ... every time I put on my jersey, I am going to read that,’ ” Gustavo Sr. said. “He is very well determined in what he is doing.”
This isn’t about a five-star college football prospect with tons of scholarship offers and an already-punched NFL ticket.
Make no mistake — Gustavo Villarroel Jr., wants to play in the NFL. His ticket, however, isn’t even printed yet. But he loves the game. He lives it.
“Even when he was a little kid, he was sleeping with a football ball in his arm,” Gus Sr., said. “I sometimes think he is upset or mad or something, but he is just focusing football all the time. He’s always very focused in what he’s doing. He has very good grades.”
Gus Villarroel Jr. does whatever he can to make life seem as normal as can be. He has overcome a severe speech impediment, a stutter that often makes communication difficult.
When I first saw Gus at a National Underclassmen Combine at Orlando Jones High in April, he was dominating bigger offensive linemen. He was 5-foot-9, 245-pounds of churning legs that would make a hamster jealous.
Then I introduced myself. As he struggled for words, I thought he was out of breath or just needed some water. That’s how we react to people who aren’t the same as us. I wanted to make him “normal.”
Gus, in fact, was communicating as best he could. His stutter interrupts his sentences, but the words do eventually come out.
“It’s just a stutter, that’s all. He talks very well when he is in his comfort zone,” Gus Villarroel Sr. said.
An unfamiliar face with a recorder and a notepad tends to put people in something far less than their comfort zone. For the young Villarroel, however, there is no stutter in his game. His drive, footwork and quickness are impressive traits.
He earned the NUC defensive lineman MVP award that day. No one on that field knew he had difficulty with his speech. As I watched, all I wanted to know was, “Who is this kid?”
Gus Villorroel Jr. is an inspiration.
“The first time I met him was the introduction meeting for me as the new coach at Freedom, a parents and players meeting [in February],” new Patriots head coach Jeff Higgins recalled.
“Gus walks right up to me to shake my hand and to tell me, ‘Coach, I have a speech impediment, a stuttering problem.’ But he wanted me to know that he wasn’t afraid of that at all. He didn’t even know me, but he wanted to say, ‘This is who I am, and I want to let you know that it is not going to deter me.’ That, to me, says a lot about the kid right there.”
Higgins said there is another student at Freedom, Stanley Dacieus, who wanted to be a part of the football team.
“Stanley is a kid who can’t really play football and doesn’t have the physical tools necessary, but he wanted to be a part of the program and so I made him a manager,” Higgins said. “To see him out there and someone like Gus supporting him, and him supporting Gus and the whole team coming together … it touches you. We’ve tried to instill a family atmosphere, which I’m sure we had prior to me coming, but it’s more now and guys like Gus and Stanley are a big part of it.”
I was looking for Villarroel on the defensive front during the Patriots’ spring game Thursday against Ocoee. My heart sunk a little when I didn’t see him in the game. I, of course, was thinking the worst. Was he still out for football?
I checked the sideline. No Gus. I asked another player. He pointed and said, “He’s out there. He’s playing center.”
Of course he was. That’s Gus. Anything to get on that field.
“If the team needs me I’ll do what I need to do,” Villarroel said. “They needed me at center, so that’s where I went. Hopefully in the fall, I’ll be playing both ways.”
The irony for Villarroel is that his voice may often pause, but his physical motor never stops. His father used to call him G-Shock. Now he says his friends call him Gus the Boss.
He’ll play college football some day, somewhere, at some level.
Gus Villarroel Jr. will do whatever it takes. Just ask him. He’ll tell you. You just have to be patient.
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting and now on Pinterest at Orlando Recruiting.