Steven Gonzalez lost his father four years ago to the day on Wednesday — and the Penn State offensive lineman is still playing to make him proud.
In dealing with heartbreak years earlier and saddled by a “lone wolf” mentality last season, it hasn’t been easy for the starting right guard. But after a changed outlook, he hopes to continue the “nice streak” he’s on.
“I’ve just been going about things with a more positive light,” Gonzalez said Tuesday on a conference call. “I’ve just been looking at life in a different aspect, and honestly it’s paid so much dividends for me recently.”
Even though his eyes are focused forward, the redshirt sophomore hasn’t forgotten about his past.
Penn State coach James Franklin — who called Gonzalez a “wonderful, wonderful, nice human being” — said the New Jersey native was “basically raised” by his mother and sister. But Gonzalez’s father, Jorge, was still a “huge influence” in his life, according to the lineman.
When Jorge died of a heart attack on Sept. 13, 2013, it was tough on the then-Union City junior.
Still, Gonzalez took the field for the Soaring Eagles a week after Jorge passed. He was committed to playing in his honor, something he continues to do to this day.
“I felt like he was in a better place,” Gonzalez said. “Everything happens for a reason. That’s really just the outlook I had on it: Everything happens for a reason. I can’t change anything that happened.”
The prospect pushed on, excelling as a junior and senior while fielding scholarship offers from Ohio State, Wisconsin, Louisville, Michigan State, South Carolina and other top-tier programs.
Gonzalez committed to Penn State after his father’s death, redshirted in 2015 and saw the field on special teams for most of last season before breaking through with his first-ever start at Rutgers in his home state. With family and friends in attendance, the lineman called the game “a huge moment” personally.
That showing turned into playing time against Michigan State and starts in the Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl for the then-redshirt freshman. Starting three contests — against Rutgers, Wisconsin and Southern California — did a lot for Gonzalez’s psyche this offseason.
Playing alongside and building chemistry with his fellow offensive linemen allowed him to shine “a positive light” on each day. Trusting in his faith — aided greatly in that regard by his mother — has also helped Gonzalez get out of his previously negative frame of mind.
“I just live every day to the fullest and just appreciate life more,” the lineman said. “Just appreciate all the things I’ve been given and all the blessings I’ve received.”
His coaches noticed the change, too.
Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said Gonzalez was a “loner” and “kept to himself” in 2016. He was always present in meetings, but wasn’t necessarily involved.
That’s not the case anymore.
“He had that opportunity to play toward the end of the season and carried it over,” Limegrover said. “I think there’s a comfort level and a confidence in him and what he can do. Kind of like, ‘OK, I know I can do this, so now I have to figure out how to do it really well.’ I think the guys appreciate that.”
Still, Limegrover needs to see more nastiness out of Gonzalez in the trenches. So does Franklin, who said he wants Gonzalez “to be a little more angry on the football field.”
“There’s more there,” the head coach added. “Instead of just getting the job done, I think he can have a number of intimidation blocks a game. I think, you know, he can create more space by widening the hole and not being happy with maybe a stalemate or driving a guy back a yard. Like to to see him drive a guy back five yards, pancake a guy, things like that.
“He has the ability to do that. We’ve just got to get it out of him.”
Gonzalez understands he can unearth that, too, especially now that he feels confident. That’s helped by the fact the lineman knows his father is “always watching over” him — and he knows that he’s past a quiet, reserved 2016.