Walking Tall

Gonnella, Pinegar Beat Long Odds To Win Scholarships, Make Um's Starting Offensive Line

August 31, 2009|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,jeff.barker@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK - Realistically, Alfonso Gonnella knew he didn't have the money to send his son, Andrew, to play football at the University of Maryland without a scholarship.

It's not that the elder Gonnella is poor. He does OK with his small business selling swimming pool chemicals and supplies in Orange County, N.Y., about 45 miles north of New York City.

It's just that it was hard to get past the intimidating costs - more than $37,000 a year, including about $22,000 in out-of-state tuition - of enrolling Andrew, an offensive guard, at the school he aspired to play for as a walk-on beginning in the fall of 2007. "Being self-employed, people think you've got the world, but you don't," Alfonso said. "I'm first-generation. My parents were basically off the boat from Italy."

But Alfonso didn't have the heart to tell his son no. He pondered Andrew's life - how the boy endured the death of his mother from complications of juvenile diabetes when he was 4, how he had been pushed into kindergarten early because the family couldn't afford day care.

Alfonso decided to do whatever he needed to so Gonnella could play at Maryland and, it was hoped, prove he merited a scholarship. The school had been on the family's radar because Andrew's uncle, offensive lineman J.D. Maarleveld, had starred at College Park before playing two seasons in the NFL. The younger Gonnella had passed up academic scholarships at smaller schools.

Gonnella is one of two offensive linemen - redshirt junior Paul Pinegar is the other - who have defied the odds that walk-ons traditionally face and climbed their way to the top of the depth chart. Gonnella had been told by coaches early that he had a shot - but no guarantee - of getting a scholarship. That was enough for his father.

"To me, Andrew is as big as the world. I wanted this for him," Alfonso said. "I pretty much mortgaged the house. We basically took a home equity line of credit out and were able to have money available where we could write out checks."

Andrew, who weighed 270 in high school and is now 6 feet 6 and 305 pounds, redshirted his freshman year, then got into three plays last season at the end of the Wake Forest game. Coaches say he tries so hard on the field that he sometimes hyperventilates.

Last spring, with Maryland thin on the offensive line, Gonnella made his move.

"At the end of spring practice, he'd won the job and I told him that, going into the fall if everything was the same, I'd put him on scholarship," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I know Gonnella's family was struggling, so I kind of wanted to let them know so they could make plans. Andrew responded that no one was going to take his job away."

And no one has. Gonnella is expected to start at left guard - he might share the position - when Maryland opens the season at California on Sept. 5.

"I definitely came here as a risk," Gonnella said. "They [Maryland coaches] definitely sold me the dream and it came true."

Said Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin: "Gonnella, to me, is why you do this. He has turned himself into a good football player."

When Alfonso Gonnella learned about the scholarship, "I was smiling from ear to ear," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, that means I don't have to write any more checks.' And I thought of his birth mother. I'm happily remarried, but she's always in my heart, and I know she's definitely proud of his accomplishments."

Walk-ons were popularized by "Rudy," the 1993 movie about an undersized football player who dreamed of suiting up for Notre Dame. They often face long odds to play in Division I programs that have invested heavily in scholarship players' success.

"We're underdogs," said Pinegar, a walk-from Brookeville who tops the depth chart at right tackle. "I root for all the walk-ons on our team. These are guys who pay their way to play for a big school rather than take a free education at some smaller school."

Like Gonnella, Pinegar found out recently that he will be receiving a scholarship this academic year. It's a significant accomplishment for a player who said he entered Maryland "wondering if I'd just be the lowly walk-on."

The NCAA restricts scholarships in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision to 85. With Maryland's roster at about 120, that leaves dozens of players hoping for scholarships that often never come.

Walk-ons, who are often used on scout teams during practice to mimic opposing players, sometimes feel isolated. Under NCAA rules, they aren't permitted to eat at their teams' training tables unless they pay for the food.

"I went there one time and I had to pay for my own breakfast, so I kind of stopped doing it," Pinegar said.

Maryland's scholarship players must attend the team breakfast each morning from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

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