Chris Gutierrez carries around some inner demons, born out of personal experiences that the Bakersfield Christian senior only alludes to.
Suffice to say, he’d rather not talk about it, opting instead to turn a negative into a positive, pushing whatever pain he’s carrying deep inside with the same strength he displays in bringing down a much-larger opponent, defying his 5-foot-7, 158-pound frame.
“Football is a place where I can get my mind off of things, leave things behind and just focus on that,” said Gutierrez, who starts at cornerback and slot receiver for the Eagles. “I kind of like to keep it to myself. For me I’ve had a few things in my past, not too serious, that I’ve had to deal with off the football field that I got in trouble with. But that’s why I love football so much.”
His passion for the game shows with his performance on the field.
Heading into Friday’s home game against No. 3 San Luis Obispo (10-1) in the Central Section Division 3 semifinals, Gutierrez leads No. 2 Bakersfield Christian (8-3) in receptions, compiling 581 yards and five touchdowns. His resume also includes a 66-yard punt return for a score, two forced fumbles this season, and six career interceptions.
“I’m not sure how things are away from football, but I think he's kind of found a home with our football team,” BCHS coach Darren Carr said. “The kid will give you everything he’s got. He’s worked extremely hard in the classroom to get where he’s at right now. He’s kind of been one of those up-and-down guys you root for, you pull for … just an interesting kid.”
In last week’s quarterfinal matchup against Lemoore, Gutierrez had 112 yards receiving, including a 36-yard touchdown reception, and intercepted a pass.
“Honestly, it’s just having that dog mentality,” said Gutierrez, who hopes to join the U.S. Marines once his football playing days are over. “I’m always working and grinding in practices. That pretty much transforms onto the football field on game day.”
His desired role as a future Marine? Military Special Forces, what else.
“It’s just all the adversity I’ve been through and how tall I am,” Gutierrez said. “Honestly, I just like to prove people wrong, so once I get a shot to do it, I’m going to do it. People see that you’re 5-foot-7 and put that label on you and say he’s short and he’s not going to be good at anything. But I just ball out.”
He hit that mark in a key South Yosemite League battle with Ridgeview last month. Gutierrez had seven catches for 105 yards and a touchdown in a game that also featured a highlight-reel catch that Carr will never forget.
“That one play epitomizes who he is,” Carr said. “We lost the game, but he ran a little seam route, the ball was a little overthrown and the guy lays out for it and caught it. And that’s just him. He’s super passionate. He wants to help the team win. Anything he can do. He’s just a joy to be around and coach him for three years. You don’t have to worry about him throwing himself around and giving everything he’s got.”
Gutierrez’s aggressive style of play has led to his share of injuries. He had a fractured foot last year and this year he’s battled a shoulder and hamstring injury. But he only missed two games during that span.
“He plays hurt all the time,” Carr said. “I don’t know if it’s because he plays so aggressively and runs around hitting anything that moves. He just throws his body at anything for his teammates. He says he wants to be (special forces), and you kind of get it. He’s running around hitting guys, and hitting guys three times his size, he’s just that dude. No fear whatsoever, at all.”
Gutierrez’s abilities were apparent to Carr when he first stepped on the Eagles’ football field prior to his sophomore year.
“He came in as a basketball player,” Carr recalled. “He didn’t play his freshman year. He wanted to play his sophomore year so he came out, his first practice really, I was like ‘who’s this little sophomore kid running around.’ This guy was diving for balls, making plays and throwing his body around. I just kept saying ‘this kid is something else.’”
He made an immediate impact that year, leading the team with four interceptions on defense, while finishing with 26 catches for 260 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that up with 10 catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns last year.
“I mainly was a basketball player coming into high school, but I just wanted to change it up,” said Gutierrez, who hadn’t played football since the fifth grade before playing in high school. “I kind of got burned out. I played (basketball) my whole life. I just wanted something new. I played football when I was younger. But I always wanted to play in high school. But I really didn’t think about it until then.”
And Carr is happy he finally did.
“When you talk to him he’s got a good sense of humor, he’s got a good quiet demeanor about him, but he loves his teammates and loves his coaches,” Carr said. “He’s one of those guys we’ve been pulling for. He’s a fighter who doesn’t have a lot of support anywhere else, but us. Trust is a big thing for him.”
Carr and the Bakersfield Christian coaching staff showcased their feelings for Gutierrez earlier this month on Senior Night, which traditionally parades the team’s seniors with their parents on the field prior to their last regular-season home game.
A variety of nagging injuries forced Gutierrez to miss his only game of the season that night, but when Carr saw his player didn’t have any family to celebrate with, he made sure Gutierrez wasn’t alone.
Gutierrez's uncle, Ronald Cleveland Mercer Jr. (Merc Dawg), died the night before. Mercer retired as a master gunnery sergeant from the U.S. Marine corps in 2015 after 26 years of service. He was 48.
“You could tell he was kind of bummed out," Carr said. "All those parents are over there, other people’s friends and families are there and he’s just over there hanging out. A couple of coaches had to walk with him. We are really part of his core family.”
The feeling is obviously mutual.
“They’re a huge part of my life,” Gutierrez said. “My coaches are important to me, and it’s not all about football. They have advice for me and I know they love me. And I love them, too. I know they’d do anything for me. They’re almost like an extra dad for me. To be honest, if I didn’t have football, I’d have too much time on my hands and I’d probably get in trouble or something.”