In a mid-August dog day of summer, the
scene in Michigan’s lockerroom resembles an awkward
meet-and-greet, something similar to fraternity rush. A majority
group of sports writers pins a minority group of players —
who are sporting their home uniforms for an impending team picture
— against their lockers. Intros and inquiries occur at a
torrid pace. Every media member seems content with his or her
respective discussion until a stalwart man with a shaved head and
No. 12 jersey enters the room.

Julie Pannuto
(TONY DING/Daily

Although Lloyd Carr has yet to name a starting quarterback at
this point, the media on this day has come to the conclusion that
Gutierrez could start the season as Michigan’s No. 1 signal
caller.

Interviews around the room abruptly end, and a cornucopia of
recorders quickly find a place a few inches in front of
Gutierrez’s goatee. The redshirt sophomore fields a series of
token questions with series of token answers:

“We have a great offensive line, great group of receivers
and a great group of running backs that are all going to play hard
…”

“There’s great chemistry, great relationships
between all of us (quarterbacks) …. ”

“Everything’s earned here, nothing’s given
away here at Michigan … ”

Then a reporter asks the 20-year-old if he’s ready to
handle all of the pressures that come along with playing
quarterback for the Wolverines.

Gutierrez’s answer is truthful and very far from
ordinary:

“Where’s the pressure? This is a game. I’m
just out here playing, having a good time.”

Where’s the pressure?

Being a role that seemingly defines pressure in sports, the
quarterback position has never drawn so much comfort. But
Gutierrez’s coziness didn’t come overnight. It came
after he put in years of hard work. It came after he posted a 38-0
record in high school. And it came after he dedicated himself to
football at a very young age.

“(Matt’s) always been a student of the game, always
watched on TV with me,” Matt’s father, Paul, said.
“When he was three years old, he could name all the NFL teams
by looking at their helmets.”

One NFL helmet stood out above the others.

Gutierrez, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area suburb of
Concord, closely followed the play of Joe Montana — one of
the finest high-pressure players ever — and the rest of the
49ers.

But Matt’s favorite football team played on Fridays, not
Sundays. Following the exploits of a family friend, the
Gutierrez’s began attending De La Salle high school football
games when Matt was 6 years old. The star player for the Spartans
at the time was former Wolverine and current New York Giant Amani
Toomer.

Gutierrez became a huge fan of the program and made it his goal
to play there one day.

“I would just use it to motivate him,” Paul said.
“To tell him that if he kept his grades up and stayed out of
trouble and continued to do well that, when it came time,
we’d apply and if he got excepted, we would do it.”

Gutierrez began playing organized tackle football at the age of
9 and started a trend of competing against advanced players.

“He always had to play with older kids, actually like two,
three years older than him because he was bigger than kids his own
age,” Paul said.

But Gutierrez’s athleticism wasn’t unique to the
gridiron. He also excelled in skiing, basketball and baseball.
Tennessee star linebacker Kevin Simon, Gutierrez’s teammate
at De La Salle, remembers first meeting his good friend on the
diamond.

“He was on a rival team because we were the two best teams
in our pony league,” Simon said. “His claim to fame is
that he threw me out stealing.

“That’s when our relationship started and then, when
I found out he was coming to De La Salle, we just became better
friends.”

At De La Salle, Gutierrez narrowed his athletic agenda down to
football and basketball.

He got his first taste of varsity sports in the winter of his
freshman year, playing the second half of the basketball season on
the big squad.

One year later, Gutierrez became the first sophomore quarterback
ever to start at De La Salle and the first sophomore team captain
ever. Although his 15-year-old son was taking the reigns of a team
that hadn’t lost since 1991 (something which was true until
last Saturday when the Spartans’ streak ended at 151 straight
wins with a 39-20 loss to Washington’s Bellevue High School),
Paul said Matt was never nervous.

“I know it was real exciting for him, but he was never in
awe of it or overwhelmed by it,” Paul Gutierrez said.
“He kind of took it naturally.”

Legendary Spartans coach Bob Ladouceur said Matt was mature
beyond his years.

“He was always like working with a college kid,”
Ladouceur said. “I was amazed.

“He played his best in the toughest games.”

Gutierrez’s big game ability became evident right off the
bat.

In Gutierrez’s third career start, De La Salle stomped
Southern California powerhouse Mater Dei — a team that
featured current Southern Cal. starting quarterback Matt Leinart
and starting linebacker Matt Grootegoed — 42-0. Gutierrez
connected on 15 of 22 passes for 300 yards and six touchdowns.

“That was kind of his breakout to the national
scene,” Paul said.

Gutierrez never lost a game in high school, leading De La Salle
to three straight North Coast Sectional titles (California does not
have a state championship) and two USA Today Super 25 national
titles. Gutierrez’s most impressive win may have come against
in his senior season against Long Beach Poly, USA Today’s No.
1 team at the time. Even though Poly eventually sent 24 players
from this team to Division I schools, Gutierrez and the Spartans
— who were No. 2 in the USA Today poll — prevailed
29-15. Although Poly was the favorite, Gutierrez never doubted his
team.

“He told me that they were going to beat them even though
everybody else thought that they would lose,” Paul Gutierrez
said. “I’m a realist and I’m looking at the
talent on their roster, I’m just saying, ‘I don’t
know Matt. But hey, if you’re confident, then I’m all
behind you.’ ”

While compiling his undefeated mark in high school, Gutierrez
never had any trouble getting anyone behind him.

“He’s got a winner’s mentality,”
Ladouceur said. “He’s just a great leader —
he’ll rally your team. You have confidence in him.”

Simon believes that Ladouceur’s teachings are responsible
for Gutierrez’s intense demeanor.

“When it comes to football, he don’t mess
around,” Simon said. “It’s all business —
he’s real serious about what he’s doing. I think that
we got that from De La Salle. It’s just the mentality that
they instilled in us.”

When it came to choosing a college, Gutierrez — who has
interest in a business career — really looked at
academics.

“Some of his goals were of course to go to a good school
first, where he could get a degree that really meant
something,” Paul said.

Of course obviously football also had a big influence on his
decision.

“He wanted to play in a big program on a big stage,
especially in a Big Ten atmosphere,” Paul said. “He
really liked the crowds and the support that they give in the Big
Ten schools, even more so than Pac-10 schools.”

Feeling very confident that Michigan was the right spot for him,
Gutierrez looked to some Wolverine alums for reassurance. He
contacted Toomer, who also attended De La Salle, and Tom Brady,
whose uncle is an administrator at De La Salle.

Gutierrez redshirted his freshman year and served last year as
John Navarre’s backup, going 13-19 with 153 yards and one
touchdown. Gutierrez says that he learned “everything”
from Navarre:

“John’s a great player, great person. He showed a
lot of poise last year in times when we were behind, and I just
really appreciate the opportunity I had to learn from
him.”

With Navarre’s graduation, Gutierrez worked through the
summer knowing that he would have to compete with redshirt freshman
Clayton Richard and incoming freshman Chad Henne.

“It’s summertime — people are relaxing,”
Braylon Edwards said. “I wasn’t waking up until two.
He’s waking up at 6:30 every morning, getting it done. So you
have to respect that. That lets you know right off the bat that
this guy is serious.”

When he wasn’t working out, practicing or watching film,
Gutierrez was busy getting to know his teammates better off the
field — something his predecessor never really did.

“Navarre was one of those guys who was a great leader, but
it was him and that’s it,” Edwards said. “He
related to himself and a couple people that he stayed with.
Gutierrez branches off, he’s a smart quarterback. One night,
he’ll be with myself and Marlin — eating at a
restaurant or chillin’ at the house. The next night
he’ll be at Dave Baas’s house, shooting some golf.

“In order to gain the leadership role that he has to
fulfill, he has to network with everybody.”

On the Monday before Michigan’s first game against Miami
(Ohio), Lloyd Carr announced that Gutierrez would be
Michigan’s starter. But, a few days later, a sore shoulder
caused Carr to go with Henne. Although upset that he couldn’t
compete last Saturday, Gutierrez fully supported the players on the
field, especially Henne.

“That’s one thing about Matt that you will begin to
realize — that he’s a beautiful person,” Edwards
said. “When he was not the starter today, I talked to him and
I wanted to see where his head was and make sure that he was ok
because sometimes that can have a negative effect on the team and
himself. But he was happy for Chad to start. Matt is one of those
guys that is a true Michigan man. All he wants is for the team to
win.”

Henne is the team’s official starter right now, but
Gutierrez and Richard continue to battle from close behind. It
looks as though the quarterback position will be hotly contested
for years to come.

A stiff position battle can make or break a young quarterback.
But it’s hard to imagine that Gutierrez will crumble under
strain.

After all …

Where’s the pressure?

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