Talent has never been an issue for Free State High senior Diego Gonzalez.
That much is clear from the standout soccer player’s accolades alone: two all-state honors, four varsity letters and an FSHS-record 47 career goals, to name a only a few.
After signing his national letter of intent to play with Western Illinois, Gonzalez should become only the third Firebird to play Div. I men’s soccer and the first to sign straight out of high school.
Jason Pendleton — who coached both FSHS soccer teams before stepping down to take a similar position at Blue Valley Southwest last year — recounted the first time he saw Gonzalez play.
Gonzalez, who had just moved to the United States from Argentina, was on an opposing club team to the one Pendleton was coaching at the time.
Even at a young age, Gonzalez’s dynamic abilities on the field were evident: He could dribble, he could shoot; he was a special talent.
“Not just because he was Argentinean,” Pendleton quipped.
But Gonzalez’s temper obscured his gifts on the field. He shouted at everyone, from officials to teammates, until his own coach was forced to kick him off the field.
Part of those habits, which Gonzalez described as “selfish” and part of a “bad attitude,” were in part bred from what he was used to.
Gonzalez had never played organized soccer in Argentina, instead playing in rough, unregulated games in gym class.
“We were all so passionate and ended up always fighting,” Gonzalez said.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gonzalez wasn’t exactly easy to coach back in those days. Any criticism, be it of his play, his work ethic, or his teamwork, were taken as personal attacks.
“I was always coming home complaining,” Gonzalez said.
It didn’t stop Pendleton’s desire to coach Gonzalez at Free State, though, where he ended up choosing to attend over Lawrence High.
“I think he knew it would be a strict, disciplinarian sort of environment that would make him a better player,” Pendleton said. “And maybe indirectly a better person along the way.”
Pendleton’s eyes welled with tears when picturing how much Gonzalez has grown from the eighth-grader who shouted at anyone in sight, to the teammate, friend and leader he grew into with the Firebirds.
“I think that self-discipline allowed him to move past all the extracurricular stuff that he was doing on the field,” Pendleton said. “(And that) was pivotal toward his success that he ultimately exhibited on the soccer field.
“To see him embrace that and try take on all of these roles as a leader, and change his behavior on a regular basis, is extremely rewarding,”
At a celebration Friday afternoon commemorating Gonzalez’s signing with Western Illinois, the FSHS library was packed with friends, teammates, coaches and family members.
Pendleton was overcome with excitement while describing Gonzalez’s growth and maturation. As were FSHS coach Kelly Barah, Gonzalez’s mother and step-father, and the dozens of others crammed into the library.
Mostly though, the change was evident in Gonzalez, who wore a slight, contemplative grin on his face as signed his letter of intent and then as he reflected on the journey he’d taken over the last six years.
“It’s been a joy to watch over the years,” Barah said, “how a little kid with so many emotions could grow.”