May 22, 2022

Family & Football: A Santa Barbara Family Bonds Through Sports

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Family & Football: A Santa Barbara Family Bonds Through Sports 

The Dons’ Young Quarterback and Senior Captain Build on a Family Legacy

By Ryan P. Cruz | October 28, 2021

FAMILY CONNECTION:  Cousins Abel Renteria (right) and Miguel Unzueta have helped lead Santa Barbara to a 7-2
record and a playoff berth. | Credit: Erick Madrid

In the tradition of American high school football, families have always held a sacred place. On Friday nights across the country, stadiums are packed with cheering relatives, proud mothers and excited siblings, fathers reliving their glory days, and little boys watching the big boys battle it out under the bright lights. 

One of those places is here at Santa Barbara High School, where a close-knit community of families have grown up together, playing in parks and backyards, and finally gathering together at Peabody Stadium for a few weeks every fall to see the latest generation run onto the field, wearing the olive and gold. Once a Don, always a Don.

Football has always been a big deal at Santa Barbara High School, ever since they won their first CIF title in 1929. In recent times, there have been remarkable family legacies; maybe the most famous were the Cunningham brothers?—?Sam, Anthony, Bruce, and Randall?—?who shattered football records and racial barriers throughout their careers from the 1960s through the ’80s. Most recently, former head coach Will Gonzales has seen his two sons play for the Dons: Jackson was part of Santa Barbara’s run to the CIF final two years ago, and today, his youngest boy, Grant, is a defensive standout on this year’s team.

Then there is the Renteria family. Poncho Renteria was the quarterback who led the Dons to their last CIF championship more than 30 years ago, and now his son Abel, as quarterback, is taking the team through to a strong 7-2 record that will certainly result in a playoff bid. The team captain is his cousin Miguel Unzueta. 

For full transparency, I must say that I’m partial to these two; they are my cousins, and we are part of a huge sports family. Soccer, baseball, basketball, football?—?you name it, we played it. My mother is Claudia Renteria, the oldest of six Renteria brothers and sisters. She took our grandfather’s athletic genes and became a force on the basketball court for Santa Barbara in the ’80s. Second oldest, Martin, was a Dons soccer player, but it was Poncho who became a sports legend. 

Not everybody in the family went to Santa Barbara High. My cousin Gabe Renteria; his twin, Daniel; and I went to Dos Pueblos. But even when I played defensive back for the Chargers more than 10 years ago, I honored my Uncle Poncho by wearing his number 12, as did my cousin Gabe, who played quarterback a few years later.

Football is part of our family; at birthday parties, barbecues, and beach days, all the cousins, 15 in total, would be running routes and fighting for jump balls. It’s something Abel and Miguel have been doing forever?—?first as toddlers, tackling each other in Grandma’s living room, and now under the bright Friday night lights. Even though a couple of us went to Dos Pueblos, when my cousins are lining up for the Dons, we’re all cheering them on. For our whole family, seeing those two guys playing together this season has been a dream come true. 

“It’s crazy,” said Silvia Unzueta, Miguel’s mother. “We always talked about it, and now here we are.”

A Family History

Left: Poncho Renteria, Abel’s father, led Santa Barbara to its last CIF title in 1989. Right: Miguel Unzueta, Abel
Renteria, and Carlos Unzueta take a picture with Coach JT Stone, years before they would be running his offense. | Credit: Courtesy

Even before the backyards or the bright lights of Peabody Stadium?—?even before Poncho?—?this family connection to athletics ran deep, and it started with another sport in another country. 

Alfonso Becerra Renteria grew up in Jalisco, Guadalajara, where he played soccer throughout his childhood and was named goalie for the Junior National Championship team in 1960. He had dreams of a soccer career, but after he married Maria Luz Palomino Renteria and they had two young children?—?4-year-old Claudia and one-year-old Martin?—?he wanted to give his family a chance for a more secure future. So in January 1968, Alfonso left his athletic dreams behind, and he and Maria Luz packed up their family and crossed the border at Tijuana, hoping to find that future in the United States.

Eventually the Renterias made their way to the Santa Ynez Valley, where Maria Luz’s brother, Fernando, had moved years earlier to work at Pea Soup Andersen’s. Alfonso got a job there working in the kitchen and then moved to the kitchen of Birkholm’s Bakery before working as a driver.

Three years and three kids later, in 1971, they moved to Santa Barbara, now with a set of twins?—?Maria and Silvia?—?and a baby girl, Luz. The family’s knack for sports lived on with Alfonso, who played club soccer at Dwight Murphy Field, and then with Claudia and Martin in high school sports, but it was their sixth and last child, Alfonso Jr., nicknamed “Poncho,” who would make a name for himself on the football field.

As the youngest, Poncho had the benefit of tagging along with his older siblings, soaking in everything they were doing. Claudia was a captain for the Dons girls’ basketball team in 1980, and when the whole family would come to watch her play, Poncho would wander over to the football field. The star quarterback at the time was Randall Cunningham, who went on to play 16 seasons in the NFL. Watching Randall sparked something in Poncho. Claudia noticed it and began encouraging that passion in her baby brother. “Claudia, she really pushed me,” Poncho said. 

By 1989, that pushing paid off. Poncho was the Dons’ star quarterback, leading his team to a 12-1-1 season and the school’s first CIF championship since 1960. During that time, he broke many of Randall Cunningham’s passing records and notched his own place in Santa Barbara’s list of great quarterbacks. 

Thirty years later, another generation of quarterbacks have come through?—?including John Uribe and Deacon Hill?—?who set new records and created new memories. Hill, who now plays Division 1 at Wisconsin, was quarterback when Miguel was a sophomore on the team that made a run for the championship two years ago. When Hill graduated, it gave Abel the opportunity to be QB1 going into this season. 

“It happened way quicker than I thought,” Abel said. But it seemed natural to him to be throwing to his cousin Miguel. They’ve been doing it forever. “We’ve always had the chemistry,” he said, “since we were little.” Miguel agreed: “As a little kid, I always thought it would happen.” 

First-Game Jitters

Sophomore quarterback Abel Renteria (#6) handed off to senior team captain Miguel Unzueta (#4) for a long jet sweep run in a 45-17 win over crosstown rival Dos Pueblos. | Credit: Erick Madrid

Coach JT Stone named Abel as the Dons’ starting quarterback over the summer. Though Abel had spent the offseason training and getting ready for the task, the reality of playing his first game at home in front of a newly renovated, jam-packed Peabody Stadium was enough to rattle any 15-year-old sophomore?—?especially when it’s fueled by high hopes and huge shoes to fill.

“That was the most nervous I’d ever been,” Abel admitted about the season’s first game. There was the pressure of his father’s legacy, the questions as to whether he could replace Hill, and the fact that he was leading and playing against players who were years older than him.

For his father, it was just as nerve-racking. “We had a moment, both of us,” Poncho said. “I was very nervous, trembling. And he was nervous when I went down to give him a hug, and you could just see it in his face.”

“It was a big challenge for him,” Poncho said. “First year as a quarterback, the stadium opening up. And his whole thing?—?he doesn’t want to let anyone down.”

On top of that, Miguel had just suffered a hamstring strain in preseason and was forced out of the lineup for the first three weeks. “Probably the saddest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” Miguel said. “I’ve never missed that many games in a row.”

The Dons struggled to find any offense that game and suffered a tough shutout loss to start the season. Abel took the loss personally and wondered if every game would be as tough. But after that week, he decided to forget about the noise.

“I try to block it out; I try to think that I’m just playing football, just doing the thing that I love,” he said. “I’ve been playing football all my life. It’s just another football game. Don’t even think about being under the lights and all these people.”

Finding Their Flow

Abel Renteria | Credit: Courtesy

After that first loss, something happened. The defense, led by Vince Gamberdella and Grant Gonzales, started to shut teams down. Abel became more comfortable, looked more like himself, and started to earn the respect of the upperclassmen on the roster. He tossed the ball to everybody he could, throwing touchdowns to five different receivers and running for a few of his own.

In his second game, Abel scored twice through the air and once on the ground, and for the first time, he looked like he was ready for the varsity level. “After the third game, I was like, ‘Wow, I could really do this,’” Abel said. “We got a flow; we got chemistry.”

“To be honest, I didn’t think he’d be this successful so early on,” Poncho said. “Now he’s playing with this confidence, it’s kinda wild. It’s pretty amazing to watch as a father. He’s got so much potential. I was never at his level at his age, and I’m absolutely proud of him.”

The team gained momentum, and Coach Stone started to see the potential for this season to be more than just a rebuilding year. “Abel’s been doing great. He’s only a sophomore, and I told him at the beginning of the season, ‘All I need you to do is move the chains,’ and he does that,” Stone said.

The Dons went on a roll, blowing through Thousand Oaks (27-3) and Righetti (42-7). Heading into the Big Game against San Marcos, Miguel was also set to return, adding another weapon to Santa Barbara’s deep arsenal.

Miguel’s strength has always been his leadership skills. Even when he was hurt, he did everything he could to help his team from the sideline. “It was hard for him and hard for us to watch,” Coach Stone said. “He’s that senior that we’re all pushing for.” 

He’s really stepped up and been able to lead by example, his dad said. “He’s quiet, does what he needs to do. He brings his hard hat and just gets it done,” said Miguel Sr. “And a lot of guys I think feed off that. He’s not really the guy that gets in your face; that’s not his style.”

The Big Game against crosstown rival San Marcos was the debut of the cousins’ connection, and the Renteria family crowded into a corner at Peabody Stadium to watch the boys play. When Abel dropped back to throw a touchdown pass to Miguel early in the game, the family exploded with hugs and high-fives. They had been waiting to see this for years.

“There’s a lot of family pride in actually watching these two kids go out there and do their thing,” Miguel Unzueta Sr. said. The Dons won that game 40-7.

Setting the Tone

Abel and Miguel
connected for two touchdowns in the first quarter against Dos Pueblos. Miguel’s performance earned him the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table’s Player of the
Week award. | Credit: Erick Madrid

The Dons repeated their success against Ventura in a comeback, last-second 28-21 win that really set the tone for the season. Abel was noticeably more confident, calm in the pocket and a surprisingly strong runner, tucking the ball whenever he needed. He started to play aggressively, smashing through tacklers and barreling into the end zone for a couple of touchdown runs.

“I don’t like to show fear. If I see a one-on-one, I’m not gonna slide; I’m gonna show them that I’m not afraid,” Abel said. “I want people to start respecting Santa Barbara for who we are. I want people to be scared to play us.”

It’s that confidence at such an early age that has people looking not toward the past?—?at Poncho’s legacy, and Deacon Hill’s?—?but to the future, to the potential of this kid who still has another couple of years ahead of him in high school football.

“He has his own identity. It’s cool to watch. I’m stressing on the sidelines, and he just handles it,” Poncho said. “I think he’s still scratching the surface on what he can do; it’s kind of crazy.”

When Abel daydreams, it’s about playbooks, defensive packages, and blitzes. On game day, he says it’s like seeing these scenarios he runs through his head appear right in front of him. He instantly knows what read to make?—?he’s imagined it a million times already.

“I notice every time I really think, or overthink, I don’t do it right,” he said. “But if I just play and let loose and do my job, everything works out.”

He’s also been exposed to so many former quarterbacks’ advice: from his father; Uribe; Hill; and big cousin Gabe, who has coached Abel since he could throw. It’s really been “success by committee,” where it takes a whole village to raise a star quarterback.

“It’s good to hear what everyone has to say, ’cause at the end of the day, they’re all trying to help me reach my goals,” Abel said.

Tornado Warning

Abel and Miguel | Credit: Erick Madrid

With only one game left, the Dons have flipped the preseason expectations and won seven out of nine games. As a rolling October fog floated over Scott O’Leary Stadium in Goleta for a crosstown rivalry game between Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara, the visiting Dons team exploded with two quick touchdown strikes from Abel to Miguel. The Dons went on to win 45-17, clinching the City Championship, and Miguel was named Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table’s “Player of the Week,” an award Abel also earned earlier in the season.

With the win against Dos Pueblos, they have earned a spot in the CIF playoffs and an opportunity to change into their special gold jerseys and play as the Golden Tornado?—?a tradition for every playoff game since 1929.

The tradition is not lost on the boys, who grew up looking up to the players in gold running out of the tunnel at the old Peabody Stadium. “It’s still like a dream to me,” Abel said. “I’m going out of the tunnel, and there’s all these people here to see us play.”

“I remember going to Santa Barbara games too,” said Miguel, “and just knowing I was gonna be a part of that tradition?—?that was something really special to me.”

Today, Abel is putting a lot of pressure on himself to perform, especially for the seniors on the team, particularly his cousin. Miguel, however, is trying to stay in the present and take in every moment of his senior year. “It’s bittersweet, just knowing that you’re gonna be done with high school,” Miguel said. “It went so fast. It kinda felt like I was a freshman only a couple days ago.”

But right now, the whole team knows what has to be done. “We’re just locked in right now,” Miguel said. “We have one goal: to make the playoffs and run the table.”

And in the stands at each game, the whole Renteria contingent will be there, watching nervously?—?but with pride?—?at these two baby-faced toddlers turned into young men. After the game, they will wait their turn, behind the bright-eyed kids asking them for handshakes, pictures, and hugs.

It’s partly embarrassing and partly encouraging to have so many family members watching so closely, but both cousins agree that growing up in this family is a blessing. “It makes me feel good about myself that I have a big, supportive family,” Abel said. “No matter what, they are gonna be on my side.”

The post Family & Football: A Santa Barbara Family Bonds Through Sports appeared first on The Santa Barbara Independent.

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