By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
SAN GABRIEL – No first grader should have to wake up at 3 a.m. to get ready for school, but Carlos Purser had no choice.
The daily trips from Palmdale to Van Nuys for school took their toll on Purser, but it was just the beginning.
The standout defensive tackle at San Gabriel High School soon spent the early part of his summer after first grade living in a one-bedroom hotel with his mother, Margo Garcia, stepfather and four siblings. From there, it was a two-month stint at a shelter in Glendale.
“It was just different from anything I’ve ever known before,” Purser recalls. “We had a schedule of when to eat and when to shower. We couldn’t be at the shelter during the day, but it was OK because I would be at school.”
The weekend was another story.
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The shelter was closed on weekends, leaving Purser and his family to seek shelter elsewhere. Purser said he remembers the car rides from house to house before the family made its way back to the shelter on Mondays.
Purser attended schools in Van Nuys, Eagle Rock, Rosemead and San Gabriel before making his way to San Gabriel High. By then, Purser says, he had little communication with his father and sister, who moved to San Francisco. His mother and stepfather separated and his brother Miguel Gloria, with whom he speaks on the phone twice a week, joined the Army before settling his family in Hawaii.
Separation of any extent can have a strong effect on children, but Purser chooses to remember the good times, such as when his mom and stepfather presented Purser with a Nintendo 64 for Christmas.
“When I saw the price I thought there was no way I would get it for Christmas,” he recalled. “Even then, you could tell that they wanted us to be happy and live a happy life.”
For the better part of five years, Purser said it’s been him and his mother. When Purser joined the freshman football team at San Gabriel, he played to release bottled-up anger, but from that anger came hope.
Purser can’t help but crack a smile while reflecting on a past filled with struggle and resentment. He smiles because the present is kinder, sweeter, and the future looks bright.
On Saturday, Purser will lead San Gabriel against Monrovia in the CIF-Southern Section Mid-Valley Division championship game. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.
Purser admitted having his entire family watching him play in the biggest stage of his athletic career would be nice, but realistically it may not happen. He said he’s OK and at peace with himself and his family, with whom he’s since reconnected. His cousin Gaby Chavez, a sophomore at San Gabriel, will be at the game along with Purser’s uncle Gibby Chavez and aunt Rosalie Chavez. Debbie and Paul Moreno, Purser’s mother’s cousins, will be there, too.
Family, Purser said, is what his mother has stressed is most important, and in San Gabriel football he’s found it.
Two months ago, Purser and his mother moved in with teammate Alex Villalobos’ family and were welcomed with open arms. Purser and Villalobos, a star receiver, met as freshmen and moved up to varsity as sophomores. Margo Garcia, Purser’s mom, and Martha Villalobos helped start San Gabriel’s football booster club four years ago. A friendship blossomed and, naturally, when Purser and Garcia needed a place to stay the Villalobos stepped in.
“Living with Alex has just been awesome,” Purser said. “It’s fun us having a whole family again.”
And that’s what San Gabriel coach Jude Oliva is most proud of, witnessing his players mature right before his eyes.
“It really speaks a lot about his character,” Oliva said. “You wouldn’t even know about his struggle if you see him and talk to him. It surprises you, but at the same time it doesn’t because of how he carries himself.”
Villalobos, who remains humble despite putting together all-area-caliber numbers for a second consecutive season with 1,818 yards and 19 touchdowns, is more than just a teammate.
“He’s such a perfect role model,” Purser said. “He’s like my little big brother. This whole team has been such a brotherhood to me. They’re all like my brothers. Coach Oliva has been like a father figure in my four years here. We talk and we talk. A lot.”
Purser is the team’s second-leading tackler with 95 tackles. He and two others (Mackenzie Ferro and Hunter Garcia) share the lead with six sacks.
But the biggest turnaround for Purser has been in the classroom. Purser went from, in his words, a “lazy” freshman year with a 2.0 GPA to a 3.2 as a senior. He’s thinking long-term, working toward a scholarship to study sports medicine or become a counselor and help children find their own way despite struggles thrown their way.
Purser’s counselor, mentor and best friend through it all has been his mother.
“We have a mother-son relationship,” Purser said. “But it’s more than that. She’s my best friend and I can talk to her about anything.”
To get away from it all, Purser and his mom sometimes go to the movies and have dinner. Transformers II and Applebee’s was the latest selection.
A fine choice — and a far cry from 3 a.m. school trips.