STATE COLLEGE – Former Penn State offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez estimates he was only a couple hours away from joining what he thought would be his teammates in The Spring League.
While making the trek from New Jersey last month to begin his career with his new team in the developmental league, he received a phone call from his agent.
“I was literally driving to Indiana, and I was two hours away from being in Indiana when my agent told me to turn around because the Bills had invited me to go work out,” Gonzalez said.
Fewer than two weeks removed from joining The Spring League’s Conquerors, Gonzalez received an invitation to work out with the Buffalo Bills.
He signed with the franchise on May 12, just one day after his 24th birthday.
Gonzalez ended his Penn State playing career following the 2019 season. He logged 42 starts during his time with the program and received distinction as a second-team All-Big Ten selection by conference coaches and members of the media that season. In 2018, Gonzalez was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by coaches and the conference’s media.
Gonzalez graduated with degrees in history and rehabilitation and human services.
The Arizona Cardinals last year signed Gonzalez as an undrafted free agent, but they released him late last August.
The Union City, New Jersey, native received a workout with the Detroit Lions before the start of the 2020 season, but he didn’t make the squad.
Having played football for more than half of his life, Gonzalez was presented with more free time than he was accustomed to having that time of the year.
“It was a very long time,” Gonzalez said. “Probably since before I started playing football, to be honest. I’ve been in football since I was 6 or 7 years old.”
To compensate for being away from the game which he played for nearly two decades, Gonzalez returned to his high school alma mater, Union City High, where he lifted and trained under the tutelage of his high school head coach, Wilber Valdez, and his high school position coach, Chris Johnsen.
Gonzalez signed with Penn State as a 247Sports-ranked four-star prospect from the class of 2015.
“We had been at it all year round, even throughout COVID we would get the guys in the weight room, and Steve never missed a beat,” said Valdez, who has coached Union City for 11 seasons. “It was like he knew he would get another opportunity, so he would come around and lift and run with the guys. As usual, we welcomed him with open arms and knew that he was preparing for hopefully another opportunity.”
Having Gonzalez back with his high school program was mutually beneficial. While it allowed Gonzalez – who also worked with a personal trainer – to stay in peak condition, it gave current Union City High players a seasoned lineman who they could observe and pepper with questions about the position and the game.
“It’s a plus when you have younger offensive linemen coming up through the grapevine,” Valdez said. “I remember when he signed with the Bills a few weeks ago, he had just been at our running session the day before. There’s nothing more motivating than to actually have concrete evidence of hard work and where it can take you, especially when it’s a kid coming from our program who just worked out with us 24 hours ago signed with an NFL team.”
The experiences Gonzalez gained in Arizona equipped him for his new opportunity in Buffalo.
“My time in Arizona has made me feel a little more comfortable with the speed of the NFL and the speed of the game, how much you have to learn, how extensive the playbooks are and how much you really have to dig into it, learn and study on your own time,” he said. “I definitely think my time in Arizona prepared me for now when I’m here in Buffalo. I feel a little bit more experienced.”
While remaining physically ready for another chance at the NFL was paramount, Gonzalez used the time to also remain intact mentally.
“I reverted back to the spiritual – believing in my faith, and believing that there is a plan out there for me,” Gonzalez said. “I just kept trusting in the process, and my agent just kept finding options for me.
“We were also looking into Canada and things like that, and I had The Spring League.
“We had a couple of options, but I just kept keeping faith, hoping that I would get an opportunity in the NFL – at least just a workout at the bare minimum.”
It might have taken Gonzalez longer than he would have ideally like to receive another chance at the NFL, but for him, the journey has been just been part of the process of not only growing as an athlete but as a person.
“I just learned a lot about myself. I felt like I gained more faith, and more trust in the process,” Gonzalez said.
“I’m more confident in myself, and I’m just super happy to be here.”
Elton Hayes is a veteran sports writer who covers Penn State for CNHI LLC publications. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.