YUMA, AZ - To begin to understand how Gabriel Claudio plays football it may be worthwhile reviewing an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
At least that’s what his head coach at Cibola, Lucky Arvizo, says.
“He’s very versatile. We can put him in different positions to take advantage of him and move him around. He can punt. He can kick. He can throw the ball as well. He can play defense, play offense.
“I remember as a little kid watching the cartoon ‘Bugs Bunny.’ I think it was a baseball analogy, but I remember, ‘Bugs Bunny first base. Bugs Bunny second base, third base, pitcher.’ He was all over the field, playing every position. Gabriel has that knack of being able to contribute in whatever position that he’s in.”
Through the first half of the season, Claudio has more than contributed for Cibola (2-2). He has emerged as one of the top wide receivers in the state, ranking in the top 10 in both yards and touchdowns. He also leads the state in total points in the 6A Division, has secured a game-winning interception, returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and ran a fumble back 61 yards for a score on Sept. 9 to help topple rival Gila Ridge.
“He is the type of player you’re not going to find all the time,” said Kofa head coach Ben Franz, who has seen Claudio both in person and on film for the last three years. “He can pretty much do anything you need him to do. I guarantee you if Lucky needed him to play quarterback then he’d play quarterback and probably throw for 300 yards.
“He’s a big play guy and he gets things done and he can do it more than on the football field from what I hear.”
To get a better understanding of Claudio, the football player, you may only have to see him play soccer.
The way he carries the pigskin, loose and free, and the way he slips and darts with seemingly every touch, whether it is a punt return or bubble screen, is so indicative of a world-class soccer forward, you might as well imagine the gangly and athletic Claudio in shorts and shin guards.
“I’ve become more confident and comfortable when the ball is in my hand or at my feet,” the 6-foot-1 Claudio said before practice. “So, it’s just I know what I have to do. I kind of visualize things. I don’t think too hard about it. I don’t go before the game and plan out what I want to do. I just go out on the field and let everything free. It’s that time in my life, that three-hour period right there, where I can do what I love and it comes natural. I don’t know. I just feel it.”
He felt it last season when he scored a team-high 18 goals and 46 points as the primary attacker for a state playoff soccer team. He is creative, a freelancer at heart, and it has a crossover effect.
“Football helps me a lot with body positioning and my strength, just being able to stay up when taking a hit,” he said. “I kick, too, for football, and I wouldn’t be a kicker if I didn’t play soccer.”
More importantly, perhaps, the way Claudio, a senior, sees each game is interwoven.
“You find the opening and you visualize how you’re going to get there,” he added. “It’s kind of like probability. You see some space that could be open, could be free, if, say, you make one defender miss. So, you just try to get there step-by-step.”
While it may look like everything comes naturally, particularly with his flamboyant style of play, Claudio has a serious side to him. He was raised in Yuma alongside an older sister and younger brother. He played Pop Warner and youth soccer in town. He made lasting connections.
Claudio said his family emphasized things like respect and unselfishness before athleticism. Arvizo said, “He’s the type of player that leads by example. He’s a very humble kid. He goes out and he leads and players follow him.”
So, perhaps, to truly understand Claudio’s talents on the gridiron, it’s best to know exactly what kind of leader he is.
Fewer than two weeks before taking on Gila Ridge, Claudio lost his grandmother to a stroke. The Raiders were gearing up for their home opener against Southwest of El Centro and Claudio knew, despite a heavy feeling of loss, it was important to not just suit up, but perform.
“I play 100 percent for myself, my family and my friends,” Claudio said. “My grandma just passed away and I keep that in my heart. I am constantly thinking about that.”
In the Southwest game, Claudio scored four times, including three touchdown receptions. He had 10 catches overall, 321 all-purpose yards, played nearly every snap, and came within a few feet of running down a Hail Mary in the front corner of the end zone as time expired. The Raiders lost, 47-42. But Claudio had a career night.
“I knew he was out there playing for her,” Arvizo said. “It’s one of those situations, even though it’s a tough time, it’s kind of a time to show your appreciation for your loved one. And he’s demonstrated that through his play.”
And if you understand anything about Claudio, it should be that that demonstration will continue through the remainder of his playing days.