MADISON — We’ll start this story like every other sports story, with a game. Head coach Dan Fuhs said that he was concerned about one of his players heading into this one though, an East Husker Conference tournament game against Tekamah-Herman, which had already beat the Dragons twice.
Senior guard Alex Gutierrez had missed his team’s morning shootaround because he had been awake during some of the overnight hours working a shift at Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., in town.
Naturally, there are concerns when anyone is pulling hours like that, let alone someone still in high school who has to play a basketball game that night, not to mention that it was the conference tournament — typically some of the most important games of the season.
“I remember once that you worked until 3 or 4 (a.m.) on a Saturday, and didn’t go to our shootaround on Saturday morning, obviously,” Fuhs said, looking at Gutierrez. “But then we’re playing a game that night.”
As it turned out, Gutierrez was just the guy the Dragons needed. With time running out late, he stole the ball, got fouled, and hit the game-winning free throws as Madison took down Tekamah-Herman 80-78.
“I wanted to win because we lost to them twice,” Gutierrez said. “It meant the world to beat them.”
There’s another story, Fuhs said. Another player, Juan Lucas, came up to Fuhs one day near Thanksgiving and informed the coach that he might not be able to play basketball.
Lucas, a first-generation immigrant, was living with his older sister after their parents separately returned to Guatemala. Because of the living situation, he was going to have to work extra hours.
However, Fuhs was determined to make basketball work for the junior guard. Lucas would work part-time hours, sometimes more than 30 hours in a week. In turn, Fuhs let both Gutierrez and Lucas — both of whom are 18 — out of practice early so they could leave in time for work.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to play basketball this year,’ and he’s played since sixth grade,” Fuhs said. “I said that we’d work around it. I didn’t accept your resignation.”
It turned out that the duo were vital pieces of Madison’s team this past season.
Gutierrez was the team’s leading scorer with 9.7 points per game, while Lucas was the squad’s top 3-point shooter by making 31 of 108 from deep on a team that attempted 909 3-pointers this year. Madison ended the season with a 6-17 record.
“It’s not like these guys were scrubs,” Fuhs said. “They both played close to starter minutes, so it wasn’t like I was resting them.”
Those statistics weren’t enough to get them on any of the all-area teams that were released earlier this week. But the work that they put in — not only on the court but also to provide financially for their respective families — was noteworthy.
Gutierrez was born in Brownsville, Texas, near the U.S. and Mexico border before moving to Madison prior to kindergarten.
“My mom, she was unemployed. She didn’t have money,” Gutierrez said. “I’m just trying my best to help her out.”
Lucas was born in Guatemala and moved to the United States when he was 5, settling in Madison before his fifth-grade year.
“It was so that way my family didn’t have to worry about me. Right now, I’m living with my sister,” Lucas said. “I just wanted to take care of myself.”
That kind of mindset is not exclusive to those two student-athletes, or to Fuhs’ program, the coach said.
As it turned out, Lucas’ older sister Maria also worked at Tyson while going to school. In fact, she also worked while she was a member of the basketball team her junior year, but Maria did not play her senior year.
“I just look up to my sister, because she was working when she was a senior,” Lucas said. “I figure if she could do it when she was in school, I could, too.”
“It’s actually really common at Madison,” Fuhs said. “You see a lot of kids not making excuses. You’ll just hear someone casually mention that, ‘I’m the bread winner for my family’ or ‘I’m working a shift here’ or ‘My dad went back to Mexico or Guatemala’.
“It’s perspective. It’s where the work ethic comes from.”
Fuhs said that the two helped him shape a new definition of toughness, one that transcends anything that happens on a basketball court.
“You talk about toughness on the court, and you almost have to say that it’s nothing compared to toughness off the court,” Fuhs said. “Toughness is going your hardest at practice, and then going to work a shift at Tyson. Coaches like to say that diving after a loose ball on the floor is toughness but that’s fun. That’s playing basketball with your friends. Toughness is going to work a shift at Tyson because your family needs the extra money. That’s toughness.”
The two guards, both measuring 5 feet, 7 inches, had a work ethic that could only be developed by putting in long hours.
Fuhs said that both were among the leaders in the offseason, as well. Gutierrez was the team leader with more than 10,000 shots made just last summer.
“Those two were probably the hardest workers on the court, and those two were the hardest workers off the court,” Fuhs said. “It’s your dream as a coach. There was no ‘Alex, work harder’. He would just be like, ‘Coach, you’re really going to tell me to work harder? Because when you were sitting at home at 7 eating supper with your family, I was working at Tyson.’ It is a unique situation.”
Fuhs said the two earned a new level of respect from him.
“I’d be so tired after basketball practice. I’d get home at about 7 p.m., and I’d feel bad because I’d start thinking, ‘man, those guys are at Tyson right now’ as I’m sitting at home comfortably with my family and exhausted from school and practice,” Fuhs said. “And those guys would just keep going.”
On a typical day, they would leave practice about 30 minutes early so they could report to Tyson on time. During the season, their work schedule fluctuated often depending on the amount of work that needed to be done at the plant. Most days, they would work from 6 p.m. until midnight or 1 a.m., or perhaps even later.
“They did a good job communicating,” Fuhs said.
Of course, it led to some good-natured discussions about the structure of that day’s practice.
“They’d tell me to plan sprints for the end of practice so they could get out of those,” Fuhs said, laughing. “They were trying to strategize a little bit.”
And then they’d be up in time for school the next day to do it all over again. Gutierrez had an added luxury as a senior of having an “off period” to begin the day, so he didn’t have to be at school as early as most students.
“I could sleep in first period,” Gutierrez said.
Although the current coronavirus situation has closed in-person classes at Madison, Gutierrez and Lucas still have online course work to complete. At the same time, Lucas is full-time at Tyson working an overnight shift starting at 5 p.m. until sometimes 3 a.m. or later, while Gutierrez is still part-time.
What makes it even more remarkable is that the two balanced basketball and work on top of their regular academic responsibilities.
“I can attest that these are both guys who are passing all their classes,” Fuhs said. “It’s not they let their grades start failing. They never made an excuse or anything, just get everything done.”
When would homework get done?
“I wouldn’t fall asleep until I got done,” Gutierrez said. “I knew I wouldn’t finish it the day after, so after work I would stay up as long as I would need to finish it, and then go to sleep.”