MODESTO -- From the cab of his charcoal-gray Chevy, with his cell phone pressed to his ear, Jeff Michelena runs the day-to-day operations of the family farm.
From where hes parked, just over a berm, lies a soccer field. There, with his eyes tracking the ball, Michelena runs the play-to-play operations of the Modesto Junior College mens soccer team.
Now heres a freshman with a refreshing twist.
On a field full of the Stanislaus Districts top young talent, ranging from 18 to 20 years old, the one MJC cant afford to go without is
The old dude.
Michelena is 48, with a head full of gray hair, two children, a 40-hour-a-week job, a full course load and a starting position with the Pirates.
By all accounts, the oldest athlete in the Big 8 Conference has had a very large stake in Modestos success this season, and its come with great personal joy and sacrifice.
All in all, its been a smooth transition, Michelena said.
The Pirates finished second in the conference, trailing only Santa Rosa, a team they played to a scoreless tie Oct. 26.
In that match, Michelena, a cerebral central midfielder who acts as a traffic control cop, went the full 90 minutes against the states fifth-ranked team.
Modesto (11-4-5) will learn its playoff fate Tuesday, when the California Community College Athletic Association playoff brackets are announced.
The biggest thing about Jeff, its not like hes 30 years old. Hes twice the age as anyone out there, said MJC mens soccer coach Joe Michelena, Jeffs younger brother by nearly six years. I dont know how the guy does it.
The dude is 48 and hes out there playing with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. And its not like hes just on the field with them. Hes contributing in a huge way to our success this year.
Joe and Jeff are close, but theres no nepotism at play here. Jeff earned his minutes in practice, proving he was as fit and as smart as any player on the roster. And as far as experience goes, Jeff has scars older than his teammates.
In the back of your mind, youre thinking, What are other people thinking? Is he playing because hes the coachs brother, Joe said. I was so cautious about that. He didnt start the first few games because I was so worried about that. I didnt want it to be something that could tear us down.
A galvanizing presence
Instead, Michelenas presence has galvanized the Pirates, ranked eighth in the state and sixth in Northern California.
"Like anyone else, you have to win your spot on the field," sophomore goalie and captain Alonso Lara said. "He's been proving it and helping to bring big results to us, especially in big games."
Jeff's impact is measured not by tallies in a box score. He hasn't scored a goal all season, though "he's come very close," Joe says. He doesn't even have an assist, typically the mark of midfielder's worth.
What he does have is an obscure, one-of-a-kind trophy with a nameplate that reads: "
It was a gift from beyond enemy lines, presented to him by Marty Kinahan, the Santa Rosa men's soccer coach.
"The ironic thing is that there have been guys who have been old. We had a 35-year-old football guy who had pads on, but didn't contribute," Kinahan said. "But hell, this guy was playing center midfield against us, playing one of our top guys.
"It's like throwing him in at point guard in basketball or quarterback in football. He was playing a pivotal position and he was in the whole 90. He was cagey, with a super-high soccer IQ. He stood in front of passes and conserved his energy. He was a big reason why they tied us."
His story has inspired Kinahan. After watching Jeff find young man's success on middle-age legs, Kinahan, 48, plans to try out for the Santa Rosa football team once his coaching days are over.
"I'm the same age as him. I plan on kicking for the football team when I stop coaching soccer. I'd love to do it when I'm 50," Kinahan said. "That's what junior college is all about. No restrictions. It's more inclusive not exclusive."
In a show of appreciation, Kinahan had the trophy fashioned out of a stray in his office. He ordered a personalized plate: "For the guy who can run 90 (minutes)."
Fitness, Jeff warns, is only one part of the magic elixir. Experience, he says, helps level the playing field with faster, flashier players.
"As you get older, you're not as fast and not as strong. Your endurance goes down and takes you longer to recover from games," said Jeff, whose last brush with school-sanctioned soccer was a varsity stint at Central Catholic in 1981.
"I tell people, you have to work smarter. You have to anticipate where the ball is going. Anticipate what the guy is going to do. You try to think about what needs to be done."
And at his age, you make tough sacrifices, too.
'Everything fell into place'
Jeff, who last attended MJC from 1982-85 and earned an associate degree in athletic training, began his Pirate career as an unofficial assistant coach last year.
"We would joke, 'Hey, you still have two years of eligibility. Why don't you play?' " Jeff said of his conversations with Joe, now in his fourth season as MJC's coach. "It was more of a gag. Everything fell into place and I decided to give it a go."
It wasn't that simple.
To create time in his schedule for four classes, soccer practice and games, Jeff, recently divorced, had to solicit the help and support of his family.
There are 10 brothers and sisters in the Michelena family, and many have assisted in Jeff's pursuit.
Brothers John and Jerry handle any on-site issues at Patterson-based Michelena Farms a corn, alfalfa and bean producer allowing Jeff to work mostly from the cab of his Chevy pickup.
"He's on the phone a lot," John, 51, quipped.
"We run a really lean operation. When one person does something, it affects the other. I went away from a few months and they picked up the slack. That's how our family works. We do whatever we can to help the others do what they need to do," he added. "We're supportive of Jeff. Frankly, I think he's crazy for doing it, but he's always been a good athlete."
Sister Michel, a chiropractor, probably plays the most critical role in all of this.
Not only does Michel, the youngest of the Michelena children, help with his body pains, she baby-sits Jeff's boys Jared, 13, and Jeremy, 8.
Jeff does his best to include the boys in his experience. He'll bring them out to the field on the west campus to watch him play, but those moments don't come nearly enough.
"Usually, I'd pick them up after school every day in Patterson, so I'd be able to spend that time with them," Jeff said. "Sometimes I can, depending on practice or where we are playing. But that's time I don't get to spend with them.
It's difficult to go to school and take that time out.
"Other than that, it's been fun. I've enjoyed it. This is a good group."
A group held together by its freshman phenom, that 48-year-old with the gray hair and work truck.
James Burns is the regional sports content editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2324.
Jeff Michelena Through the Years
1981: Graduated from Central Catholic High School, where he played two years of varsity soccer. Small in stature but blessed with a motor that never ran on empty, Michelena also excelled on the football field and baseball diamond.
1982-85: Attended Modesto Junior College, earning an associate degree in athletic training. Showed interest in playing for then-MJC mens soccer coach Gary Ard, but because of his class schedule and work with the family business, Michelena Farms in Patterson, he chose not to try out.
1989-1995: Played on various mens club teams in the area with younger brother and current MJC mens soccer coach Joe Michelena, including Academica (Turlock) and Stanislaus United
1996: Played on a traveling indoor team based out of Turlock. Team competed in tournaments in Reno, Sacramento, Elk Grove and Tacoma, Wash.
2000-PRESENT: Played in various adult and indoor leagues, mostly in Turlock
CURRENTLY: Plays central midfield for the MJC mens soccer team, including all 90 minutes in a 0-0 tie with Santa Rosa the states fifth-ranked team on Oct. 26.