Los Banos native Steitz helps team succeed in Arena Football playoffs

Los Banos High graduate Nick Stieitz (55) is the starting center for the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football league.
Los Banos High graduate Nick Stieitz (55) is the starting center for the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football league. Merced Sun-Star

LOS BANOS — Larry and Elaine Steitz could hardly catch their breath, much less watch their son play on TV.

They were prisoners in their home, trapped by the endless chime of their phone.

Ring, ring ...

"The darn thing wouldn't stop," Larry said. "It just rang and rang — during the game, after the game and well into the evening."

News travels fast in a small town crazy about its favorite son, Nick Steitz of the Arena Football League's Grand Rapids Rampage.

Steitz and the Rampage continued their unbelievable postseason run Sunday with a 58-41 victory over the longtime rival Chicago Rush in front of a national television audience.

"That was a big game for us on a lot of different levels and for a lot of different reasons," said Steitz, the starting center. The Rampage went into the game 0-2 against the Rush. "I think they thought we were getting lucky and they'd just beat the hell out of us in their house on national TV, but it didn't go down like that."

The win catapulted Grand Rapids, a team once left for dead after starting the season 3-10, into Saturday's American Conference championship against Western Division champ San Jose — right up the road at HP Pavilion.

The SaberCats (12-5), the defending Arena Bowl champions, ride a seven-game winning streak into the game. The Rampage (8-10) has won five in a row, including four on the road. Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN.

"We're excited," Steitz said. "We understand we've had a heckuva run and that San Jose is a good team with really good arena players. But we're starting to embrace playing on the road and being the underdog. There are still a lot of people who don't believe in Grand Rapids, which is fine for us."

While he'll be behind enemy lines, wearing foreign colors, it will be as much a home game for Steitz as the SaberCats.

Larry and Elaine only have to point to their phone bill. They estimate 30 or so people called Sunday to inquire about tickets for Saturday's game.

"He's not expecting that many people, not as many that have been contacting us about going," Larry said. "There are quite a few people who have rallied around him, people who have followed his career all the way through."

Even those with no recollection of Steitz's glory years at Los Banos High have taken a keen interest.

On Monday, the Los Banos football team — some of whom weren't yet in high school when Steitz began his pro career in 2005 — spent most of their practice chatting about their offensive line coach. Steitz joined Dennis Stubbs' staff last season after being the last cut of the San Francisco 49ers at training camp.

Stubbs said Steitz will rejoin the staff once the AFL season is over.

"The kids were pretty stoked, especially his offensive linemen," Los Banos assistant coach Dustin Caropreso said. "We didn't have to tell them about Nick. I think a lot of them already knew. They knew he was playing for Grand Rapids. I'd say they've been keeping better track of him than (the coaches) have."

Steitz has been all over the football map since graduating from Los Banos as a sure-fire Division I prospect.

He played four seasons at Oregon, where he was a three-year starter and two-time Pac-10 honorable mention.

Steitz's pro career hasn't been as stable. He's bounced around NFL training camps since 2005, landing on the Washington Redskins' active roster in 2006 and playing one season in the now-defunct NFL Europa with the Rhein Fire.

Now it looks like he's finally found his niche in the AFL, an indoor league known for its high-scoring game and ultra-quick action.

"To be honest with you, I didn't know much about the AFL," Steitz said. "My coach in high school took me to a SaberCats game, and it was fun. We had a good time.

"Did I ever see myself playing arena ball? Not really. But things were looking slow for me and AFL came calling, and it was a chance for me to play football with good players and have fun doing it."

The fun, he hopes, continues Saturday.

And beyond.