Camelback's Antonio Zepeda finds path to success

Camelback's Antonio Zepeda finds path to success

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Camelback's Antonio Zepeda finds path to success

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The voice at the other end was desperate.

Antonio Zepeda got in trouble with the law. He had just been released from a juvenile detention center. He said he was kicked out of his group home. He had no place to go.

“I heard it in his voice, and it was the first time I ever felt that reality finally set in,” Phoenix Camelback High football coach Brandon McNutt said.

With some reluctance and much reflection, McNutt, with his wife’s blessing and two small boys to care for, opened his home to the wayward soul with the five-star body.

A year later, with all of those burned bridges at Camelback repaired, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Zepeda has been trouble free and will be signing his national football letter of intent Wednesday with UNLV.

Zepeda made azcentral sports’ All-Arizona team at defensive end, after getting 10 sacks his senior season. UNLV wants him on offense, as an H-back, and to play right away. At tight end, he caught 37 passes for 836 yards and two touchdowns.

Because of an injury on a thin roster, Zepeda had to play some quarterback. He completed 24 of 39 passes for 556 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran 28 times for 269 yards and two more scores on a 3-7 team.

When he got to Riverside, Calif., last month to play for Arizona against Southern California in an All-Star Game, he said he heard some people say he didn’t belong on the field, coming from a program used to losing.

That put a chip on his shoulder, and Zepeda proceeded to be one of the standouts in Arizona’s victory, getting a sack and nearly two others.

Now he says he will carry that chip to Las Vegas after not receiving a single Pac-12 offer. His other offers were from Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado and Montana.

Some of that had to do with his baggage. He says he was always upfront with the recruiters.

He believes he has matured under McNutt’s guidance as his legal guardian.

He said he had a 3.8 grade-point average on his fall report card. He calls McNutt the father figure he never had.

Zepeda, who turned 18 on Dec.31 and is no longer a ward of the state, said his father was incarcerated when he was 3 months old. His mother had personal troubles, and he said he sometimes found himself on the street, sleeping in a park. He said he was taken in by Child Protection Services and put into a group home when he was 8.

He lived at a group home until he was arrested Jan. 28, 2012, for burglary. He said he was with the wrong people at the wrong place.

Zepeda said he had to perform 30 hours of community service and was placed on probation, which he says he has finished.

“I just prayed,” Zepeda said. “Coach brought me in for guidance. He became a role model.

“I got myself into things, but it says in the Bible that God wouldn’t put you through something you couldn’t get through. I always looked for that. Even though I might be at rock bottom, I still can find a way out.”

McNutt had seen Zepeda play quarterback on the freshman team at Camelback when McNutt was an assistant at Phoenix Maryvale. Zepeda clearly stood out on film, looking like a man against boys. McNutt saw a big arm and a big motor and couldn’t wait to coach him.

But Zepeda was stubborn. He didn’t take instruction well and his attitude put himself in McNutt’s doghouse. He was kicked off the team with two games left his sophomore year. His junior year, there were some bumps but nothing to kick him off the team, McNutt said.

“Antonio has had a rough life,” McNutt said. “I put my stamp on him. I told Antonio many times, I put my football word on you. If you end up doing something, people aren’t going to come back here anymore because of that.”

McNutt was willing to stay the course with Zepeda, and he Antonio has done everything he asked him to do since he moved into his home.

“A lot of people don’t want to clean up other people’s messes,” McNutt said. “That’s why we had some problems with recruiting this year. I actually gave some people some information about him just, from a man-to-man point of view, to be up front. I didn’t want them to have any surprises.

“Some of these schools around here, they knew the situation. They said there will be a scholarship there if he just waits. I know it’s a business.”

UNLV coach Bobby Hauk listened and never pulled back the scholarship offer.

“We’ve talked about it,” Zepeda said. “He asked me to walk him through it. I told him. He was like, ‘You were young. Things happen. I can’t hold that against you.’”

Zepeda said he plans to study law. He wants to show that he’s grown up, that the road from Camelback leads to success. That there are no more potholes.

“Even his personal growth, there is nothing better as a high school coach, watching a kid over the years grow,” McNutt said. “It’s been a positive thing not only for the program but for the school.”

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