WATERVILLE — Carlos Gomez was a young man when he immigrated to the United States from Guatemala. He might have been 18, or he might have been in his early 20s. Carlos’ age changes depending on who is telling the story.

He didn’t speak English, and he knew two people. Carlos ended up in Chicago, where he found work with a scaffolding company. He learned the business, worked his way up in the company, and dreamed of starting his own business. Carlos met a woman, and then followed her to Boston. He started his own scaffolding company in the mid-1980s, and nurtured it, working hard so it would grow. Carlos raised his family.

Carlos Gomez died almost two years ago, a victim of cancer, but not before instilling a strong work ethic into each of his three children, daughters Greta and Olivia, and son Sam.

All of that led to this, Carlos’ son, Sam Gomez, standing at midfield at Colby College’s Alfond Stadium, telling his family’s story. A first generation American, and a football team captain at one of the best universities in the nation, Sam Gomez isn’t living the American Dream. He is the American Dream, and he knows it.

“Honestly, I never thought I’d be here. I went to a great high school (St. John’s Prep, in Danvers, Massachusetts). Coming here to a first class education, a first class football program, it’s pretty amazing. It’s kind of been my destiny,” Gomez said. “I was supposed to come here.”

Gomez and the Mules open the season Saturday at Trinity, the defending New England Small College Athletic Conference champion. When he lines up at his defensive tackle position, Gomez will play with his father on his mind and in his heart. That’s how Gomez played even before Carlos’ death late in the 2015 season, and that’s never going to change.

“My dad’s a guy, he grew up playing soccer. He never really played organized sports, but he always loved watching me play football. He was at every game. You could always hear him. He was always smoking a cigar. When I was learning it, he was also learning it,” Gomez said. “He’d come watch me at practice, and he’d start picking up on things. By the time I got (to Colby), he knew the game better, but still just really loved watching me play. It was something special we had together.”

Olivia, Sam’s twin sister and fellow Colby senior, is not surprised her brother was named a captain.

“He’s always had a really big personality. People have always gravitated toward him. He’s a big guy with a big mouth, in a good way,” she said.

As a 5-foot-11, 305-pound interior defensive lineman, Gomez doesn’t impress with gaudy statistics. What Gomez does well is take on two blockers, allowing Colby’s linebackers to run to the football. That said, Gomez can make a play, too. Last season, he was in on 23 tackles, including a sack and a fumble recovery against rival Bowdoin.

“He’s quick, strong and explosive. (Gomez) doesn’t just hold his point,” Colby head coach Jonathan Michaeles said. “He understands he can escape blocks and can get to the football. He gives great effort.”

When Gomez was a student at St. John’s Prep, a perennial Massachusetts high school football power also known for strong academics, he discussed his life’s path with his father. When he started his company, one of Carlos’ first jobs was at St. John’s Prep. Gomez asked, when you were working here, did you think your son would ever be one of the school’s students?

“Guys dressed up, going to school. He went to a trade school when he was younger. He just didn’t experience anything like that. He would always tell me, I couldn’t imagine this is where my son would be going,” Gomez said. “I’ve always felt so lucky he made so many sacrifices in his life to do what he could do to give me a better life, me and my sisters a better life. We’ve never wanted for anything.”

“His family is really hard-working, no nonsense, blue collar type of people. When we recruited him, it was evident his family understood and appreciated hard work and what it takes to get to your ultimate goals,” Michaeles added.

EMOTIONAL TIME

As Gomez prepared for his sophomore season at Colby, Carlos was diagnosed with liver cancer. Gomez balanced school, football and family responsibilities.

“After each game, I’d go home. No matter if it was home or away, I’d go home and see him. His health was diminishing, and I could see it,” Gomez said.

After the Mules played Bates on Halloween afternoon, Gomez went home with his mother. Gomez had two tackles and was in on a sack in a 10-9 loss to the Bobcats. By taking on blockers, Gomez helped hold Bates to 3 yards per carry, earning the team’s defensive player of the game. At home, Carlos didn’t care that Colby had lost. He cared that his son played hard. Carlos died that night. If Gomez had any doubts the Colby football team was his extended family, they evaporated that night.

“The first person I texted was Coach Michaeles. It was one o’clock in the morning. It was a Saturday night, so I knew the guys were out and about. I texted our group chat as well. They canceled their plans. They all got in a room, and we all got on a phone call. It’s just such an amazing family here, and they helped me through the grieving process so much. I couldn’t ask for a better team or better coaches,” Gomez said. “This program’s been so amazing to me. They’re my brothers, my family. I’m lucky enough to be their captain, and I’m lucky enough to be so connected to these guys.”

Gomez played the final two games of his sophomore season with a heavy heart. He played well in those games against Tufts and Bowdoin, but knowing his father wasn’t on the sidelines was hard to handle. The team had memorial stickers placed on their helmets in Carlos’ honor. At times, Gomez would catch himself glancing toward where his father would be on the sidelines.

“Not having him on the sidelines those last two games was tough. Those last two games, I’ll tell you, I broke down after them. I had two really great weeks of practice. His strength just came to me, and he was definitely there with me,” Gomez said.

The Colby football team also became a family to Olivia.

“I’m kind of a softy, emotionally. I was kind of a mess that night and on to the next day, dealing with everything. I realized, all my uncles and all my family were there, and they said ‘You’re the man of the house now.’ As tough as that was, I realized I had to get everything emotionally past me. To move forward to help my sisters and mom. They’re rocks. They helped me immediately,” Gomez said. “I was going to football practice. I was with these guys. My sister not being on a team, I had to be there for her. I know these guys, not only are they brothers to me, they’re brothers to her.”

Added Olivia: “I’ve always been extremely close with my family. I feel like (Sam’s) my best friend. He’s very important to my emotional and mental stability. With the football team, you have 76 people who care about both of you.”

“Colby football is being part of a family. It doesn’t just extend to the players, it extends to their families. His dad was a great guy. He came to every game he could. One week he was on the sidelines, watching his kid play. A few weeks later, he was gone,” Michaeles said. “The team rallied around (Gomez). I think football became an outlet for him as he dealt with it. Sam came back that week and played in a game that following weekend with the full support of his family. It was really remarkable and moving. It didn’t feel forced. It felt like it was the right thing for him to do for his family.”

A LOVE FOR SCHOOL

It was more happenstance than plan when the twins each decided to attend Colby. Both fell in love with the Waterville campus and its people when they visited with the school.

“I remember visiting here my sophomore year of high school when my older sister (Greta, who graduated from St. Lawrence University last spring) was looking at colleges. I saw guys practicing on the football field, and I was like, this is where I belong. There’s something special about this,” Gomez said.

Although Colby always felt like the right fit, throughout his freshman year Gomez doubted his ability.

“When I came in here, I was scared. Oh, boy, I’m playing college football now. This is the big leagues. I came in, I didn’t really know the playbook. The schedule was tough. I was away from home. I’d never been away from home. Getting used to everything was really scary and an emotional period. That freshmen year was really tough. I had to pay my dues and figure it out,” Gomez said. “The coaches here are amazing. They don’t treat you any differently whether you’re the starter and an All-American, or you’re the third string guy who doesn’t know anything and might not want to be there. They’ll treat you with the same respect. They want you to improve. With that coaching mentality, I’ve been able to improve each year, to make huge improvements.”

Michaeles recalled the freshman Gomez as a player who worked hard to improve and earn playing time.

“We thought he was a good player. We knew he was a good player. He was kind of under the radar in most recruiting circles, but we felt he would be a good player. If that was a doubt of his, he never made it known to us,” Michaeles said. “Many freshmen go through that phase, where all right, I’m not the starter anymore. They second guess themselves. At the end of his freshman year, he wasn’t playing regularly, but he was starting to come on. We said, ‘we’ve got ourselves a football player.'”

Gomez was named the team’s most improved defensive player last season, and he saw himself becoming a team leader. Younger players studied Gomez as a positive example. Teammates asked him questions on plays.

“I wasn’t a captain in high school. It just kind of came naturally to me,” Gomez said.

“He knows how to work. He holds himself to a high standard. Whatever it is he’s doing, he takes seriously and he commits to it. It hasn’t been without bumps in the road, but in the end, it’s going to be a success story for him,” Michaeles said.

Gomez is set to graduate next spring with a degree in American Studies. He’s not sure what the future holds. Whatever it is, he nows his father’s hands will be all over it. Carlos Gomez left Guatemala to provide his future family the American Dream, and it’s not over yet.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM