By BRETT MARSHALL
Since he was a sophomore at Garden City High School, Gabe Luna has been a football player on a mission.
The mission involved hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of early mornings, afternoons and evenings of running, lifting weights, and working to improve himself as an athlete.
It is that dedication, that willingness to go what he described as giving, "111 percent — above and even beyond the 110 percent that many people talk about," that finally paid off in big dividends Wednesday afternoon when the former GCHS Buffalo standout signed an NCAA national letter-of-intent to play defensive end in 2014 with the Iowa State Cyclones in Ames and to do battle with some of the nation's best offenses in the powerhouse Big 12 Conference.
"From being recruited and getting some attention out of high school, to now getting a D-I scholarship, is overwhelming," Luna said before a packed room at GCHS of family members, friends, former and current GCHS players and Buffs' coaches. "I fell in love with Iowa State when I visited there. The coaches made it feel much like Butler."
Since graduating a semester early in December 2011, Luna has tried to fast-track his rise to the Division I level.
He signed an NJCAA national letter with powerhouse Butler Community College in El Dorado to go compete for one of the premier programs in the country. He was able to play in a national championship game in 2012 and competed in two bowl games while earning second-team All-Jayhawk Conference honors despite his somewhat undersized 6-3, 255 frame.
"Gabe Luna is a very well-coached, disciplined, physical defensive end," Cyclones head coach Paul Rhoads said in a recorded interview on Cyclones.tv/Cyclones.com Wednesday afternoon following Luna's signing and faxing of his letter to the ISU office. "He keeps his shoulders squared and comes down to close his gaps. He's very good against the run and comes from a very successful, winning football program."
Luna said he was impressed with Rhoads' passion for not only football, but for life, too.
"He was his players to succeed in life and it's just a good fit for me," Luna said. "The football program there is just surrounded with good people. I really clicked with him. He cares for you player, but also as a player."
Luna, who says he plans to major in kiniesiology, also has goals to eventually pursue a master's degree and a Ph.D in physical therapy.
During his comments at the signing, Luna said when he returned to Garden City his sophomore year, he found the weight room to be both an ally and an obstacle.
"I wasn't big, I wasn't strong and I wasn't the strongest or fastest," Luna recalled. "But I put forth the effort to get better, and when coach (Brian) Hill came in, he elevated Garden City High School and made things better. I appreciate him and the other coaches so much. Coach Hill has been a big influence on me."
Luna said that he was told that good things happen to those who surround themselves with good people.
"Change is good for you," Luna said.
He insisted that his decision to graduate from GCHS at mid-year and enroll at Butler in the spring semester of 2012 had a major impact on his ability to compete and eventually land a starting spot on the Grizzlies' defense.
"I was able to get there, get acclimated to the classes, and then participate in spring ball," Luna said. "I was way ahead of most of the other freshmen who came in that summer and fall."
That decision also allowed him to sign on the first day of the mid-year signing period for junior college players. He will depart for Ames in January and will begin his off-season workouts with the Cyclones and then prepare for spring drills, which will likely begin in March.
"The chance to play with high school all-Americans and compete with the best of the best has prepared me for this opportunity," Luna said. "Butler was where it was at. I had a lot of D-II offers, but I really wanted to see if I could work hard and have a shot at D-I."
And for his high school mentor, Luna becomes Hill's first D-I player in his four seasons at the head of the Buffs' program.
"It's a great feeling and shows what hard work and dedication will do," Hill said of Luna. "He exemplifies that. He's got an opportunity to continue his education and compete in the Big 12. It's a proud moment."
Hill said he has always been impressed with the work ethic demonstrated by Luna.
"He continues to understand his weaknesses and improve on those," Hill said. "He's improved his knowledge of the game and that now allows him to play at the highest level."
Luna, a member of The Telegram's All-Area Top 11 in 2011, said he had been courted by the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Texas State and Texas Tech, among others.
While his teammate, Luke Hayes, of Scott City was signing with Kansas State University on Wednesday, Luna seemed comfortable with his decision to become a Cyclone.
"Both K-State and KU had talked to me, but had wanted me to wait until after the first day of mid-year signing," Luna said. "I really didn't want to wait, and when I visited Iowa State, it just felt like it did when I was here in high school and when I went to Butler."