The chance to win the game lay a couple yards ahead, the end zone beckoning, seconds left on the fourth-quarter clock.
Down by a few points under those October Friday night lights, a game against Canyon suspended in the stuff of dreams, Placentia El Dorado High coach Zach LaMonda turned to the smallest kid in the huddle.
“Can you run the ball in?” LaMonda asked Isaiah Quintero. “This is the only chance we got.”
That chance was in the hands of a player that stood all of 5-foot-4. A kid whose dad thought he’d play frosh-soph football for a year before he gave up the game because of his stature.
But he answered LaMonda’s call.
“I can do it,” he told his coach. “I guarantee I can do it.”
He took the handoff and charged ahead, breaking the plane of goal line to give the Golden Hawks the game-winning touchdown. It was the crowning moment of a season rushing for nearly 1,000 yards.
His teammates and rivals might be two heads taller, or two torsos wider. In truth, it’s never mattered who lines up against Quintero, a running back and a state champion wrestler for El Dorado. He’ll dart around them. Drive through them. Outsmart them.
“I always believe that I’m one of the best guys on the field and even on the mat, no matter what,” Quintero said. “You kind of have to, when you’re a smaller guy like me.”
Step one to smaller-guy dominance: stay in motion.
“I know I’m not going to run over people,” Quintero said. “I kind of have to be more shifty than everybody. Have to have more vision, more IQ than some people, just to make it through the season.”
When Quintero started wrestling, at 4 years old, his dad sat him down. This wasn’t playtime, the father implored. The kid took it seriously. He’d bounce on his toes for hours at meets, waiting for his turn to pin someone.
The suggestions would come. Sit down. Eat something.
Nope. He’d bop. He’d pace. He’d jump rope.
When “we’d walk into an arena or gym,” dad Gilbert Quintero III said, “everybody could point him out.”
As he grew older, he waited for a growth spurt that never came. So he had to adapt, channeling his hyperactivity into activity. He’s up at 6 a.m. in the summers to shadowbox in the garage, working out two or three times a day.
The cardio made him a fearsome wrestler, competing in national tournaments before he got to high school, Quintero III said.
“When you stop moving in a wrestling match, that’s when openings happen … but he always keeps putting forward pressure on people,” said Nate Do, a friend and wrestling teammate of Quintero’s last season.
In football, Quintero never expected to get a varsity shot at El Dorado. With a sweet smile and curly black hair, he more resembles a middle-schooler than someone who pile-drives opponents. Kids who wrestle and play football in high school are usually in upper weight classes — they aren’t 5-foot-4.
But he had a natural burst, LaMonda said, and was named the full-time varsity starter after Week 5 of his sophomore year. He’s racked up six touchdowns in El Dorado’s 4-0 start this season.
“He’s, pound for pound, the toughest kid I’ve ever coached,” LaMonda said.
As he toed the El Dorado turf after a scrimmage this summer, Quintero’s feet kept pacing back and forth, dancing side to side.
Staying in motion.
Step two to smaller-guy dominance: stay confident.
“That’s where I feel like I’m the most dangerous, when I start believing that I am the best guy,” Quintero said.
But it’s been hard, at times, to keep that belief. He’d think his size wasn’t enough, his dad said. Think he wasn’t enough.
His grandfather, Gilbert Quintero Jr., was in constant support of that confidence, rarely missing a game or match. He’d always tell his grandson he was No. 1. But in August 2021, Quintero Jr. died after a battle with cancer.
“It was tough,” Quintero said, “knowing that your best friend’s not going to be there.”
In January, at the Buchanan wrestling tournament in Clovis, Quintero hurt his back and defaulted after making the quarterfinals. When he got home, he was shaken, his dad remembers. Quintero didn’t know if he could win state, he told his dad. Didn’t know if he could do it. Maybe he shouldn’t.
“Are you crazy?” the father told his son. “You’re amazing.”
That winter, Quintero pinned his way through league championships and into the state tournament. He captured the state title in 106-pound division in February and went on to win the 113 class at nationals at Virginia Beach in March, earning widespread NCAA Division I recruiting interest in the process.
“He just beat some of the best guys in the country without a problem,” Quintero’s father said.
Every match, Quintero crosses himself or points to the sky, a message to his grandpa. His voice still echoes in the back of Quintero’s mind: he’s the guy.
His grandpa was vertically challenged himself. He was nicknamed “Mouse.” So Quintero has adopted his own moniker, writing it down on a piece of tape and sticking it to his cleats before every game: