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The road of the rookie
By ERNEST HOOPER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2001
Just 40 yards ahead of him is a brand new chapter that will be unlike any other in his 22 years: a new city, a new girl and a chance to make ridiculous money for something he loves to do. Behind him is a list of accomplishments on and off the football field that made his parents proud and his coaches grateful.
On this day, however, those achievements are not as important as what is in front of him. That patch of grass on the University of Southern California campus is a field of opportunity, offering a lifestyle he cannot fully comprehend and changes he cannot anticipate.
To have any of it, or to at least increase his chances of getting it, Gibson has to cover that patch in a hurry. He had stood out for the Trojans defense for four years, shifting between safety and linebacker. The operative word here is between, for pro scouts had tagged him with that dreaded word.
Despite playing in 48 games (starting 24), recording 241 tackles and earning a trip to the East-West Shrine Game, Gibson, 6 feet 1 and 210 pounds, was considered too slow to play safety in the NFL, too small to play linebacker. He was not invited to the all-important NFL scouting combine, the major testing ground for prospects.
Gibson's only option is to outrun the label. He has worked diligently on improving his speed since the season ended, but with an array of scouts on campus to test him and other Trojans, he has to shine. His future is sitting in the hands of middle-aged football men who have given this test a thousand times.
Gibson takes off and 4.37 seconds later, his value has risen faster than the latest Internet stock on Wall Street. He is now legitimate. Time supported his belief that he has the athleticism to be an NFL safety, to play on Sundays. To live the dream.
But this is just the start.
April 16, 2000
The telephone rings. It's Gibson's grandmother wanting to know what channel is televising the NFL Draft. It's the fourth or fifth time the phone has rung and it's not an NFL team. Gibson and a room full of family and friends -- and representatives from the agency of Gary Uberstine -- are hoping it is some team, any team.
The telephone rings are becoming overwhelming. So Gibson leaves the den at his father's trilevel condominium in Tustin, Calif., and joins a group of friends downstairs. They play games, relax and try to keep Gibson from fretting over what the future might hold.
Then comes a roar from upstairs. ESPN has just announced that Gibson has been drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the sixth round.
June 25, 2000
Gibson and other Bucs rookies attend a league-sponsored rookie orientation in San Diego. The NFL has set up the seminars to counsel new players on the trappings of being a pro.
High-round draft picks become instant millionaires, but even a sixth-rounder such as Gibson will bring home a healthy chunk of change if he makes the team. The contract is still being negotiated, but Gibson eventually will sign a three-year deal. He reportedly will receive a signing bonus of $45,000 and salaries of $193,000, $275,000 and $358,000. If he sticks for all three seasons, he will have earned more than $871,000.
With some players falling prey to unscrupulous agents, drugs, women of questionable character and other pitfalls of the glamorous lifestyle, the league takes the players through a series of presentations featuring speeches by former players and skits by actors on the do's and don'ts.
Not only is Gibson enlightened by what he learns, but the trip also gives him a chance to get closer to the other rookies on the team, including Kentucky tight end James Whalen, a fifth-round pick.
July 4, 2000
The off-season program has concluded, but most of the rookies remain in Tampa to continue lifting weights. It is an unspoken understanding that players have to continue to show a willingness to improve or their desire will be questioned.
The uncertainty pales in comparison to college, where once you sign the scholarship, you are all but guaranteed four years on campus.
On this day, however, Gibson is enjoying some leisure time. Whalen knows a girl from Kentucky who is a Tampa native, and he has arranged to have her meet Gibson. Jenny Dugan was a golf standout at Chamberlain and earned a scholarship to Kentucky, where she befriended Whalen.
Whalen and Dugan touch base and she agrees to meet Gibson, but only after a brief inquiry.
"I asked a couple of questions," Dugan said. " "Is he cute?' Yeah. "How fast does he run the 40?' 4.37. I figured a guy who could run a 4.37 40 couldn't be all that bad."
July 23, 2000
Training camp begins and Gibson is still somewhat in awe. The pace of the practices is nothing like he experienced at USC.
"Not only is everyone so fast, but it's a true job," Gibson said. "Everyone does their assignment to detail. Everything has a purpose. Everyone has a responsibility and they carry it out.
"It's kind of funny. If you screw up a little bit, players look at you. You worry more about what the players are going to say than the coaches, where in college, it's whatever."
Aug. 21, 2000
It's the first of two days when the Bucs will waive players to reduce the roster. Due to several injuries at safety, Gibson has received a lot of repetitions in practice and considerable playing time in the preseason games. He feels good about his chances.
"It's tough," Gibson said. "You're a scrub all over again. I didn't think it would be that big of a deal, but you've got to earn your way to the top. You've got to earn everyone's respect and it's a long process, and it's going to take the whole year of me showing up and putting out to make people realize that I'm worthy to be on this team."
Aaron Humphrey, Gibson's roommate, won't get the whole year. Almost from the beginning, the undersized defensive end knew he was a long shot. Still, the news he was cut was not easy for Gibson to accept.
"Until it really happens, you don't realize it," Gibson said. "They say the word "business,' but you don't realize it until all of sudden your roommate is gone and he's sitting home at Texas. His dreams and his hopes are gone. It was a real empty, weird feeling, especially when you go into that locker room the next day and the guys you were used to seeing were gone. It's not like we just came in and had camp. We had minicamp, we had a monthlong session. You really get to know these guys and then they're gone, you kind of say, "Whoa.' "
Sept. 3, 2000
Gibson makes the team and is playing in his first NFL regular-season game at New England's Foxboro Stadium. In the back of his mind, he knows he can get cut at any moment. Like every rookie, Gibson has to earn his keep on special teams.
The season-opener against New England turns into a baptism by fire.
The intensity and speed of the game is even greater than preseason. The Patriots' Troy Brown returns a punt 66 yards for a touchdown and has three other returns for a total of 52 yards. Kevin Faulk also has a 40-yard kick return.
Special teams coach Joe Marciano does not single out any individuals, but he says the coverage problems were the result of mistakes by some "young guys." Gibson is one of only a handful of rookies on the coverage teams.
The next week against Chicago, Gibson rebounds and records three special teams tackles. He earns a game ball for his effort.
"For so many years in college, the last thing you want to do is play special teams," Gibson said. "The guys who don't play much play special teams, but when it's your livelihood and your job, you take a lot of pride in it and you realize how important it is to the team for special teams to do well."
Nov. 5, 2000
It's Gibson's birthday, but he is too anxious to be in a party mood. It has been five weeks since he has dressed out for a game and the frustration is mounting. In the third game, he strained his plantar fascia, tendons in the bottom of his foot.
Now he's in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, awaiting word from the coaches on whether he gets to wear pads and a jersey, or a golf shirt.
"You sit there and you want to be out there," Gibson said. "It's tough. In college, you're involved in football maybe four hours of the day, five hours of the day. Here, it's your life and if you're not playing, it directly affects your life. You want to leave work at work, you don't want to take it home, but I was taking it home and it was bothering me. I knew deep down inside I wasn't playing as well as I could."
Gibson gets the nod from coaches and records a special teams tackle and a stop on defense. He will play in five of the Bucs' last seven games.
Said Dugan: "When he came home he had the biggest smile on his face. He was fired up for the rest of the season."
Nov. 26, 2000
The Bucs are playing the Bills and Tampa Bay is clinging to a 24-17 lead. Buffalo lines up for an onside kick after cutting the margin to seven in the fourth quarter. Dugan is screaming from the stands because she knows Gibson is going to recover the ball.
Sure enough. The ball rolls into his hands and he falls to the ground. Warrick Dunn seals the victory with a 39-yard run on the ensuing possession. It is undoubtedly Gibson's biggest play of the season.
Dec. 24, 2000
Dugan is waiting for Gibson and the Bucs to arrive at One Buc Place after the team's last regular-season game, a 17-14 overtime loss to Green Bay. The Packers win in part because Martin Gramatica misses a field goal in the closing seconds.
"It's different," Dugan said. "Winning and losing means so much more to us than it does to people who just watch on the weekend."
Despite missing seven games, Gibson finishes seventh on the team with nine special teams tackles.
More important, he has survived his first year of professional football and matured into an adult who no longer sleeps all day on the couch on his day off. Every Tuesday is errand-filled, and now Gibson is talking about managing his new wealth.
But Gibson's thoughts are on something different this Christmas Eve. When he arrives, he tells Dugan to park her car and they get in a limousine he has waiting. He takes her to the beach off of the Courtney Campbell Parkway, gets down on one knee and asks her to marry him.
Totally surprised, she says yes. The couple will be married at a resort in the Bahamas in June.
"It's really a blessing," Gibson said. "The whole year has been a blessing. Professional athletes should never complain with the position they're in and the money they make."
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