Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Is the Best Player in Div I Playing for the Worst Team??

In June of 2007 I had succumbed to the first session of summer school in my life. Growing up in Wisconsin I vowed that I would never spend a minute in a summer classroom when there was so little warm weather to count on.

But after returning to college at the ripe old age of 45, time was of the essence and summer school would hasten my completion of a broadcasting degree at wintery Washington State University. If I was going to have to take a class, ‘The History of Baseball’ was as sunny a subject as I could think of. What sounds like a blow-off class couldn’t be further from the truth. Professor Frank Hill was an expert in American History and a dedicated lover of all things baseball. The class wasn’t so much about baseball, but more on how America has been shaped by baseball. There was plenty of reading, a term-paper and two in-depth essay exams.

Nonetheless, the class attracted its share of WSU athletes who had stayed in Pullman for off-season training. One of the class's difficulties was that it met for 90 minutes every day starting at 7:30 a.m. Early one Monday while I was rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I caught a chiseled, sweat-pants clad student rubbing the hurt out of his impressive biceps. Having been a college athlete during my days at the University of Illinois, I knew the effects of a morning weight workout when I saw one.

“Are you on a team?” I asked.

A simple enough question, but just as the words came out of my mouth, the entire class gasped in embarrassment for me. I had seen this reaction once before. I was in line in a room outside the Cotton Bowl waiting to get stadium credentials before the 1994 Soccer World Cup. Standing right in front of me was Brazilian Soccer legend, Carlos Alberto. He is arguably one of the most famous people on the planet, just not in the U.S. When he approached the front of the line he just smiled at the volunteer and said, “Here I am.”

The volunteer, a 50-something Texan soccer grandmother scolded him, “Now how the hell am I s’possed to know who you are?” Immediately a FIFA official ran to the situation, found Carlos’s badge, and escorted him to a V.I.P. room.

The person I asked my embarrassing question to was the Cougars' standout receiver, Brandon Gibson. Maybe not one of the most famous people on the planet, but definitely on the short list in Pullman, Washington.

But Gibson almost seemed to be happy talking to someone who didn’t know him. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m on the football team.” At this point I noticed Professor Hill, an avid Cougar supporter, stop fighting with his lesson plan to listen in on me dig myself in deeper.

“What do you play?” I continued. Everyone in the room was dumbfounded at my Cougar naïveté and they sheepishly looked down at their notes.

“I’m a receiver,” he said.

“You guys got early morning weights?” I asked.

“Yup,” Gibson groaned, “5:30 a.m.”

I told him that I, too, had endured years of early workouts and knew what he was going through. We chatted about ugly coaches, cramping muscles and all sorts of things college athletes have in common. The formerly stunned students relaxed and realized Brandon was a human being, not a concept.

For the rest of the summer we traded training woes (I was training for a marathon) and he became not a close friend, but just one of those guys you know from class. Come fall semester, Brandon wasn’t in any of my classes, but I saw him every week; mostly in the end zone of Pac-10 stadiums.

In 2007 while the Cougars were enduring a return to the mediocrity that had defined most of their history, they still managed to score a ton of points – mostly on Alex Brink to Brandon Gibson drives. If Brandon had any drops at all, they came when I wasn’t watching. Brandon Gibson would go anywhere for a ball. He’d extend for a crossing route; jump through double coverage; and even lunge for short passes with most of the defense within a step of him. He caught ‘em all and turned plenty of them into touchdowns.

In the last game on the schedule the Cougars salvaged their disappointing 2007 season with a heroic comeback in the Apple Cup over the hated Washington Huskies. Brandon grabbed his last pass from Brink and rode it into the end zone for a 42-35 redemption song that seemed to make the whole losing season worthwhile. Brandon ended the season leading the Pac 10 in catches and yards while whetting the appetites of pro-scouts across the NFL.

One year later, and suddenly Brandon Gibson is off the map. Having been outscored 350-33 in six Pac-10 games, the Cougars are on pace to be the worst major conference team in NCAA history. Alex Brink graduated taking all the school passing records with him and leaving the Cougar offense with a squad of quarterbacks so inexperienced and banged up that rookie coach Paul Wulff had to hold on-campus tryouts to get an emergency backup.

While Brandon’s 2007 wideout counterpart, Michael Bupus is catching passes and cashing checks just across the state in Seattle, Brandon is in purgatory in Pullman. So-called ‘draft experts’ told him that one more season of quality Pac-10 numbers would vault him to a top-10 pick. But what those experts didn’t see was a program in decline. What they couldn’t have predicted was what would happen when the worst team in the conference suffered a score of injuries to what talent they still had.

So now Brandon Gibson is finishing up what may be, without suffering injury, the most painful season any blue-chip athlete has ever had. Nobody is saying where he’ll go in next Spring’s draft because no sports writers outside of the State of Washington even remember that WSU is still in the conference. When the Cougars venture into a foreign Pac-10 stadium, the casual fan doesn’t know him from a second-string offensive lineman. While he should be one of the most famous players in America, most fans would pass him by in the street – just like I would have before taking Professor Hill’s baseball class.

But if my short conversations with Brandon prove anything to me it’s that this kid is far from a quitter – or even a moper. While his first NFL contract may be considerably less than what it would have been had he chosen ANY other school in the country, Brandon Gibson will prove the fans, scouts and writers wrong.

In five years I see Brandon Gibson pulling up to Martin Stadium in a Bently on his bye-week to celebrate the rejuvenated Cougars climb back into prominence. I just hope Cougar Nation will look back at the turnaround and know that it only came because of guys like Brandon Gibson.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like Brandon Gibson went to the Eagles in the 6th round as the 194th overall pick. He's going to have to beat some folks to make that team, but you never know.