Texas QB Gilbert benefits from fatherly advice
AUSTIN, Texas – Less than an hour after watching him throw four interceptions in Texas’ national title game loss to Alabama, Gale Gilbert presented his son with two things as he walked out of the Longhorns’ locker room.
A warm, fatherly hug.
And some sage advice.
“Let it go,” Gale told 18-year-old Garrett Gilbert as the two embraced in January. “Let it go and move on.”
If there were ever a case of father knows best, this was certainly it. Along with being the dad of Texas’ quarterback, Gale Gilbert is a former pro football player who has long been branded by an unfortunate fact.
Each time, his team lost.
Yes, just like his son – who won 30 straight games as a starter at Lake Travis High School – Gale Gilbert is remembered more for a small number of setbacks instead of a large quantity of victories.
So forgive him for scoffing when asked how the Bills – who lost four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93 – dealt with the “adversity” that accompanied the string of defeats.
“We didn’t look at it as adversity,” said Gale, 48. “There are only two teams in the Super Bowl. There’s not much higher you can go. If anything we were proud that we kept making it back. Each time, we regrouped and moved on.”
Garrett Gilbert, it appears, has done the same.
Eight months after coming up short while replacing an injured Colt McCoy in the BCS title game, he couldn’t seem more at ease in his first year as Texas’ starting quarterback – a title that easily makes him the most high-profile student on campus.
Classmates say he’s humble and approachable, older teammates praise his work ethic and willingness to throw extra passes after practice and coaches’ eyes widen when they talk about his potential. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis smirked last week when asked how much stronger of an arm Garrett has than McCoy, the 2009 Heisman Trophy finalist who is now with the Cleveland Browns.
“It’s, uh, noticeable,” Davis said.
Longhorns fans are hoping to see more and more proof of that as the season wears on. Other than a pair of season-opening wins against Rice and Wyoming, the only thing they associate the younger Gilbert with is that 37-21 title game loss to Alabama. After a dreadful first half, he gained his composure and nearly led the Longhorns to a come-from-behind victory.
Even in the loss, it was an admirable effort for a true freshman who was seeing the first significant action of his career. Garrett, who entered the game having attempted just 26 passes, threw for 176 yards and two scores after intermission.
“I thought he handled it great,” his father said. “But the bottom line is that he didn’t win. That’s what people remember.”
Unlike his father, Garrett still has time to rewrite his story’s ending.
Walk into Garrett Gilbert’s bedroom at his family home in Austin, and you’ll see a photo of the quarterback posing with Texas coach Mack Brown.
Actually, Garrett said, there are five or six of them – one from each year he attended the Longhorns football camp back when he was in grade school.
“He basically told us, ‘I’m going to come to Texas if you all want me,’” Brown said.
“He idolized Major Applewhite, Vince Young, Chris Simms and Colt McCoy. He wanted to be that kind of player. He spent his whole life preparing so he could have the same opportunities those guys had.”
Garrett’s obsession with Texas football began when he was in the second grade. One of his classmates, Cade McCrary, had a father (Hardee) on the Longhorns’ staff. Before he knew it, Gilbert was spending more and more of his time on the UT campus.
“I always thought it was the coolest thing to come up here to the fieldhouse, just to be around those guys,” said Garrett, now 19. “I thought they were larger than life.”
Although drive and determination were the main factors that earned him a scholarship, Garrett’s pedigree didn’t hurt, either.
Born in Buffalo before moving to San Diego, Garrett was too young to remember much about his father’s eight-year NFL career. But he knows the story well.
As a backup to players such as Jim Kelly and Dave Krieg, Gale Gilbert started just four games during his NFL career. And he only attempted six passes in those five championship defeats – all in waning minutes of Super Bowl XXIX. So it’s not like any of those losses were his fault.
“Still,” Gale said, “I get ribbed about it.”
His one big break almost came during that infamous game between Buffalo and Houston in the 1993 playoffs. With the Bills trailing 35-3 early in the third quarter amid a massive snowstorm in Buffalo, coach Marv Levy told Gilbert that he was going to insert him for Frank Reich after one more set of downs.
But then Reich engineered a touchdown drive that sparked the Bills’ miraculous comeback. Gale watched it all from the sideline. He said he still keeps in touch with Reich, who is now the quarterbacks coach for the Indianapolis Colts.
“I enjoyed my time in the NFL,” he said. “But, obviously, I’d have liked to have had more opportunities.”
At the conclusion of his career, Gale and his wife, Kim, relocated their family to Austin on the advice of one of his NFL teammates, Bryan Millard, who had played at Texas.
As Gale began coaching his son in Pop Warner football, it became clear that Garrett possessed the same natural talent as his father. By the time he reached high school his potential seemed even greater.
“I kind of had tunnel vision,” said Gale, now a wholesale gas distributor in Austin. “I could account for three or four of the defensive players at all times. Garrett sees all 11.”
Garrett said having a former NFL quarterback for a father definitely helped his development.
“He was my coach up until middle school,” he said. “After that he’d be at every practice and every game. He was always there, quietly watching. If I wanted to talk or go in the backyard and throw, he was always there.
“I always took losses real hard. He’d always be there to say, ‘You’ve got to move on. ‘”
Garrett didn’t lose much at Lake Travis High School, where he led his team to the Class 4A state championship as a junior and senior by winning his final 30 games as a starter.
The school also produced former Kansas record-setting quarterback Todd Reesing and current Texas Tech pledge Michael Brewer. Still, it has never seen a talent quite like Garrett. As much as coaches dote on his arm strength and accuracy, it’s his ability to make throws on the move that separates him from other strong-armed QBs.
Garrett ended his prep career as the leading passer in Texas high school football history.
“I loved it there,” he said of Lake Travis. “My brother [Griffin, a junior receiver] still plays for them. I follow it every week. I listen to it on the radio and live and die with every play.”
Rather than graduate a semester early and join Texas for spring drills in 2009, Garrett finished out his senior year of high school at Lake Travis. Still, even though he couldn’t participate, he drove to Texas’ campus countless times that semester to watch McCoy and the Longhorns work out from the sidelines.
Each day, he learned more from observing McCoy, the winningest player in college football history.
“He and Colt had a great relationship,” Gale Gilbert said. “Seeing how Colt handled people, the media … that helped him out a lot.
“But once you get on the field, you’ve got to be your own player. Colt didn’t copy Vince and Vince didn’t copy Major. Garrett is confident. He’s comfortable with who he is.”
Shortly before the start of last season’s BCS title game, Gale Gilbert plopped down in his seat at the Rose Bowl holding an ice cold beer.
“I figured I could relax and watch the game as a fan,” Gilbert said. “I wasn’t expecting Garrett to play.”
But then came McCoy’s season-ending shoulder injury in the first quarter. Just like that, Garrett Gilbert was scrambling about the sideline looking for his helmet, which he found after plowing through a huddle of defensive players who were strategizing near the bench.
Gale rose from his seat, leaving his brew at his feet.
“It stayed full the rest of the game,” he chuckled.
Unfortunately Garrett was even more nervous than his father. Teammates said he appeared “glassy-eyed” during the huddle, which was understandable considering he was an 18-year-old true freshman who had completed 15 passes all season. Now here he was on college football’s biggest stage, playing against a Crimson Tide defense regarded as the best in college football.
Two of his first-half passes were intercepted – including one on an ill-advised shovel pass just before halftime that was returned for a touchdown that gave Alabama a 24-6 lead.
Garrett calmed down in the second half and threw a pair of scoring strikes to Jordan Shipley that pulled the Longhorns within 24-21 in the fourth quarter. But shortly after beginning what he hoped would be a game-winning drive, Garrett fumbled while being sacked by blitzing Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders.
The Crimson Tide recovered the loose ball on the Longhorns’ 3-yard line and, moments later, put the game out of reach on a touchdown run by Heisman winner Mark Ingram.
“I think he took it harder than most people,” defensive back Aaron Williams said. “I know Garrett very well. His take was, ‘Just because I was thrown into the fire doesn’t mean I can’t put that fire out.’
“Garrett isn’t the kind of person who makes excuses. He handled it like a starting quarterback would handle it – not like a backup quarterback who was thrown into the fire, hoping to God something would happen that would help us win the game.”
Gilbert said memories of the Longhorns’ postgame locker room that night are “a blur.” But he hardly appeared broken and despondent.
“I walked up to him at the end of the game,” Brown said, “and I told him, ‘I’m sorry I put you in a tough spot, but you handled it really well.’ He said, ‘Coach, we don’t turn the ball over, we win a national championship.’
“So he wasn’t intimidated or overwhelmed by the moment. It was black and white to him. It was factual. He said, ‘We take care of the ball, we win a national championship.’ That’s what you expect a coach’s son – a quarterback’s son – to say in that situation.”
Garrett said he’s only watched the tape of the BCS title game three or four times, including once with his dad about a month ago. Frustrating as it is to relive certain plays, he said the footage served as a motivational tool as he prepared for the 2010 season because “there’s always something new I can take from it.”
And he has been pushing himself ever since.
As strong of a grasp as he now has on Texas’ system and philosophy, Garrett knows he needs to continue to focus a lot of his efforts on becoming a better leader. He has never been known as a very loud or vocal person, and the fact that he’s younger than most of his teammates makes the situation even trickier.
The Longhorns are doing their part to help him adjust. During a seven-on-seven drill last summer, Williams continued to talk trash to Gilbert until he was forced to talk back.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Garrett said. “The older guys like Sam Acho really help me and encourage me. They help me ease into that role. I feel more and more comfortable with it. I still have a ways to go.”
Quite a statement from someone who has already come so far.