David Gilbert began his career at Wisconsin by recovering a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown.
Last Saturday, in his final home game as a Miami Hurricane, the Jamaican-born fifth-year senior and Coral Springs native scooped up his second fumble of the season and returned it 72 yards for a touchdown — the finishing touch in UM’s 45-26 victory over Virginia.
“After the touchdown I slipped in the corner [of the end zone celebrating],” said Gilbert, a 6-4, 254-pound defensive end from Oakland Park Northeast High who had a good laugh with his teammates at all the bumbling and stumbling during the return.
“Somebody on the sideline actually told me: ‘I had the calendar out counting the days it would take you to get into the end zone.’ [Anthony] Chickillo apologized [for bumping me from behind]. But I still think he was trying to sabotage me and take the ball.”
The touchdown wasn’t lost on Gilbert’s family. After watching most of his games during his first four years at Wisconsin on TV, his mom, dad and 17-year-old brother Aaron were in the stands at Sun Life Stadium for Senior Day. His father — whom David had to convince to let him begin playing football in the 10th grade — cried like a baby, according to his wife, when their son scored.
“At first I was going crazy and screaming like a nut,” Gilbert’s father, Lance, said. “I know everything that kid has gone through in his life, how tough it was for him to leave Wisconsin feeling like his career was over. When he crossed the goal line, for me that’s a perfect ending to any story.
“I said ‘You know what that’s called, Dave? That’s called redemption.’”
Eleven months ago, football looked like it was going to be in the rear-view mirror for Gilbert. Following a freak injury in practice four games into the 2011 season in which he broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and required surgery, Gilbert had surgery again on the same foot after he ruptured and tore a ligament in his big toe three games into an All-Big Ten honorable mention season in 2012.
“It was a lot to deal with mentally,” Gilbert said. “For two years I felt like I was running into a wall.”
His parents, however, talked him into not giving up on his football dreams. His mother, Ann-Marie, a magnet coordinator at Pompano Beach Blanche Ely High, said she told her son: “You don’t want to live with regret. Keep going until you can’t go anymore.”
Soon after, Hurricanes assistant coach Jethro Franklin reached out to Gilbert. With the Hurricanes in dire need of help up on the defensive line, UM offered to take Gilbert as a transfer if his foot was medically cleared.
“They took a good look at it and it still had a lot of range of motion,” Gilbert’s father said. “I think a lot of the pain or discomfort David still feels it is arthritic, stiffness, stuff he has to keep stretching.”
The touchdown Saturday was without question Gilbert’s brightest moment as a Hurricane. Despite starting 17 games and racking up 52 tackles, seven sacks, 13 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles over his final two seasons at Wisconsin, Gilbert said he has only averaged about 15 snaps a game at UM. He thought he would play a lot more.
“There was one game where I got seven snaps [against Wake Forest] and I wondered, ‘Why did I even come here?’” said Gilbert, who has produced 10 tackles, 1 1/2 for loss, half a sack and recovered two fumbles in his 10 games at Miami.
“In the end, I had to check my ego at the door and realize its Shayon [Green’s] team. He’s the captain, and he’s my roommate, too. That relationship helped get me better. In the end, you can’t count your reps; you’ve got to make your reps count.”
UM defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said Gilbert played his best game against Virginia.
“He gave us something, gave us some energy,” D’Onofrio said. “He looked like he had a little more twitch to him.”
Coach Al Golden reiterated this week he’s grateful to Miami’s three fifth-year senior transfers — Gilbert, defensive tackle Justin Renfrow and punter Pat O’Donnell — for helping the program in a time of need.
With the Hurricanes scheduled to play in frigid Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon and temperatures expected to be in the 30s, Gilbert has been asked by teammates quite a bit this week about dealing with the cold. He said he has laughed at some of the questions and tells teammates “just be mentally strong.”
Gilbert’s father said that trait is what he admires most about his son, and why David will impress scouts at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, Calif. on Jan. 18.
“Just because you’re not in there doesn’t mean other people aren’t seeing you and your potential,” Gilbert’s father said. “The last thing in life you want to do is wake up with regrets. David won’t, and he inspires me more than he’ll ever know.”