'That's a 10:' Dennis Gardeck Celebrating Sacks and Success
Dennis Gardeck was not supposed to be a professional football player. At least, the thought never crossed his mind when he was attending Division II West Virginia State and working at McDonald's before Panda Express for basic income.
Yet, Gardeck is in the NFL playing for the Arizona Cardinals. How does such a drastic evolvement take place?
"Just a phenomenal story," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said earlier this week. "His work ethic, his presence each and every day on that practice field when he's going scout team against our offensive line is amazing to watch. And hard work pays off. He took advantage of that opportunity."
That opportunity presented itself Sunday in Week 5 of his third season against the New York Jets. Prior to that, Gardeck had signed with the franchise in 2018 and exclusively played on special teams. But when All-Pro outside linebacker Chandler Jones left Sunday's game with a biceps injury — one that will keep him out for the rest of the season after it required surgery to repair — Gardeck stepped onto the field for the first time as a true defensive player.
The result? Two sacks on 10 snaps. For reference, Jones, who had a league-leading 19.0 last season, had one in 4.5 games played before his injury.
"I was pretty nervous out there," Gardeck said after the win. "I was just letting them know, 'Hey, I'm just a special teamer. Take it easy.' I just had fun out there and try to do what I do every day in practice, which is play hard.
"I was talking to the Jets because they obviously didn't know who I was. I just had to be like, 'Yo, I'm a special teamer.' Just let them know. That way when I did beat them, it's like, 'Dang, we just got beat by a special teamer.' Mental warfare."
Typically, pass rushers who successfully take down the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage have a signature celebration. Gardeck did not have any time to think of one considering his status on the depth chart entering the game. So, when he sacked Jets signal-caller Joe Flacco — who started for an injured Sam Darnold (right shoulder) — his body took over.
"I'm not going to lie, I kind of blacked out a little bit," Gardeck said. "I do remember spinning around in a circle, but I guess the anticipation of the first snaps — not even necessarily getting a sack. I was focused on not jumping offsides that whole first series. It wasn't, 'Oh, I'm going to make a big-time play.' (It was), 'I'm just going to do my job, make sure I'm not compromising the defense.' I think that's the biggest thing. When you do get in, you don't want to be a hindrance. You just want to be able to do your job, make sure everything stays at a high level. I think the anticipation of just those first snaps were getting to me, not necessarily thinking about, 'Oh, my first sack.'"
In Gardeck's state of euphoric excitement, the ensuing celebrations went viral on social media. They were not as spontaneous as one might think, though, considering he lovingly named them "Hit the Strobe" and "Turn the Corner."
While the internet had its fun, coaches and teammates had their own idea of Gardeck's choice of dance moves.
"Not good," Kingsbury said.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson took it a step further, issuing a ranking on a 1-10 scale.
"The first one, the one he did like this (Hit the Strobe), I actually liked that one," Peterson said Thursday. "That one's actually pretty cool. I would have gave that one (a) seven. But the other one with the jet thing (Turn the Corner), I really wasn't digging that one. I'll give that a three."
"I got a seven and a three?" Gardeck questioned after a reporter told him of Peterson's ranking. "That's a 10. Out of two sacks, I got a 10 total combined. I feel like 10 out of 10, I did my job."
Gardeck has a way of emanating positivity. You will rarely see him not smiling. It has been that way since he joined the Cardinals and even before when he was at West Virginia State before transferring to Sioux Falls for his senior year.
It is, in part, what has made him so likable and well received by the franchise. That, and the frenetic style in which he plays. Players and coaches alike have taken notice and Gardeck has established a reputation as one of the hardest workers on the team.
"When Dennis first got here he was one of those guys that was like a Swiss Army knife," Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said Thursday. "He could do everything. He was backup long snapper, literally whatever he could do to make the team, he's been willing to do that. He's so selfless, he plays through injuries, he's tough, he's dedicated, a wonderful teammate. Now, this year, voted as a captain for the first time. I think his teammates really respect the way he goes about his business, how much he cares, his work ethic, the way he practices."
The special teams captaincy was an indicator of the success he has been able to achieve. Having to fill the shoes of a player such as Jones's caliber is a tough task for any player in the league, but Gardeck has already earned the seal of approval.
"You see a guy like Dennis go out there and have two sacks and then I'm like, 'Alright, we might have a replacement,'" wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. "For him to go in and do what he did [Sunday], I knew he was going to give his all and his best effort and that resulted to two sacks. But that's what you need. And that's what you look for in a guy like Dennis. That just gives the team and everybody else a little motivation."
Added Fitzgerald: "Dennis stepped in there, he had a great opportunity, came out and had a lot of pressures and recorded two sacks. His teammates were all elated for him and hopefully he can go out there and do that for us again against the Cowboys on Monday."
The increased productivity this year can largely be attributed to the decision to convert Gardeck back to his more natural position of outside linebacker like he played in college. The organization had utilized him on the inside for the first two years of his career, but he continued to train to hopefully one day get an opportunity to show what he can do as an edge rusher.
That chance since arrived.
"I knew he wanted to go back to outside 'backer and drafting (2020 first-round pick) Isaiah (Simmons) and putting him inside gave us a chance to put him back outside," Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. "And from Day 1 in training camp to what you saw last week, that's what training camp looked like. He just rushed off the edge with speed and power and he's made plays, so hopefully he can get better and better with more opportunities and help us add to our pass rush."
How impactful was that decision?
"I was stoked when I got moved to outside linebacker," Gardeck said. "Even though my role was inside the previous two years, I kept training in the offseason (for the) pass rush. I just love doing that kind of thing. I kept it in the repertoire for sure."
Gardeck has approached each day in a Cardinals' uniform as if it could be his last. He maximizes his effort in a way that allowed him to transition from Division II college player, to Division II graduate transfer, to undrafted free-agent signee, to special-teams captain of the Arizona Cardinals.
"There's a reason he's able to go in there, when he gets his opportunity, to make those plays because he does it every single day as hard as he can go," Kingsbury said. "There's no doubt a piece like that on your team brings a lot of inspiration.
"I see it every day in practice. He is hell on wheels going on scout team against our offensive line and they hate trying to block him because he's non-stop. He's relentless, he just keeps going, the play's never over for him. He's a guy who gets there earlier than everybody, studies harder than any player I've ever seen and just awesome to see. What a great story and just fun to watch him."
On a Phoenix-area TV station, he was showing off his tattoos, one of which included potato chips. Even for that, Gardeck had an apt explanation.
Explaining that a lot of people have a chip on their shoulder, Gardeck said simply, "I have a bag of chips."
Despite everyone else's observations of him, Gardeck aspires to remain true to himself. Whoever that person is, he is relying on the values he has exemplified to continue to carry him in a prominent direction.
There is no changing Dennis Gardeck. Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys in prime time, he will have a chance to prove it again.
"Who am I at the end of the day?" he said. "I think that's kind of where I came from. Even going back to high school, I was never, 'The Guy.' You can think what you want about me, I'm just going to have fun, play football and celebrate how I celebrate whether it's a seven or a three."
Photo: Arizona Cardinals