It is a striking sight: Daryl Gardener, all 6'6", 315 pounds of
him, cradles his infant son close to his chest. He coos in
Da'Vante's ear, the lightness in his voice belied by his
trunklike arms. Gardener holds the infant high in the air as if
to say to anyone who ever doubted him, Look at what I have done.
Can you believe this?

Da'Vante's birth last November was the highlight of a splendid
year in which Gardener, as a rookie defensive tackle with the
Miami Dolphins, won both a starting role and rave reviews from
coaches, thereby putting to rest the lingering doubts about his
work ethic that had followed him from college. Life was good.

But on a cold February night during the off-season, he found
himself close to losing it all. Gardener and a group of friends
from his alma mater, Baylor, had stayed late at a Dallas
nightclub. On the way home, a truck pulled up next to Gardener's
car. A passenger in the truck drew a gun and fired three rounds,
one of which hit the left side of Gardener's face. "One
centimeter higher or one centimeter lower," says Gardener, "it
would be a whole other game." (He says he doesn't know why
someone shot him that night. Police say they think an incident
at the club may have precipitated the shooting, but the
perpetrators have not been caught.) The bullet fractured
Gardener's jaw; two fragments lodged in his tongue. Though the
wound has fully healed and has left no aftereffects that hamper
his play, the shooting has altered his perspective on life. "The
Lord gave me a second chance," he says. "Before, my goals were
fuzzy. Now I really know where I want to go."

Gardener had no such clarity of thought while playing defensive
end at Baylor. Because he routinely took vacations every few
plays, violated curfew and trained with little intensity,
coaches and NFL scouts labeled him an underachiever. That speed,
that size, that skill--and only 15 sacks in three years as a
starter?

Still, Gardener assumed he would be a top-10 pick in the 1996
draft. But by the time 19 picks had been made and his name still
hadn't been called, Gardener, watching the draft on TV at home
in Waco, Texas, began to realize how foolish he'd been. Teams
didn't want to take a chance on a player with buyer beware
stamped on his helmet. Gardener figured he had blown his chance.

But then his phone rang; it was Jimmy Johnson, who had just
taken over as coach of the Dolphins. "Are you going to bust your
butt and give everything you got?" Johnson asked. "Yes,"
Gardener promised, "no matter what." Moments later Miami made
him the 20th pick of the draft.

It was Johnson's first choice with his new team, and it was a
gamble. "I'm sure there are safer picks we could have made," he
said after the draft. "But do you want to be safe and good? Or
do you want to take a risk and be great?"

Cary Godette, Miami's defensive line coach, braced himself for a
season full of migraines. As it turned out, however, he didn't
even break the safety seal on the aspirin bottle. "I was
expecting a war with Daryl, a knock-down-drag-out fight," says
Godette, "but I can honestly say it hasn't been that way at all.
It's been a pleasure. Daryl fell in line from Day One. This guy
who was so immature in college worked hard and did everything he
was told to."

Miami's roll of the dice seems to have paid off. "He's further
along at this stage than Leon Lett was, and Lett ended up being
the best defensive tackle in football," says a beaming Johnson.
"There is no reason why Daryl can't be All-Pro." Though Gardener
didn't have eye-popping stats last season--he had 33 tackles and
one sack in 11 starts--his numbers don't tell the full story. In
the Dolphins' 4-3 alignment the workhorses at defensive tackle
are busy occupying blockers, so the defensive ends get most of
the sacks, and linebackers pile up the tackles. "If you talk to
anyone who tried to block Daryl Gardener one-on-one in the
running game, they'll tell you it was extremely difficult," says
Johnson. "He can be a premier defensive tackle and never have
the stats in our system."

According to Godette, during last year's 8-8 season the Dolphins
won when the defensive tackles had a good game and lost when the
tackles had an off day. So a lot rests on the broad shoulders of
Gardener and fellow tackle Tim Bowens. "We understand the
challenge, and we're ready to get it on," says Gardener. "The
Super Bowl. This year."

Where was this drive four years ago? "Why didn't I use my talent
in college?" says Gardener, asking the question that baffled his
coaches. "Because of the maturity factor. The sense of urgency
wasn't there. It was Baylor, not Florida or Florida State."

The only thing Gardener felt with any urgency while growing up
was the desire to stop moving from town to town. His father,
Daryl Sr., was a sergeant in the Army; the longest the family
lived in the same place was three years. He can't quite remember
all the places his family called home. "We lived in Maryland,
Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Germany, Oklahoma, Panama.
Everywhere."

Sergeant Gardener was stationed in Panama in 1989 when the U.S.
overthrew Manuel Noriega. Daryl, 16, was confined to the
family's house for a month during the conflict. Even when the
family wasn't living in the midst of such danger, Daryl still
felt pent up. "My dad believed in keeping kids in the house a
lot," he says, as deeply etched furrows spread across his
forehead, making him look much older than his 24 years. "We were
sheltered. It almost made me go crazy to be so secluded." His
father says the reason was a practical one: "Daryl always wanted
to get out and run the streets. We wanted to keep him close to
home."

The oldest of three children, Daryl had responsibility heaped
upon him at an early age. Before Daryl Sr. left for his first
12-month tour in Korea, he turned to his five-year-old son and
said, "You're the man of the house now." Later, when his father
was away and his mother, Norma, was at work in the mess hall,
the teenage Daryl looked after his younger siblings. "All that
plus take care of myself," Gardener says with a heavy sigh. "I
used to think it would be nice to relive being a kid."

But when his wife, Tarnesia, gave birth to Da'Vante, he realized
that it was time to grow up. "For so long I was just a kid in a
man's body," he says, holding his son in the crook of his right
arm, his biceps a pillow for Da'Vante's tiny head. "I have
finally caught up with my body. I am a man now."

--KELLY WHITESIDE

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Gardener's seasoned visage suggests that he's finally shaken the immature rap. [Daryl Gardner] COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/ALLSPORT Gardener's rookie numbers were unspectacular, but Johnson says to disregard a tackle's stats--this is a potential All-Pro. [Daryl Gardner in game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)