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Big Cheese The Badgers Aaron Gibson pruned his weight to 371 and blossomed into a bulldozer of a blocker who probably will be the first lineman taken in the NFL draft

Feb. 22, 1999
Feb. 22, 1999

Table of Contents
Feb. 22, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Big Cheese The Badgers Aaron Gibson pruned his weight to 371 and blossomed into a bulldozer of a blocker who probably will be the first lineman taken in the NFL draft

Aaron Gibson was too big. Way too big. In April 1997, on the day
that Wisconsin football players had their mugs photographed for
the coming season, each player took a turn posing in one of the
six red university-issue sport coats ranging in size from 42 to
56. The largest Badger stuck an arm into the jacket with 56
inked onto the inside pocket, but he knew he was kidding
himself. Just as in the previous year, Gibson had to have his
picture taken without a coat. It bothered him because when
Wisconsin fans opened their game programs in the fall, they
would see head shots of 116 Badgers, all dressed alike except
one. It was yet another indignity for a guy who had always stuck
out like a capital letter in a lowercase world.

This is an article from the Feb. 22, 1999 issue

Gibson has lived most of his 21 years hoping to make himself
indistinguishable. That's a formidable challenge when you're on
your way to 6'7" and 400-plus pounds and bringing a new spin to
the title Big Man on Campus. Gibson's head is so enormous (size
8 7/8) that he wears a custom-made helmet, the largest ever made
by Riddell. His feet are so huge that he passes down his
worn-out size 18EEE shoes to his mother, Constance, who wears
them in her part-time gig as a clown at kids' parties. His
thighs measure 33 1/2 inches around, which is 5 1/2 inches more
than Wisconsin cornerback Jamar Fletcher's waist. By the time
Gibson was 14, he couldn't fit into the roller coaster at the
amusement park and couldn't find ice skates or bowling shoes
large enough to rent. For as long as he can remember, whenever
Gibson has gotten on an elevator, other passengers have had a
tendency to get off. Gibson, an All-America right tackle, was
believed to have been the heaviest player in college football
last season. In April, when he's expected to be selected high in
the first round of the NFL draft, he most likely will become the
biggest player in the pros. Some scouts regard Gibson, who will
graduate in May with a degree in African-American studies, as an
oversized Orlando Pace, the 320-pound All-America tackle from
Ohio State, whom the St. Louis Rams made the first pick in the
1997 draft. Someday Gibson might even be regarded as the
prototype for the gargantuan linemen of the 21st century. "He's
got the best hand punch I've ever seen, quick feet for
pass-blocking, and he's so huge that you can't compare him to
anybody before him," says Minnesota Vikings scouting director
Jerry Reichow. "Physically he's a man among boys, so the first
team looking for an offensive lineman should draft him. If it
doesn't, it may regret not doing so."

A seventh-grade English assignment required that Gibson start
keeping a journal, and nine years later he still jots down his
most intimate thoughts in a style of free verse that he calls
"my poetry." These tomes, which fill more than 15 spiral
notebooks and which he has never allowed anyone else to read,
provide a compass for Gibson, who regularly reviews the earlier
notebooks, particularly the passages that pertain to his battles
with the bulge. For example, there was the evening early in his
freshman year at Decatur Central High in Indianapolis when his
father, Richard, casually asked Aaron how many push-ups he could
do. The boy lay down on the floor and strained to lift his
torso, only to discover that he could do none. Zero. Zilch.
Three weeks later, after numerous trips to the gym, Aaron did
hoist himself up once and promptly began stalking his father
around the house, repeatedly performing his gravity-defying
feat. "I believe that incident was the turning point in his
life," says Richard. "He was genuinely embarrassed, and a
lightbulb went on."

Aaron's talents in those days tended more toward finesse events,
such as juggling in his mom's circus routine, writing holiday
songs and pursuing his goal of becoming an Olympic swimmer, a
dream that he finally gave up in the ninth grade when he grew
four inches and ballooned by 50 pounds to 310. Though he took up
football that same year, he disliked it because the brutality
didn't mesh with his desire to convince people that he wasn't as
scary as he looked. "He's really a gentle giant," says
Constance. "His football coaches often told me that I didn't
raise my boy mean enough."

At a practice before his sophomore season at Decatur the
soft-spoken Aaron endured a spirited monologue from his line
coach, Carney Brouse, on a phenomenon Brouse called Big Kid
Syndrome. Brouse concluded with a message that Gibson has
carried with him on the gridiron ever since: You're bigger than
everybody else, and all your life you've been told to be careful
not to hurt anyone. But on the football field you've got to let
your aggression come out. You're not in kindergarten anymore.
"Being aggressive was more in my nature than I knew," Gibson
says. "I remember getting on the field and going crazy. It felt
good to play all out, the way you're supposed to."

In the ensuing two years Gibson blew up to more than 400 pounds
as he ate an overabundance of fast foods, and he caught the eye
of recruiters from Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin, who detected
the soul of an athlete beneath all the avoirdupois. When Gibson
arrived in Madison in the summer of 1995, he weighed 435 pounds,
and any hope that he could play himself into shape was dashed
when it was discovered that he lacked a core course on his high
school transcript and was ruled academically ineligible. He was
prohibited from practicing with the Badgers as a freshman. He
was too fat to jog, so his conditioning program consisted of
strolls with Wisconsin strength coach John Dettman, walks that
left Gibson winded. Burger King was his training table. "I
wasn't a meat-and-potatoes man, I was a meat-and-meat man,"
Gibson says. "The tough part was to admit that I was too heavy.
In my head there was a constant battle going on. I thought, I'm
fine. Why do I have to lose weight?"

When Gibson sat in the stands for Wisconsin's 1995 season
opener, a 43-7 home loss to Colorado, some Badgers fans heckled
him, screaming that it was his fault that Wisconsin was being
shellacked. An hour after the game Gibson bought a one-way bus
ticket for the 12-hour journey back to Indianapolis. Wisconsin
assistant Kevin Cosgrove, who had recruited Gibson, persuaded
him to return to school. But Gibson didn't attend another game
that season, and every weekend he went home without a definite
plan to return to Madison. Each time, Cosgrove says, he would
have to "re-recruit" Gibson back to campus. Once it took six
days. "I had a horrible case of homesickness because I wasn't
part of the team and I was lonely," Gibson says. "I kept saying
to myself, 'Why did I come here? I'm transferring. I don't need
football. I don't even like it.' I made up a million excuses in
my head."

But his parents persuaded him to remain in Madison, and by
following Dettmann's dietary counsel and exercise regimen, he
trimmed down to a svelte 390 over the summer of 1996. After
having been impressed by Gibson in the first practice that fall,
Badgers coach Barry Alvarez began figuring out how he would use
his mammoth tackle. Gibson made his debut in the fifth game of
the season, against Ohio State, exchanging jersey number 79 for
number 81 as the Badgers switched to a Jumbo formation with
Gibson lining up at tight end, or what amounted to a third
tackle. Wisconsin lost that game, but afterward Buckeyes
defensive end Mike Vrabel asked Alvarez, "Where did that big guy
come from? He hits me one time, and I just collapse. He's on top
of me, and I can't feel anything. I'm thinking that my career is
over."

With Gibson in the lineup regularly for the last six games in
1996, the Badgers won five times to finish 8-5, and 261-pound
freshman tailback Ron Dayne ran for 1,477 yards. No wonder
Alvarez began drafting a blueprint for effective but boring
football, in which one heavyweight--preceded by an even heavier
heavyweight--would belly his way through the opposition.

Gibson moved to right tackle in '97, and Wisconsin pounded out
another 8-5 record, rushing for 189 yards per game to rank third
in the Big Ten. Last season the Badgers finished first in the
Big Ten in rushing and last in passing, with Gibson and Dayne
shredding defenses like cheddar through a grater. After the
Badgers beat Illinois 37-3 with 62 rushes for 274 yards, Illini
coach Ron Turner said, "They just pounded us, pounded us,
pounded us. The big man [Gibson] just mauled our guys."

Says Iowa's All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jared DeVries, "Facing
that guy is like trying to run around a mountain, except that
this mountain moves."

Wisconsin completed a surprising 11-1 season--the most wins ever
by the Badgers--by rushing for 343 yards in a 38-31 victory over
UCLA in the Rose Bowl. "There were plays during that game when I
became totally hidden behind number 79," says the 255-pound
Dayne, a junior who ran for 246 yards against the Bruins. "Then
as soon as he cleared my view, all that was left was a lot of
daylight and a scared safety 10 yards downfield."

Long gone was the Gibson who was afraid of hurting opponents.
During the season Gibson and his linemates often reviewed game
films, slowing down the tape and cackling at the carnage
inflicted upon the defense. "Sometimes it's hard to believe
that's another human body you're doing that to," says Gibson,
who was a finalist for the Lombardi and Outland awards.
"Football is a fun way to be violent because it's almost like
the defense is asking for some pain. It's a weird thrill to
drive somebody down the field and flip him over on his back."

Says Alvarez, "Aaron can be so overpowering that he caves down
an entire side of the line--our guys, their guys and anybody
else unlucky enough to get in his way."

While playing his senior season at 371 pounds, Gibson set school
weightlifting records with a 750-pound squat and a 500-pound
bench press. He has a 31 1/2-inch vertical leap, so he can dunk
a basketball. He has won countless bets by arranging two benches
several feet apart, placing a leg on each one and doing a split
between them, a surreal trick he borrowed from a Jean-Claude Van
Damme movie. Gibson also points out that his regular workout
includes two sets of 20 push-ups, which he performs routinely.
"Players over 300 pounds are either fat slobs or genetic
freaks," Dettmann says. "This is a guy who could be a
world-class powerlifter. He's incredibly agile, and he can make
the man across from him look like he's on roller skates. But
what really brings the pro scouts to the edge of their seats is
that he hasn't come close to reaching his potential."

While considering a jump to the NFL last spring, Gibson stunned
scouts by running a 5.3 in the 40. One national scouting service
gave him the highest possible predraft rating: 8.0. On Feb. 18,
Gibson returns to Indianapolis for the start of the five-day NFL
combine, where he hopes to nail down a spot early in the first
round of the April 17 draft. Despite the potential fame and
fortune that await him in the pros, he's still eager to reach
the point where he's less noticeable. "I've grown up being
different," he says. "Sure, I want to be a dominant player in
the NFL, but I'm also hoping for a time when I'm never again
viewed as an outcast because of my size."

One of Gibson's proudest moments at Wisconsin occurred last
April during spring practice. He had dedicated a year of
conditioning to the hope that he could finally pull on the size
56 sport coat, and in his photo in the 1998 game program, he was
dressed just like all of his teammates. For that one moment at
least he brushed away the stigma of all those skating rinks and
bowling alleys and amusement parks. Staring at that mug shot,
the gentle giant sheepishly admits that outside the frame of the
picture the jacket's hemline barely reached his belt and the
sleeves barely covered his forearms, but that's not the point.
Gibson fit in.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY LOWE TAILOR-MADE The 6'7" Gibson needed to trim some 20 pounds to fit (sort of) into a team blazer. Now he's eminently suited for the NFL.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYERCOLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN MOVING MOUNTAIN With Gibson leading the way, Wisconsin was tops in the Big Ten in rushing last season.

Movers and Shakers
These players have improved their draft status the most since
the end of the season, and several of them could be joining
Aaron Gibson among the top NFL choices.

1. Donovan McNabb (5) QB Syracuse
Leaped into draft's top 10 with a deft (7 of 15 passes for 100
yards) and charismatic Senior Bowl performance.

2. L.J. Shelton T Eastern Michigan
Son of former NBA player Lonnie is big enough, at 305 pounds,
and quick enough to be an NFL left tackle. Top 20 material.

3. Mark Ward LB Jacksonville State
Could be a late-first-round pick after a terrific East-West
Shrine Game. Cat-quick. Can bulk up from 235 pounds.

4. Ebenezer Ekuban DE-OLB North Carolina
Converted from tight end to defensive end as a junior with the
Tar Heels. Big upside could land Ghana native in the top 15.

5. Shaun King QB Tulane
Before Doug Flutie's reemergence, teams would have been
reluctant to gamble on this 5'11" playmaker. Could go in the
early rounds.

"The first team looking for an offensive lineman should draft
him," says Reichow. "If it doesn't, it may regret not doing so."