Editor’s note: This continues a regular feature on DawgNation called “Throwback Thursday.” It offers the chance to revisit the recruiting stories of former UGA greats. The last few installments were on 1985 Florida game hero Keith Henderson, his 1980’s running mate Tim Worley, all-time punt returner Damien Gary,and crowd favorite RB Musa Smith and all-time leading receiver Terrence Edwards. This week’s feature catches up with one of the great linebackers in UGA football history.
Tony Gilbert wanted to earn everything he got at UGA. He had to.
This week’s “Throwback Thursday” focuses on the team captain for UGA’s drought-breaking SEC Championship squad in 2002. Gilbert capped a sterling career that season by becoming the first Bulldog since Ben Zambiasi in 1977 to lead the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons.
But he earned every rep that led to that impressive feat.
“I wanted to make sure nobody ever thought they made a mistake by giving me a scholarship,” Gilbert said.
The Macon native played seven seasons in the NFL, but still considers himself the least-heralded of the linebackers UGA had in 1999. He signed in 1998 and redshirted his first year. Gilbert found himself in a deep talent pool in 1999.
“I was definitely the less-heralded guy,” Gilbert said. “We had ‘Boss’ (Bailey) and (Will Witherspoon) and Jessie Miller and Charles Grant and Kawika Mitchell. .. Out of the five linebackers I came in with, I was probably the number five guy.”
Read those names again. There were five future NFL linebackers in that lot and four of those guys were selected in the first three rounds of the draft.
Gilbert wasn’t a guy who inflated the bar tabs across Athens on National Signing Day when his name went up on the recruiting board.
He feels he was only offered because former coach Jim Donnan wanted to sign the best players in Georgia every year to lock the state down. UGA then stacked the talent up even higher at his position in 1999 when Kendrell Bell, a future NFL Rookie of the Year, joined the horde at his position.
“For me it wasn’t a juicy recruiting story,” Gilbert said. “I wasn’t a heralded guy like Terrence Edwards or any of those other guys. I mean I really got two real offers. It was Georgia and Alabama.”
Gilbert made a trip to UGA during his junior year in high school and loved everything about the visit.
“The major part for me was Greg Williams, who was the defensive backs coach,” Gilbert said. “He was the main recruiter for my area. He was straight-up with me and recruiting has changed so much since then.”
He was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the sixth round of the 2003 NFL draft and played seven seasons of pro ball. He’s now a defensive quality control coach under Larry Fedora at North Carolina.
It allows him to see the world of modern recruiting up close.
“Guys want to play early,” Gilbert said. “Guys want to hear they are good and great and they’ll play early and get loved up. That wasn’t the approach Greg Williams had at all. He said I can’t tell you that you are going to play a lot or even at all. But he said it will depend on how hard you work and whether or not you kick butt. He wasn’t going to lie to me and said that whether or not I played depended on me.”
Those are not inspiring terms, but they were what he needed to hear.
“I was always up for the challenge of going to a major university like Georgia and proving myself to be a good enough linebacker to go to Georgia and play,” he said. “I wanted that challenge. I wanted to work hard. I didn’t want anybody to give me anything. I enjoyed that.”
He redshirted and didn’t play much his redshirt freshman season. He thanks his parents for motivating him through those times.
“I was ‘the guy’ in high school but when you get to college it is a totally different thing,” Gilbert said. “It was the process of getting better day-in and day-out year after year in the weight room and in the offseason.”
When his time came, he was ready. Bailey got hurt. Gilbert had been tapped to play anyway, but it meant even more playing time. He played well enough that game that linebackers coach Gary Gibbs made him a full-time starter.
“I was just ready and had my moment and ran with my opportunity,” he said. “I did all the little things right and those little things become big things.”
Gilbert reflects on that mindset now when he deals with players. He’s taken bits and pieces of what he’s absorbed from mentors like Gibbs and Donnan along with UGA coach Mark Richt and former UGA defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder.
“I want to hear guys talk about getting better and not just talk about it but I want to see the effort,” he said. “It is easy to say ‘I want to be great and do this or that’ but does your effort show what your words are saying. That’s what I need to see.”
When his NFL career was over, he started “working his butt off” in the coaching profession. He was on the UGA strength staff in 2011 and served as a graduate assistant at Auburn in 2012. He logged a couple of seasons in junior college at Georgia Military. Gilbert coached high school football last season at John Milledge in Macon with former UGA fullback J.T. Wall.
His present-day world has to be humbling. He’s clocking 60-plus hour weeks now at a meager salary. That’s a far cry from those NFL veteran paychecks. He was paid a reported $605,000 during his last NFL season in Jacksonville in 2009.
That’s at least 25 times what he makes in a year as a graduate assistant. Gilbert just sees it as the price he has to pay to get to where he aspires to go.
SEC linebackers coach? Defensive coordinator? Head coach? Gilbert wants to see if he can check all those things off in his new profession.
“It was a miracle for me to go to Georgia to start for three years and lead the team in tackles,” he said. “It was a miracle to get drafted and play in the league for seven years. So now I’m working my butt off to excel in coaching. There’s a process in everything you do and you just have to keep your head down and continue working and growing. I had to grow as a player and now it is time to grow as a coach.”
Jeff Sentell covers UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.