2015 INDUCTEE - GREGORY GILBERT
By David Elwell
For the Decatur Daily
Back in the 1980s an Alabama assistant football coach sat in the Austin field house watching film of an Austin running back. As the running back broke downfield on a run, a teammate raced into the frame of the film and delivered a punishing block to a defender to spring his teammate loose for a touchdown. Rocky Felker, the Alabama assistant, immediately asked the Austin coaches for the identity of the player that made the block. It was Greg Gilbert, who would later play linebacker for the Crimson Tide from 1985-1988.
Gilbert will be inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 9. "Greg Gilbert had a lot of athletic ability, but he was just a natural for football," Tom Calvin, Austin's head coach from 1978-1988, said. "You really didn't have to teach him how to play the game. He knew how to play the game." That's high praise coming from a hall of fame coach who had many players advance to the college level and even the pros. "I was taught to always have pride in what you do and never take a play off," Gilbert said. "There's always somebody watching you."
Billy Miles, Austin's defensive coordinator when Gilbert played, remembers the day when Felker spotted Gilbert on film. "Sometimes it's the player who does something like what Greg Gilbert did on that play who makes the biggest impression on a college coach," Miles said. "When you make an impression like that, it can have an impact that will change your life."
Football definitely had an impact on Gilbert's life. After his career at Alabama, he was drafted in the fifth round by the Chicago Bears in 1989. Gilbert was with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990 and 1991 and he played two years in the World League of American Football.
After a career in private business, Gilbert stepped back into college in 2012 as a fund raiser for the athletic department at Central Florida. Today, he works in fund raising for the University of Southern California. Gilbert is married to Caryl Smith Gilbert. She is the Director of Track and Field at USC.
"Other than a little Pop Warner, I didn't play football until I got to Austin," Gilbert said. "I didn't play any sports in school until I played eighth grade basketball at Brookhaven. When we moved to Austin for the ninth grade a lot of my friends were going to play football. So I decided to play."
Gilbert wanted to be a running back for the Black Bears, but Austin had several talented running backs like Alphonso Pettus, Toriano Taylor, Tony Morrow and George Scruggs. Those four would all play college football. "We moved him to end," Calvin said. "I told him we would run some end around plays so he could still run the football." Gilbert recalled that Calvin was so "old-school" at the time that his ends lined up in a three-point stance. "I convinced him that I could get to the ball quicker if I could just stand up," Gilbert said. "He agreed. So I was Coach Calvin's first end that got to stand up."
Gilbert's freshman season at Austin was in 1981. The freshmen team went 9-0 while the varsity was suffering through a 0-9 season going into the last game of the season vs. Decatur. "It was either Monday or Tuesday of that week and Coach Calvin decided to let the freshmen scrimmage the varsity," Gilbert said. "I think all the freshmen were scared stiff. It was a tough scrimmage. The varsity went on to beat Decatur 7-0. The freshmen took credit for getting the varsity ready to beat Decatur."
The win at the end of the '81 season turned out to be the start of an unprecedented run of success for Austin football. In 1982, Austin went 10-2 and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs. "We shocked a lot of people that season, but we weren't surprised," Gilbert said. "We knew we were going to win."
¬†got even better in 1983 when Austin went undefeated all the way to the Class 4A state championship game with Murphy. On a rainy night at Legion Field, Austin lost to Murphy 7-0."Murphy was ranked No. 11 in the country and we were something like No. 19," Gilbert said. "They were a great football team, but so were we. I always thought that if it had not rained, we would have won the game."
Several players from Murphy became Gilbert's teammates at Alabama. "We talked about that game a lot in college," Gilbert said. "Now we talk about it on Facebook. My old Alabama teammate Butch Lewis who played at Murphy likes to bring it up on the anniversary of the game."
In Gilbert's senior season in 1984, Austin beat Decatur to win the region championship, but would lose to the Red Raiders in the second round of the playoffs.
Austin went 31-6 in Gilbert's three varsity seasons. "That was an amazing run of special athletes," Charles Yates, who coached Austin linebackers at the time, said. "What made them special was how hard they pushed each other. It was a coach's dream."
A list of just the All-State players who played for Austin during 1982-1984 in addition to Gilbert included Greg Stewart, Wes Crayton, Deron Huerkamp, Brian Maner, Morrow and Pettus. There were many more who made all-region and all-area teams.
When Gilbert went to Alabama to play for Ray Perkins he joined a group of linebackers that included Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. Bennett is in the College Football Hall of Fame. Thomas is in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"When I got to Alabama I realized how well Coach Calvin and the Austin coaches had prepared me for college," Gilbert said. "At Austin we had played multiple defensive alignments. We would read the offensive alignment and check into a proper defense. Some of the guys who were freshmen with me at Alabama had never done that. When I got to Alabama, I went right to¬†second team because of what I had learned at Austin." Alabama went 9-2-1 in 1985 and 10-3 in 1986. Perkins left for the NFL and Bill Curry became the head coach. The Crimson Tide went 7-5 in 1987 and 9-3 in 1988. Gilbert played on teams that won bowl games against USC, Washington and Army. The lone loss in a bowl game was to Michigan in 1987.
Leg injuries during Gilbert's senior season at Alabama would hamper his career in pro football. "Getting the opportunity to go to Alabama, play football and get a degree, is the best thing that ever happened to me," Gilbert said. "The teachers and coaches at Austin could not have prepared me any better. They helped build the foundation that has led to my success today. "