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SportsMonday Column: The legend of Bear Gibbons, from 'zero to hero'

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 21, 2012

Brendan Gibbons is an anomaly.

Five minutes before he would play hero, booting a 38-yard field goal in the waning seconds of the game to push Michigan past Michigan State, the redshirt junior placekicker paced the length of the Michigan bench.

Behind him, freshman kick returner Dennis Norfleet was whipping a towel back and forth. Norfleet because 5-foot-7 frame made it too hard to see through the maze of players on the sideline, had hopped up on the bench, giving him the perfect vantage point to watch quarterback Denard Robinson finally break loose for a 44-yard run deep into Spartan territory.

But Gibbons wasn’t celebrating like Norfleet. He was preparing, his helmet already on. Somehow, he knew this would come down to his left leg. The prolific Michigan offense had stuttered and stumbled in Michigan State territory all afternoon, leaving the job up to Gibbons and backup kicker Matt Wile.

This time was no different, except they weren’t even within Wile’s range. He instead had to punt and pray that the defense could hold. It did. Michigan got the ball back for one last push with two minutes remaining.

Gibbons was perfect from 24 and 21 yards, Wile from 48. But as the clock wound down, Robinson found junior wide receiver Drew Dileo for a 20-yard gain down to the Michigan State 21-yard line.

Robinson, with a menacing gleam in his eye, spiked the ball with nine ticks left on the game clock and started to trot toward the sideline. He knew he didn’t need to finish this himself.

Why?

Michigan had seen this scene twice before. The first time was in the 11th hour of the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, when Gibbons planted — from just one yard closer — and connected on the game-winning field goal in overtime to topple Virginia Tech.

The second time was on Thursday. Running a situational offense in practice, the coaching staff gave the scenario that the Wolverines trailed by two. They just needed to get within Gibbons’ range. They did. He nailed it.

This had become routine.

***

It wasn’t so long ago that Gibbons was a cursed name around Ann Arbor. Or, more accurately, a cursed name with a defective left leg.

As a redshirt freshman in 2010, Gibbons was named Michigan’s starting kicker. After just one successful field goal in four attempts — and a missed extra point — he was yanked. His backup, Seth Broekhuizen, had no better luck.

So, then-head coach Rich Rodriguez just avoided the kicking game. He even held midseason tryouts looking for a potential walk-on kicker. Michigan finished the season dead last in the nation, making just four field goals in 15 tries.

Redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan tells the story of a trip to Olive Garden shortly after that 7-6 season came to a close with a 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. (Rodriguez finally came back to Gibbons in that game. He tried a field goal. And missed.)

Lewan and Gibbons, roommates at the time, took a seat and Lewan decided to test the server. She probably knew Lewan was a football player, but the kid across from him looked like any other college boy.

“So, what did you think of the kicker this year?” Lewan asked her.

“I mean, just make a kick,” the server answered. “What’re you doing?”

Lewan gestured across the table and grinned.

“This is 34, our kicker,” he said.

Lewan likes to look back on that day and laugh. Oh, how things have changed.
Gibbons has never let the criticism get to him too much. The West Palm Beach, Fla. native is something of a free spirit. How free? Well, he even gave himself a nickname once, Lewan said.

The two were in the basement playing video games one afternoon when Gibbons glanced over.

“Call me Bear,” he said.

Bear? Right, because of the mangy look, the hair, the beard. Nope.

“I love them, they’re so cuddly,” Gibbons said.

“Get over yourself,” Lewan said, laughing. “You can’t give yourself a nickname.”

It stuck, sort of. It didn’t really spread throughout the locker room, but Gibbons loved it. On his Twitter account, he goes by “Bear Gibbons” and his background photo is of a bear cub. The cub’s got the left foot in front of the right, maybe measuring up a chip-shot field goal.

And when Michigan coach Brady Hoke arrived, he gave Gibbons a gimmicky mindset that matched the kicker’s goofy personality.


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