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.
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. Think brunettes, Brendan.
After sealing the Sugar Bowl with his game-winning kick, Gibbons was asked during the post-game press conference what was going through his mind as he lined up the kick. Gibbons hesitated, looked down the table to his right, where Hoke sat and then leaned forward toward the microphone.
“Uh, brunette girls,” he said.
Only when the room burst into laughter did he finally crack a grin.
“Every time we were struggling in kicking, (Hoke) always tells me to think about girls on the beach or brunette girls. So that’s what we did. Made the kick.”
Staring a one-point deficit in the eye, Gibbons lined up his kick at the left hash as steady as can be. Michigan State called a timeout to ice him, but Gibbons wasn’t fazed.
“It really doesn’t affect me at all,” he said. “I think it is kind of pointless.”
Everyone else, though, was in panic mode.
Robinson didn’t watch as Gibbons lined up the kick again.
“I just took a knee and prayed,” Robinson said. “I was just thanking the man above for giving us the opportunity to step on the field today.”
Craig Roh and Lewan had their hands in the turf, blocking for Gibbons.
“Nothing gets by you, Taylor,” Roh shouted.
Lewan, anchoring the strongside edge, fired back: “I block, that’s what I do, so I’m going to block for this field goal.” (That’s the way he remembered the conversation after the game, anyway.)
Dileo took the snap, placed it down and Gibbons tucked it just inside the right upright, sending the stadium into a frenzy. ‘Team 133’ spilled onto the field, mobbing Gibbons and falling into a dog pile with five seconds left on the clock.
“I told everyone on the sideline, ‘Don’t rush the field.’ ” Roundtree said. “And then I was the main one on the field.”
A far cry from the days when Michigan avoided its kicker, Gibbons had saved his team once again, giving the program its 900th win and breaking a four-year skid against the Spartans.
It was the first time the Wolverines had won a game without scoring a touchdown since Nov. 11, 1995, when Michigan beat Purdue, 5-0, with a field goal and a safety. And this time it was from Gibbons, a long-haired, stocky kicker who once seemed Michigan’s unlikeliest hero.
After the final whistle, the midfield handshakes and “The Victors,” Gibbons had four cameras circling him he jogged across the field and up the tunnel.
Lewan pegged Gibbons’s journey just right.
“It’s a complete zero-to-hero turnaround.” Lewan said.
Bear Gibbons, Michigan’s long-haired, stocky kicker, is an anomaly. But he’s right where he belongs.
— Nesbitt is also very cuddly. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.