Gibson back on the road

As first NFL injuries go, Oliver Gibson's was notable.

To be honest, it was quite a story.

In actual fact, it was nothing short of a colossal shock and feared catastrophe for a 30-year-old player, one who had plenty of reason to expect a continuing and productive NFL career.

Gibson still expects that strong future, as the Bengals defensive tackle anticipates he'll soon be proclaimed physically ready for the start of 2003 training camp. But much sweat and yes -- tears -- have flowed as Gibson has traveled the road back from serious injury.

When Gibson went down at Baltimore on Nov. 10 of last season, more was snapped than just his left Achilles tendon. Gone was a Bengals team-high streak of 57 straight starts. Kaput was a combined Steelers-Bengals string of 105 straight games played. Wiped out also was a personal streak in which he took great pride.

"Not only had I never missed a game with an injury, I never had missed one practice my whole football career," Gibson said.

The second half of the 2002 NFL season was just beginning on Nov. 10, a cloudy but comfortable 66-degree day in Baltimore. But for Gibson, the season was to end suddenly in the third quarter.

"I was on the ground after a play, and I thought an offensive lineman had kicked me in the ankle," he recalled. "I didn't think it was anything much, but when I tried to get up, my foot was just kind of dangling.

"I waved for the trainer (and team doctor) to come out, and when Dr. (Angelo) Colosimo cut my sock, I saw a dent in the Achilles. He pressed it and said, 'Yeah, you tore it. I'm sorry. You're done.'

"I said, 'For the game?', and he said, 'No, for the season.' "

Gibson recalls all too well what happened next.

"I've watched it on video a couple of times," he said. "At that moment, I punched the ground, and you can tell I was fighting back the tears. I was thinking, 'not me, I never get hurt.' "

The next hour or two was a roller coaster of emotion.

"Out on the field, I told myself, 'The time to start coming back is right at this moment,' " Gibson said. "I was trying the best I could to be upbeat as they were putting me on the cart. I had never been on the cart.

"But the reality of it hit me after I took a shower. They were giving me a cast and crutches, and telling me my surgery was at 7 the next morning. At that point, I had to get a couple of minutes away for myself. I love the game too much to go out all of a sudden like that, and it was scary."

Human nature does adjust, however, and professional athletes with season-ending injuries are more confident than ever these days over their chances to come back with proper medical and training help. It wasn't any fun, but Gibson set off before Thanksgiving on the task of getting ready for July 28, the first practice of training camp.

"Everybody was very supportive," Gibson said. "Billy Brooks (assistant athletic trainer) told me, '50 percent of it from now on is in your head, not your ankle.' And that's how I deal with it. I think of that every single time I don't feel like rehabbing. This is not the end of my career, and I feel like I've done a good job. I've worked harder physically in the off-season than I probably ever have."

Head trainer Paul Sparling warned back in November that Gibson's biggest off-season challenge would be keeping his weight down.

"Actually, I weighed a lot less this off-season than I had in the past," Gibson said. "I was only about 10 pounds over playing weight (of 310). I'm working that down even more and I think I'll be just about right for Georgetown."

Gibson has been around the pro game long enough to know that when he does re-take the practice field, no one will cut him any slack from having been hurt. Though he had those 57 straight starts before the injury, he's now listed as second-team on the depth chart. The early chart has free-agent signee John Thornton filling a starting spot along with returnee Tony Williams.

"That's the nature of the sport," Gibson said with a shrug. "We've got some new talent in here, but there's always new people coming in. Once camp starts, what takes place on the field is what matters, and I'll always bet on me. I know how I can come through. You lose a little of your swagger when you have to sit out a long time, but it'll come back."

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