Alden Gibbs found himself in a strange place in the early spring of 2010, shortly after completing his first season as a small forward on Eastern Washington University’s men’s basketball team.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who had made his way to Cheney via College of the Siskiyous in Weed, Calif., he just reached a “mutual agreement” with then-head coach Kirk Earlywine to look for playing time at another school.
Gibbs’ idea at the time was to transfer to a lower-level college in California. Until then, however, he was without a team to play for the first time since he was in grade school.
But then Taiwan Jones, one of the friends he had made on campus and a standout running back on the Eagles’ football team, suggested Gibbs might want to stay at Eastern and give football a try.
And come Saturday, Gibbs will find himself in another strange place when he makes his first start as the Eagles’ right cornerback in their 2011 season opener against the University of Washington at Husky Stadium in Seattle.
“I know I’m probably going to be a little nervous at first in front of all those people, but that’s just they way I am,” said Gibbs, a senior who lettered on last year’s national championship team as a special teams player and became the first EWU student-athlete to letter in basketball and football since Bob Picard in 1973. “I always got nervous before basketball games, too. So I think I’ll be okay on Saturday once the game gets going.”
Head coach Beau Baldwin and defensive coordinator John Graham confess to having been highly skeptical about Gibbs’ decision to get back into football after being away from the sport for four years. Both changed their opinions after meeting the personable 24-year-old.
“In most cases, when a guy switches sports – especially when he only has two years left – it just doesn’t work,” Baldwin said. “But once I got to be around Alden and learned the type of person he is and the kind of work ethic he has, I felt like, ‘All right, this guy is going to make it.’
“And he has.”
Graham, who is also helping coach defensive backs this fall, knew who Gibbs was through the Eastern basketball program.
“I had never met him, but I knew he had played high school football and that he was athletic as heck and long and rangy,” Graham said. “I had my doubts at first, but I figured you never pass up long, rangy kids who can run, because you can’t coach speed and you can’t coach length.
“So we gave him a chance, and it paid off.”
Taking a risk on Gibbs was made easier by the fact that he was using non-athletic aid to pay his college costs after being released from his basketball scholarship.
And the reward has been terrific.
“For us, it’s one of those deals where you’re not even planning on it, and you get a guy who’s going to play a lot of football for us,” Baldwin said of Gibbs, who was awarded a football scholarship this fall. “At cornerback, especially at this level, you don’t see a lot of guys with his height and length, so his overall size is a huge advantage.
“It allows him, on plays where he might be beaten by a step or two, to catch up and still make a play on the ball.”
Gibbs, who started 14 of 30 games and averaged 2.6 points and 1.6 rebounds during his one basketball season at EWU, said the most difficult part of relearning the game of football is the footwork requirements of a cornerback.
“My height and my 6-foot-wing span are my biggest assets, because if I can stay close to a receiver, the quarterback is going to have to overthrow him if he’s going to overthrow me,” Gibbs said. “The hard part for me has been playing off receivers and then getting in position to defend them if they snap me off and run a comeback route.
“But I’m getting better at it.”
Whether Gibbs has made enough progress to hold his own against the talented stable of wide receivers UW will run at him on Saturday will be seen.
“We’ll see,” he said. “We’re going to protect him a little bit and try not to leave him out there on an island by himself – especially early in the game when he’s still trying to get a feel for it.
“But we still have to be able to do what we’re doing, so we can’t worry about protecting him all the time. Plus, he’s been in big games as a basketball player at the Division I level, and he’s a confident kid. He grew up in Brooklyn, and when you do that, you better have a little swagger or you’re probably going to get your butt kicked a few times.”
Gibbs still misses basketball, but he has managed to stay involved by playing pick-up games with his former Eastern teammates during the summer.
Gibbs said several of his former basketball teammates have asked him to rejoin the team this winter and play for first-year head coach Jim Hayford.
“I told them I might play again once the football season is over,” Gibbs said. “But I also told them, ‘Don’t expect me before Jan. 9, because we’re going to win another football championship on Jan. 7, and I’m going to need the 8th just to relax.”