- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

All Rod Gardner wanted at Clemson was the ball. He wanted the feeling of playing quarterback, as he did in high school. He wanted to be the center of attention, the one who dictated his team's scoring. So imagine the torturous burn he endured his first two years as a Tiger, when he was shuttled through roles on defense and special teams.
"I had to have a ball in my hands," Gardner recalled recently. "That was the thing: I [would] see somebody catch a pass man, I'm used to doing that. On defense, if I ever caught an interception, I might have run into the stands."
Gardner finally landed at wide receiver as a redshirt sophomore, uniting with position coach Rick Stockstill, who had recruited him out of Jacksonville, Fla. And it was then that Gardner's desire began to be fulfilled. In just three seasons Gardner got the ball in his hands more than any receiver in school history, earning the 15th overall selection in April's NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins.
Later this month, when Redskins training camp convenes, the earnest 23-year-old will fight for a starting role and begin positioning himself for his Rookie-of-the-Year and Pro Bowl goals. According to Gardner and those close to him, it was his hard work and good attitude during the rough start at Clemson that led him to this point.
"He wanted to play," Stockstill said. "It was frustrating to him not to play as much as he would have liked, but his attitude was always good. His first year [as a redshirt freshman in 1997], he led the team in special teams tackles. He blocked three kicks. He wouldn't have done that if he was sulking."
Gardner's early wanderings at Clemson undermined his best-laid plans, as he had rejected the recruiting overtures of schools like Florida the powerhouse close to his Raines High School because the Gators wanted him as an "athlete." Like many high school quarterbacks who believe they can make it at the next level, Gardner signed with a weaker program to stay behind center.
And then that first year, he found himself at free safety.
"It was hard," Gardner said, "coming out of high school, being the man at quarterback, playing quarterback all my life, and coming to a team where it's like, 'Where are we going to put Rod?' And I'm always offensive-minded. So when they put me at defensive back, that was the worst."
Actually, the worst came the following spring, when the Tigers staff considered the ballooning strength of Gardner's 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame and tried him at outside linebacker. This period, recounted by Stockstill, apparently has been selectively blocked by Gardner's memory.
"I never played outside linebacker," Gardner said. "Hell, no. You couldn't get me to play outside linebacker."
The return to offense came in 1998. Gardner was so excited that he began asking Stockstill to throw him passes over and over after practice, a habit that continued through his senior year. Success at that point, Gardner believes, was inevitable.
"Once they put me at receiver, and I was working with Coach Stockstill, I had no problem," Gardner said. "We were working every day to get better. He was behind me 100 percent. And once [coach Tommy] Bowden came in and put in that run-and-gun offense, I was ready to go. I was ready to do it."
That was the turning point, 1999, when Gardner's adjustment to the receiver position coincided with the arrival of Bowden's creative offensive mind. Gardner set school records with 80 catches for 1,084 yards, transforming himself from a struggling youngster to an NFL-bound star, and creating a cache of memories he now recounts in a voice that leaps from speaking to singing.
For example, when Gardner said, just above, "put in that run-and-gun offense," he did it with a deliberate pause after "that" and a high melody of "run-and-gun."
Or, "When Tommy Bowden came in, it wasn't nothing but whshew," a half-whistle, half-sigh accompanied by his hand arcing like rocket, "that's when everything turned around. Everything."
Or of his last-second catch in last year's win over South Carolina, one of the biggest plays in Clemson history: "I had my hand on [the defender's] shoulder, running with him. And buh-buh," a Gardner-ism that conveys the play's grade-school ease, "I caught the ball, we kicked the field goal, and it's," he paused to break into song, "o-ver."
But Gardner's operatic discussion of his football exploits belies his humble, well-grounded nature.
His academics at Clemson? A degree in human resources management. His closest friend on the Redskins? Undrafted rookie receiver Latef Grim. His favorite leisure activity? Playing pool usually by himself. His favorite drink at the bar? Cranberry and pineapple juice. His attitude after catching 80 balls for 1,000 yards?
"He didn't take being an All-American, 80 catches off the field," Stockstill said. "He never tried to show up teammates… . He was one of our captains, a leader. Everybody liked him. He wasn't one of those loud, obnoxious types. He had a sweet personality, and he worked so hard."
Said Gardner: "I never put myself in situations where I'm better than anybody else. To me, I'm cool with everybody. I don't act like a big-shot, because that ain't me. What I do on the field, I do on the field. I respect you, you respect me. We come to that agreement, that's how it's supposed to be."
Much of Gardner's moral code comes from his mother, Delain Sawyer, with whom he remains extremely close. The two try to talk to each other at least once a day, and Gardner spent the holiday this week with her back in Jacksonville.
"Rod wanted to have a Fourth of July cookout, and he just wanted to invite all of his old friends and neighbors," Sawyer said. "He's just like that, and it makes me feel good… . People ask me how his attitude is different on and off the field, and I just tell them, 'I don't see that.' With me, it's always just Roderick."
Sawyer jokes that another part of Gardner that hasn't changed is his determination to have the ball in his hands.
"In Pop Warner he wanted the ball, he wanted to run the ball, to be a leader," she said. "He hasn't grown up. He wants to hold the spotlight."
The burn for the ball earns Gardner's most frequent and perhaps flattering comparison, to former Dallas Cowboys great Michael Irvin. Neither wideout has blazing speed, but both fight for catches, often overpowering or outwilling defenders. And where Irvin was known for the push-offs that never got called, Gardner is said to have gotten away with a few himself including one on the big catch against South Carolina.
Boosting Gardner in that fashion is his unique strength. He can bench-press more than 400 pounds, a feat that ranked him with the strongest Clemson players at any position.
"I didn't lift too much in high school, but once I got to Clemson, that's all we used to do," Gardner said. "And once you hit that 315[-pound] plateau, you feel good about yourself. You've got those three [45-pound] plates on each side. I just kept going up from there… . I didn't compete against any receivers there was nobody on my level. [But] them D-linemen, linebackers, we were going in there battling every day."
That translates, Gardner believes, into an "ability," like being able to cut crisply or run swiftly.
"A lot of DBs come out there, 'Hey, I want to press you,' " Gardner said. "And you smack them in the mouth and let them know what's happening. It gives you that edge, that added advantage you can use on the field. If you've got a whole bag of tools, you can build a lot of stuff. But if you've got one tool, I don't think you can build too much with it."
The line on Gardner is that there remains great upside, considering his brief apprenticeship at receiver. Underlying the potential is a catching ability that Stockstill calls "God-given," surely reflecting Gardner's determination to have the ball in his hands. Meanwhile, the tactics of body control, positioning and going vertical were among those Gardner had to learn and should improve.
"I'm learning every day," Gardner said. "Since I've been [in Washington] I've learned a lot. At Clemson I basically ran the go route, curl, hitch, slant. And maybe a post. But now there's so much detail in the routes. You've got to know where you need to break a cornerback down, where you need to give him a move. So it's still a learning process, and I want to get better and better."
And if that happens, the Redskins likely will get the ball in his hands often.

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