- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The picture is one of many on Bill Gilbert’s desk. His son, Justin, is wearing skullcap with the American flag, his face is slathered with eye black and he’s preparing for what he believed would be one of many college football games he would play in at Maryland.

Beneath it is a simple inscription: “All-ACC.”

That accomplishment has yet to occur for the offensive lineman, two reconstructive knee surgeries ensuring an extended pause in his career. A significant — though hardly the first — step back comes Saturday, when Gilbert will be cleared to play as the Terrapins (2-6, 1-4 ACC) face Virginia (5-3, 2-2) at Byrd Stadium.

Gilbert started three games a year ago at left tackle, an impressive rise for a guy who played sparingly as a freshman. In the second half of Maryland’s game at West Virginia, he took a step back into pass protection and his left knee buckled. While the Terps enjoyed a nine-win season, Gilbert was ensconced in rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

But at least there was spring practice. On the first day of workouts, Gilbert darted onto the field, brushed past reporters and gleefully bellowed “Daddy’s back.” Less than a week later, he tore the same ACL.

“It was taken so fast,” Gilbert said Wednesday. “It was the first day of hitting. It was pretty tough. That one was a lot harder. It helped that we didn’t have a whole season to go through, but at the same time I was really set back because I had a chance to get my spot back and had a chance to really improve and get better and it was all taken back. I’m just as excited now. I’m just being a little more careful.”

Careful, of course, is relative for a man reluctant to show much patience after working his way into becoming an ACC-caliber lineman.

Maryland’s daily internal injury report divvies players into three categories: Out, limited and “all he can.” Gilbert spent more than a year in the first category and just as long lobbying and cajoling athletic trainer Wes Robinson to move him into the latter column while undergoing two or three treatments a day. It finally happened this week.

“He’s probably Wes’ biggest nightmare,” said right tackle R.J. Dill, who shares a suite with Gilbert, center Bennett Fulper and quarterback Danny O’Brien. “He wants to argue with Wes and he wants to be back faster than anybody, and I don’t blame him.”

The roughest time might have been the start of this season. Gilbert already watched the Terps thrive in his absence a year ago, and while he was as supportive as possible, he wanted to truly share in it on the field. When the Terps outlasted Miami on Labor Day in front of a packed crowd and a national television audience, Gilbert was still sidelined.

All the while, the knee started to feel better. Much better. He wanted to be back in time to play West Virginia. Maryland’s training staff took a more cautious approach, opting to keep him out of practice until seven months after the injury.

That only amplified Gilbert’s yearning to step back on the field.

“He’s just a crazy country kid,” O’Brien said. “He’s the kind of guy who will just rub some dirt on his torn ACL and get back out there if he could. I can’t wait until he gets back out there, because he’s going to be going nuts.”

It could happen Saturday. Gilbert has worked the past two weeks at guard, a position where the Terps need some depth because of Andrew Gonnella’s season-ending knee dislocation last month.

However it happens, Gilbert will think of countless direct conversations he’s shared over the past 13 months with his father.

“Every time I’m down, he’s probably the first one I’ll call,” Gilbert said. “It’s not a sympathy thing. He says ‘Listen, get up, you know you’re going to start playing again. Get the rehab done and work as hard as you can to get back out there.’ “

For Bill Gilbert, that was simply a way to tap into what he knew was his son’s greatest strength: A tenacious spirit. As he looked at his desk Wednesday afternoon, Bill Gilbert described the photo in detail with the certainty Justin did everything possible to eventually bring the inscription to fruition.

“When the injury occurred, it always occurred to me as well as his sister and his mother that there will be a day he gets back on the field because of his desire,” Bill Gilbert said. “It’s hard to find someone who has that burning sensation to be the best that he can be. He may not be the best ballplayer, but he does everything he can to be the best, and that’s something to be very, very proud of.”

NOTE: Defensive end David Mackall has been suspended indefinitely for violation of team rules. The sophomore has played in all eight games this year, starting seven.

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