Georgia’s Fred Gibson beats LSU defender Corey Webster for a catch in a 2004 game in Athens. (BRANT SANDERLIN/AJC staff)
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO: FRED GIBSON

What he did: For Fred Gibson, football never was supposed to happen. A star AAU basketball player, he never thought about playing football at Ware County High School until they made a coaching change before his junior season. Then suddenly, Gibson found himself in the toughest region in high school football and he quickly became one of its better players.

Gibson would go on to put himself in the University of Georgia record books. He is second all-time in career receiving yards with 2,884 behind Terrence Edwards’ (3,093). He also caught 161 passes, which ranks fourth behind Edwards’ 204, Brice Hunter’s 182 and A.J. Green (166). In a game his freshman year against Kentucky, his 201 receiving yards at the time was a single-game record for the Bulldogs, since passed by Tavarres King in 2012 with 206 against Michigan State.

But again, it never was supposed to happen.

Gibson is from Waycross and through 10th grade was one of the top basketball players in South Georgia. He played for a well-respected Georgia Stars AAU team and clearly was going to get a Division I scholarship to play basketball.

At the time, Ware County was a stepchild in football for schools such as Valdosta, Lowndes and Colquitt County in Region 1 in the state’s highest classification. Going into the 1999 season, Ware County had won only seven of their past 40 games and hired Dan Ragle from Americus to turn the program around. Ragle realized early that most of the school’s better athletes were on the basketball team and began to recruit them to play football.

Gibson was the last one to decide to join the football team and quickly Ware County started to win, going 7-3-1 and 8-3 in his junior and senior seasons. Gibson won player of the year in the region in football and basketball his senior year and committed to play both sports at the University of Florida.

But a late push by incoming Georgia coach Mark Richt and his assistants and a promise that he could also play basketball, Gibson backed off the Gators and signed with the Bulldogs.

He didn’t start until the fifth game of his freshman season as injuries pushed him up the depth chart, and he finished that season with 33 catches for 772 yards and six touchdowns.

The only game he would miss the next three seasons was the 2002 meeting with Florida, which would be the Bulldogs’ only loss that season, as they went on to win the SEC, finish 13-1 and end the season ranked No. 3 in the country. His senior year was his most productive as he caught 49 passes for 801 yards and seven TD’s.

Gibson also played his freshman and sophomore years on the Georgia basketball team, averaging 4.2 points in 22 games, but was told by Richt to come to football full-time after the coach Jim Harrick controversy.

Gibson got into a little trouble after the 2002 season, when he and eight other players began selling their SEC championship rings. They were briefly ruled ineligible as the NCAA had a change of heart and “determined that at the time there was no explicit language forbidding the sale of rings and other memorabilia.” That led to the NCAA putting in a rule that doesn’t allow athletes to sell awards received for intercollegiate athletics participation.

After Georgia, Gibson was drafted by Pittsburgh in the fourth round of the 2005 draft and received a $300,000 signing bonus. But the NFL never worked out, as he spent time with the Steelers, Dolphins, Falcons, Rams and Giants. He even tried the Canadian Football league, where he signed a contract with Edmonton and left after three days.

In 2008, Gibson went back to basketball and was selected by Albuquerque in the 10th round (147th pick overall) of the NBA Development League draft. He averaged 7.3 points per game and 1.2 blocks per game with the Thunderbirds and then signed with the Austin Toros. His career was short there and he retired, going back to Athens in 2009 to get his degree from UGA.

Where he lives: Gibson, 33, lives in Buckhead, is not married and has a daughter, Chole, who is nine.

What he does: He works as a merchandiser for Coca-Cola and also instructs high school and youth wide receivers.

On not playing football until he was a junior in high school: “I wasn’t interested. We weren’t any good in football, and I just didn’t want to do it. But coach Ragle came over from Americus and he changed things. He started asking all my basketball friends to play, and I remember I was the last one he called in his office to ask. I said OK, and it all worked out great. But it wasn’t easy walking into a region like that and doing well. That was when Valdosta was at its best. It was a great experience.’’

On why he committed to Florida: “They were on me quickly, and they we were (recruiting) in South Georgia and (Ware County is) not that far away from Gainesville and I thought it made sense. I followed the Gators. But then I realized that here I was, a kid from Georgia, about to go to Florida, I knew I had to change. The Georgia coaches came down and talked to my grandmother, and it wasn’t long before I was going to play for the Bulldogs. Also, I was the only receiver that coach Richt signed in his first class. And it was nice to finally beat the Gators my senior year.’’

On his freshman year with the Bulldogs: “The first four games I didn’t play much. But Reggie Brown tore his ACL, and all of sudden I am starting at Tennessee. I ended up catching my first touchdown in that game, and that was the hobnail boot game where Larry Munson made that great call on the Verron Haynes’ catch that won us the game at the end.’’

On winning the SEC in 2002: “There are so many players on that team that went to the NFL. And a lot of people don’t realize that I missed the one game we lost against Florida because of a thumb injury. I wanted to play and really felt like I could have made the difference in that game. But coach Richt held me back. At the end of the season I knew I should have played because we could have won a national championship.’’

On his Georgia roommate D.J. Shockley: “It was tough on him not getting to play a lot when David Greene was there. But Greenie led the team and not taking anything away from D.J., he knew how to win. I understand where D.J. was coming from because he was a Parade All-American and he didn’t want to sit. It took a lot of guts by D.J. to stay because I know there were times where he wanted to transfer. But D.J. had a great senior season and got drafted, so it worked out in the end, and it is not how you start it, is how you finish. The first time I realized how D.J. felt was when I got to the NFL.’’

On why it didn’t work out in the NFL: “In the NFL it is not all about how good you are but being in the right place at the right time. The mistake I made was not staying in Pittsburgh when they wanted to put me on the practice squad. I was mad that they were going to cut me and felt embarrassed about going to the practice squad. So I left and signed with Miami. I thought that situation with Nick Saban was going to work out and spent two years there, but I never really got the chance to play.’’

On playing for Saban: “It was cool. People don’t understand Saban. He is not a people person. If you want to win games, you play for Saban. If you want a best friend, you don’t play for Saban. People think he is a butthole, but he’s a good guy. You just have to have a thick skin to play for him.’’

On his short stint with the Falcons: “I was doing well in minicamp and OTAs, but I missed a special-teams meeting, and they let me go. That was when all the Michael Vick stuff was going on and it was crazy there. I just think they had a zero-tolerance policy, and I made a mistake.’’

On his feelings about coach Richt: “There is a reason he has been there for so long. He wins. He is not only a great football coach, but a great parent. At the end of the day, he wants what is best for the player. No matter the criticism he gets, there is nothing you can say bad about him. You know how hard it is to win a national championship? At the end of the day, he has won a lot of games and done a lot of good for people.’’

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