Family first:

For Gibson, '19' tattoo has special meaning

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Friday, October 12, 2018
Arkansas offensive lineman Johnny Gibson smiles prior to the Razorbacks' game against Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 29.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas offensive lineman Johnny Gibson smiles prior to the Razorbacks' game against Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 29.

— Johnny Gibson was playing baseball and sprinting to camp underneath a fly ball in the outfield. He extended his left arm in hopes of the ball landing softly in the pocket of his glove.

Then he woke up. “Johnny, you OK?” his grandmother asked. Gibson, seven years old at the time, had unintentionally hit his grandmother in the face attempting to reel in the imaginary popup. The two were sharing a hotel bed on the annual vacation he and his family took each summer when he was younger.

His grandmother almost didn’t mind that the youngest of her 19 grandchildren hit her and caused her to wake up suddenly, only concerned with Johnny’s well-being. That’s just who she is, says Gibson, a Dumas native and Arkansas’ senior right guard. She is the cause for the 6-foot-4, 319-pounder looking out for those around him without a second thought.

She had a special effect on him growing up.

“She’s a real caring person, always. Whenever I do get to talk to her she only asks about how I’m doing and tells me that someone came by to see her that day,” Gibson said. “She’s a real caring person, and she’s the real reason why I really look to try to care for everyone else. And that has a positive impact on them. All she did was love and care for everyone, and that has an impact on her.”

Sometime around his grandmother’s most recent birthday, Gibson and a few cousins sat around discussing a way to honor her any way they could — the right way. The idea of having one of her many catchphrases made into a tattoo came up. “That’s my baby” is a line she often used when speaking to Gibson’s mother, Irene, about Johnny.

His older relatives routinely told him he had it easy growing up when it came to his grandparents. As a younger man, Gibson’s grandfather was a bigger man, strong and stern. His grandmother, who now sits at her Winchester home watching Lifetime movies and cooking for her sons should they drop by, could be tough, too. But their looks and lines were rarely directed at Johnny.

As Gibson opened up about his inspirations and his ‘Why?’ in life with an academic counselor, he made up his mind. He, too, would get a tattoo, but with his own twist — a 19 on his left forearm. Prior to summer conditioning, he got the ink he wanted.

Johnny Gibson is the youngest of his grandmother's 19 grandchildren. The marking on his left arm serves as a continual reminder that he is far from alone and that he has a true purpose.

The names of his grandparents and parents make up the 1. His name and that of his sister, niece and nephew form the 9.

“It’s really family-based for me,” Gibson said. “This is my ‘Why?’ and it helps me remember who I’m doing it for — for my family. … One of the biggest things is you need to know your why. You have to remember why you do this, why you play this sport, and make sure you can motivate others to make sure they do the same things.”

Gibson’s grandmother has not been able to make one of his games. Television suits her. His father, Johnny, attended every home game last season and caught the season opener against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 1. Irene joins him. Gibson looks forward to the Little Rock game each season. It’s his favorite, and when most of his family members can watch him in person.

In 2017, Johnny watched his namesake become a constant on Arkansas’ offensive line. For the season, Gibson graded out at 77.6 percent, according to Pro Football Focus, in six games at right guard, four games at right tackle and one game at left tackle. He played a team-high 807 snaps and, alongside Hjalte Froholdt, was the lone lineman to earn a start each week.

His Razorbacks career was a rollercoaster prior to last season. Gibson, a science engineering major, initially walked on at Arkansas out of Dumas High School and was on an academic scholarship until late in the 2016 season. He started each of the Razorbacks’ final five games, including a disappointing loss to Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. But the highlight of his sophomore year came prior to playing the Hokies when he was placed on full scholarship just weeks after asking former coach Bret Bielema to simply give him a chance.

Following much back and forth between the coaching staff leading up to gameday, Gibson got that chance against No. 11 Florida and notched his first start. Instantly, he made the move appear prophetic. On Arkansas’ first play from scrimmage, Gibson recorded a pancake block. He returned to the huddle and excitedly explained to quarterback Austin Allen what he’d done.

Nothing had been easy for Gibson to that point. In recapping Gibson’s performance against the Gators, Bielema explained that Gibson had been dealing with significant personal battles. Two or three of his friends in southeast Arkansas had been shot, Bielema said. And during the summer months prior to the 2016 season, he was removed from the team.

These days, the heavily under-recruited kid from Dumas who Arkansas coaches first spotted on the basketball court is a staple on the right side of coach Dustin Fry’s offensive line. Aside from Froholdt, Gibson has the most consecutive starts of any player on the roster.

“There’s nothing but good things to say about Johnny,” Froholdt said. “He had an extremely, extremely good game against Colorado State. He played really physical and with a lot of tenacity. I think he had six or seven knockdowns. He was just tossing people around. I think he’s improved a lot, and he’s only going to get better.

“He’s a tremendous guard and very versatile. He can play all the positions on the offensive line, which makes him extremely valuable.”

Making an impression on visiting prospects is vitally important in recruiting. And when Noah Gatlin, a must-have offensive lineman from Jonesboro High, ventured to Arkansas on his official visit, Gibson hosted him. The compassionate, caring nature his grandmother displayed throughout his upbringing took over through his own actions.

“I’ve learned a lot from Johnny,” said Gatlin, who earned his first career start at left tackle against Colorado State in just his second college game. “He kind of took me around and showed me around (on my visit), so I’ve known Johnny for a while now. Getting to learn from him and just kind of pick up things from his game, Hjalte’s game and Brian Wallace’s game has helped me out a lot.”

Irene always told Johnny her uncles, around 6-foot-6, and her father were tall. Gibson is the tallest on his father’s side. He never met his grandparents on his mother’s side but, as the story goes, Irene’s father’s feet hung from his bed when he passed away.

“That’s how tall he was,” Gibson said with wide eyes. “I guess that’s where my size comes from. All the height is on my mother’s side.”

The 340-plus pounds of force Gibson carried that suited the Bielema era has since been molded to fit Chad Morris’ offensive scheme. Strength and conditioning coach Trumain Carroll titled the lineman as one of the team’s biggest losers in the offseason — in a good way.

When strength training began, he tipped the scales at 345 pounds in January and weighed as much as 348 pounds.

“He is one of two guys who were really highlights,” Carroll said. “He’s walking around today at 319. He’s looking lean and mean and he’s able to move a lot better and able to bend. His conditioning level has been raised tremendously from when we saw him in January.”

Gibson’s story is one of re-commitment, owning second chances and carrying positive influences throughout a journey. Through his struggles, he’s become a caring leader and elevated those around him — just as his grandmother has.

When he needs strength to overcome challenges, the marking on his left arm serves as a continual reminder that he is far from alone and that he has a true purpose.

“Keep everybody else moving in the right direction and don’t let anyone just sit back and accept being something,” Gibson said. “You should always be striving to be the best person you can be, and when you can be the best person you can be, you can be the best player you can be.

“When you’re the best player you can be, you can be a great team.”

This story originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated


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