User ID: Password:

August 13, 2013

In a rush to be good

By: Jimmy Robertson

James Gayle’s lack of experience with football and lack of weight
as a teenager weren’t big issues for him to overcome on his way
to becoming a two-time All-ACC player at Tech

Gaze at him on the street, and you’d never guess that, roughly eight years ago, the best combination of size, strength and speed on Tech’s football team weighed all of about 130 pounds.
To put that into better perspective, as a freshman in high school, he weighed roughly the same size as an adult ball of fur known as a St. Bernard.

Of course, back then, he was more interested in video games than watching video of game films. He enjoyed Superman more than Michael Vick. And organized sports consisted only of the games he and his friends organized in the backyard or on local playgrounds.

Simply put, James Gayle didn’t look like a football player during his first year of high school because he didn’t actually play football. Never had. Never expressed any desire even though his father and uncle both played football at Ohio State and his uncle later won a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears.
“I don’t remember a lot about dreaming about football,” Gayle admitted, with a smile. “It was more like action heroes for me.
“Once I started playing, it came. It happened pretty fast. I played one year and then started getting offers, and then I ended up committing and now I’m here.”

“Here” meaning at Virginia Tech, where he goes into the 2013 season as a leader on what could be one of defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s best defenses. This past winter, the now 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end shunned potential NFL fortunes and decided to return for a final season at Tech to add one more championship and one more all-conference honor to what has been a productive career.

Meteoric, maybe, best describes his rise to All-ACC and potential NFL draft choice. After all, most star players pick up the sport in the early years, playing in Little Leagues or Pop Warner leagues or whatever recreational league is available just to lay a foundation in the sport. They play in uniforms too big and oversized helmets, and fuzzy pictures of their exploits often adorn the end tables and workplace desks of their parents.

Not so with Gayle.

Born in Los Angeles, he spent his childhood years in Minnesota, where his mother, Michelle, hails. His parents split up, and his dad, named Jimmy, moved back to his hometown of Hampton, Va. The younger Gayle stayed with his mom in Minnesota, where football arguably takes a back seat to hockey and thus it never really caught his attention as a kid.
Despite not being very big then, he was tough. The brutal winters up there make one that way. He once pedaled home on his bike from a local YMCA during a blizzard and suffered frostbite on his ears as a result.
“I don’t know why I was on my bike,” he said. “I ended up getting frostbite on my ears, and my ears were red for weeks. It’s a different type of cold up there. You come here, and it’s 65 degrees and people have their coats on and their mittens. In 65-degree weather in Minnesota, we’d be out in shorts playing basketball.”
Around the age of 12 or 13, Gayle decided he wanted to live with his father, even though the move meant leaving all his friends in Minnesota. His mother agreed to it, so Gayle moved in with his father down in Hampton.
Though Jimmy Gayle played running back at Ohio State from 1979-82 – “He was good, too,” his son said – he never pushed his son to play football. In fact, he never pushed him to play any sport.
It just happened. Chalk it up to the whims of a teenager.
“I just decided I wanted to play,” Gayle said. “He never pushed me into sports at all. It was just more that I decided I wanted to play.”

The summer before his junior season, Gayle decided he wanted to go out for the football team. He knew he needed to get bigger, and his father saw the desire was sincere, so he went out and bought his son a bench press. So Gayle started lifting weights.

He gradually got bigger. He started eating more, largely thanks to his grandmother’s cooking. He knew he already possessed the toughness and speed, and he was confident in his ability to make the team.

He did make it and made an impact quickly.

“I knew I was good at football,” he said. “I was kind of a smaller guy, and everyone was telling me that I probably wouldn’t make the team. They were saying, ‘You’re not going to make the team. You’re small.’ So my dad bought me a bench, and I just worked hard over the summer and made the team. Then I ended up starting.

“What stands out the most is my first high school scrimmage. That’s when I kind of let it be known that I was kind of good. I think I was second- or third-string going into the scrimmage, and after the scrimmage, I was starting.”
Playing defensive end, Gayle went on to record 10 sacks his junior season at Bethel High. He also finished that season with 56 solo tackles.

After the season, he started receiving some interest from college recruiters. They saw his slender 6-foot-4 frame and knew he could get bigger once he got into a quality strength and conditioning program.

Purdue took the first plunge, offering him a scholarship. Less than a year after deciding to go out for the high school team, Gayle had received a scholarship offer from a major Division I program.

“It came out of nowhere,” Gayle said. “I wasn’t getting a lot of letters. I think I had gotten one letter, and then, my coach [Jeff Nelson] called me into his office and told me that the Purdue coach wanted to talk to me. He offered me a scholarship, and that was surprising to me.

“I was excited. I went home and told my father, and he didn’t act surprised. I guess he always knew that I would have a chance to play somewhere.”

Virginia Tech coaches were a little more cautious in their approach toward Gayle and for good reason. They liked what they saw on tape, and they were intrigued by his height. But Gayle had played football for one year. Could he help the Hokies win ACC championships?

Jim Cavanaugh, Tech’s whip linebackers and rovers coach at the time and also the recruiting coordinator, invited Gayle to a one-day prospect camp in June before Gayle’s senior season. Tech’s coaches wanted to see more before offering him a scholarship.

“I had to come up here and run a 4.5 [in the 40-yard dash] before they offered me,” Gayle joked.
That time caught the eyes of the coaches, prompting the offer, and Gayle accepted it not long after the camp ended. He unbelievably parlayed one high school season and one camp into an offer from one of the best programs in the nation – one that had just won the ACC title and the Orange Bowl.

“It just all kind of happened,” Gayle said. “I wasn’t a big college football guy. I didn’t watch a lot of college football, but I remember watching Virginia Tech with my grandma, and that’s when [Branden] Ore played for us. At that time, I didn’t have any ambitions of playing college football, but it always stuck in my head. Tech is the best school in Virginia for football. It’s a great school, with great academics and a top team. I definitely made one of the best decisions of my life.”

Gayle spent a season redshirting, working out in Mike Gentry’s strength and conditioning program. He got bigger, stronger and more athletic. In offseason testing the following spring, he recorded a 375-pound bench press, a 36-inch vertical jump and recorded a 4.58 in the 40.

The following year, he got his bench press over 400 pounds and sliced his 40 time to a 4.45. He won the Excalibur Award – the highest honor in the strength and conditioning program.

Since then, Gayle routinely has earned Super Iron Hokie honors – the highest rung on the strength and conditioning scale. He has weighed as much as 270 pounds, but usually plays around 255 or 260.

“I put a lot of hard work into this,” he said. “As a freshman in high school, I was like 130. The heaviest I’ve been is 270, so that’s well over 100 pounds.

“I put it into my head after my sophomore year [of high school] that I wanted to play football. I ate to the point that I was about to throw up, and then I’d get mad because I knew that if I threw up, I’d have to eat more. I was lifting every day. It got to the point when kids were accusing me of using steroids because I blew up so quickly. I just took it to the next level when I got here. Coach Gentry is a great strength and conditioning coach.”

Gayle’s work in the strength and conditioning program certainly has helped him become a productive player on the field. As a redshirt sophomore, he recorded 38 tackles, including 12.5 for a loss, and seven sacks to earn second-team All-ACC honors. Last season, despite missing two games with an ankle injury, he recorded 43 tackles, including 11 for a loss, and five sacks. He earned second-team All-ACC honors last year as well.

After Tech’s win over Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Gayle took some time to ponder his future, contemplating leaving school early and making himself available for the NFL Draft. An NFL panel that advises college players on their draft potential predicted that Gayle would get drafted, but not where he wanted. So he decided to come back and wrap up work on his sociology degree – he needed only to pass a Spanish class this summer to finish – and pursue more championships and accolades.

“I was close,” he said. “It was a harder decision for me than people probably think it was just because it’s the NFL, and it’s right there. All I had to do was say, ‘All right, I’m not coming back to school.’ I’d be training right now in an NFL camp.

“But I did a pros and cons sheet, and I thought the better decision was to come back and finish my degree and get better. I have a lot of room to improve. I’ve improved tremendously from the point I was at last year until now. This year, I’m not even worried about the NFL. I’m worried about getting better and trying to win a championship – or two.”

Gayle has his sights set on an ACC championship and a national championship. Those are lofty goals, ones not easily attained.

But he will remain undaunted. After all, he’s used to being doubted. Six years ago, no one expected him to make the Bethel High School football team. Now, he’s a 250-pound runaway freight train of muscle coming off the line of scrimmage, barreling down on helpless quarterbacks.

He has transformed his body and his game in an unprecedented amount of time. Now, for the kid who grew up playing video games and idolizing comic figures, gridiron greatness awaits.