Justin Gilbert’s beard is a magnificent specimen, a bushy symbol of commitment, fortitude and growability. It cascades from a golden-brown goatee, wrapping around his chin like a hairy waterfall frozen in time. Dyed green, and it could blend among the Wrigley Field ivy. Color it jet-black and he’s a football-playing Abraham Lincoln impersonator. Nature activists have considered chaining themselves to specific strands, lest big-business suits with cigars and sunglasses order bulldozers to clear the area for the suspect development of high-rise real estate.
Gilbert’s facial hair stands alone, and rightfully so. Lumberjacks would be proud to call it their own. Born sometime during the preseason, among the weariness and busyness of camp, the beard hasn’t sniffed scissors or razors since. The senior’s glorious mane, however, is a leader. It’s the alpha beard in a pack of face-lawns sprouting among Maryland’s offensive linemen. Call it a team activity. All have begun growing out their beards, shunning clippers months before the universal “No-Shave November.”
All except center Sal Conaboy. The sophomore’s brother, Dick, has been growing a beard since he was 9, but keeps it far tidier than Glbert. “Maybe that’s why I don’t have one. It’s my brother’s thing,” Conaboy said. His teammates have ribbed him incessantly about his lack of facial hair, but Conaboy isn’t budging.
“I guess if it was …” Conaboy said, pondering a hypothetical beard-growing scenario. Then he thought better. “Actually no. I have to stick to my guns on this one. It’s just not me.”
By Gilbert’s estimation, Bennett Fulper has second-best beard. De’Onte Arnett has a goatee, as does Josh Cary. Even Andrew Zeller and Mike Madaras, Maryland’s newest starters on the front five, have gotten in on the action. Gilbert is probably the only one who shampoos and conditions his facial hair, lathering it up with three-in-one Old Spice. “I’ll clean it out,” Gilbert says. “I’ll find food in it. Birds will nest in it.” Sometimes he’ll brush the beard after its daily cleansing, but most of the time allows it to roam free. Before the Wake Forest game, his sister braided it with rubber bands into two strands, like bristly tusks.
“I didn’t like that very much,” he said.
The linemen are trying to make beard-growing into a team-wide activity come November, but for now it’s localized to the unit, a group of “blue-collar” players longing to be silent heroes. Making the headlines as an offensive lineman, Gilbert says, is never good. A running back with 200 yards will get the attention. But if the quarterback gets sacked six times, then the offensive line makes the headlines.
Indeed, Perry Hills has gotten sacked 19 times through five games, and the offensive line has taken its fair share of lumps.
“We’re going through some growing pains there with those guys playing together and meshing,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “When you add to that the young guys who are still learning, those are things that take some time. We’ll keep working at it, keep getting better, know we have to run the football. I want to be a physical team up front.”
But bearded and all, they’re enduring the learning process together, even with new members to Maryland’s Facial Hair Society.
“They come in, they’ve got confidence, they know they can do their jobs,” Gilbert said. “That helps us out, because we’re not trying to teach them stuff. They want to come in here and learn. It helps that they’ve gelled so quickly and fit in with the rest of us.”
Four of them live in the same house. Gilbert, Fulper, Conaboy and Cary are on the top floor. Strong foundation, apparently. Tight ends Ryan Schlothauer and Dave Stinebaugh reside in the basement. Quarterback C..J. Brown gets the middle floor. “We always joke with C.J., he’s definitely protected in the house,” Gilbert said. “Nobody’s going to get to him.”
It’s a house of laughs, always some type of joke going on, lately about Conaboy’s hairless mug. Otherwise, they’ll watch film together, hooking up their iPads to the television to dissect opponents. Over the summer, between workouts and practice, they cooked burgers and steaks on the grill. Just one grill.
It’s a big grill.