Late in his junior season of a college career yet to be extraordinary, Antonio Gibson came to the unsettling realization that he had but one year to prove he could play in the NFL. At the time, there didn’t appear to be a path. It was November 2018, and he was a seldom-used wide receiver at the University of Memphis with six catches, two kickoff returns and no reason to think anything was about to change.

It didn’t matter that two of those six catches went for touchdowns or that he was one of Memphis’s fastest players or that, at 228 pounds, he had the power to run through tackles. Few NFL scouts seemed to know his name, and he had been unable to earn more than a secondary role.

The idea that a year and a half later he would be a third-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins, who would then compare him to all-pro running back Christian McCaffrey and say they expect him “to make an impact” immediately, seemed preposterous. He was just another face at a mid-level school destined to be forgotten — if anyone even noticed at all.

Gibson couldn’t understand why he was mired in the second tier of Memphis’s offensive depth chart. What was it the coaches couldn’t see? He always felt he was different from other players when he had the ball in his hands, so fast and strong that nobody could bring him down.

“Special” he would say to anyone who would listen. “I feel special with the ball in my hands.”

Every coach he ever had, going back to Eagle’s Landing High in the Atlanta suburbs, would tell him how much they liked him. “Nice kid,” they would say. “Humble.” “Never gives us trouble.” “Always about the team.” But the kind words never turned into broader recognition, not at Eagle’s Landing, where he scored touchdowns with ease; or at East Central Community College in Mississippi, where he produced 1,674 all-purpose yards and 16 total touchdowns in two years; or at Memphis.

“The coaches don’t get it,” his friends kept telling him. “You’ve got to transfer. Go somewhere where you’ll get to play.”

For a time in the fall of 2018, he wondered whether they were right. He felt himself slipping down what he called “a downward slope.” But he wasn’t angry. More than anything, he was determined. So one day he decided he would stop listening to the voices whispering in his ear and pour everything he had into that year he had left, desperate to make others see he was special with the ball in his hands, too.

Fading dreams

Even though he was an all-state wide receiver as well as a basketball and track star at Eagle’s Landing, the big colleges never really called. Looking back, Gibson knows this was his own fault. He didn’t care much for schoolwork as a freshman and sophomore despite the pleas of Shawn Jones, an assistant coach who kept telling him he had a great future in football but that his terrible grades wouldn’t get him into college.

It wasn’t until Gibson’s junior year that he “buckled down,” as Jones would say, yet it was too late. The handful of college coaches who asked about him saw his transcript and quickly left. Gibson ended up at East Central, where the coach, Ken Karcher, called Gibson a “five-star recruit who wasn’t recruited like one coming out of high school.”

Karcher, once a backup to John Elway on the Denver Broncos and the former coach at Liberty, demanded his players go to class and get good grades. But junior college was a lonely place. Teammates were always leaving — one took off just days after arriving, saying he missed his mother too much to stay — and Gibson felt he had little more than school, football and a dream that was fading.

Still, he was learning more than he ever had. Karcher taught his players the right way to study, showing them how to take notes and watch game film. Early in Gibson’s sophomore year, Karcher surprised him by saying that at 6-foot with thick arms and shoulders, Gibson looked more like a running back than a wide receiver and that he should think about switching positions.

Though Karcher later would remember Gibson looking at him “like I was crazy,” Gibson yearned for someone to see what he felt when the ball was in his hands and his feet were churning across the grass. That season he ran from all kinds of formations. He even took direct snaps as a quarterback. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

Still, when it came time for him to transfer to Division I, his statistics were not outlandish enough to draw offers from big schools. He went to Memphis, where Mike Norvell’s intricate offense took time to learn, where there were already several running backs who were being watched by NFL scouts and where he became a wide receiver again, hardly doing more than playing special teams his junior year, watching his football hopes falling away.

‘He’s going to get the ball’

Then, suddenly last fall, the Memphis coaches noticed.

Gibson can’t pinpoint one reason things changed. He’s sure some of it was the conditioning and weight training he did that final desperate summer, and players leaving opened up spots on the depth chart. But there was something else, too. He was 21 and down to his last chance to show he deserved to have the ball in his hands.

“I think if the good Lord blesses you to be [228] pounds and run a 4.3 with the agility he has, a little will doesn’t hurt, too,” Norvell, now the coach at Florida State, would later say.

Gibson began to play more. He ran back the second-half kickoff against SMU 97 yards for a touchdown. He got more passes sent his way, catching them and breaking tackles on the way to touchdowns. After one early-season practice, Norvell pointed to Gibson and told the other players that he was the one they all should be watching. Come April, Norvell said, Gibson wouldn’t be drafted, but because he worked so hard at special teams, an NFL team would offer him a tryout.

Gibson was thrilled to see the head coach had been watching, but all he could think about was how Novell said no team would draft him. He became even more determined to get the scouts to find him. Memphis’s top running back got hurt, and Gibson told running backs coach Anthony Jones that he had played running back in junior college and they should let him try.

Finally, at one practice, Jones put him in at running back and called for a handoff. Gibson shot through the line, bolting 40 yards before someone could tackle him. Jones looked at Norvell, and both men smiled at once.

“There you go,” Jones remembers thinking. “He’s going to get the ball.”

After that, everything was a blur. Gibson started the last seven games of the season, sometimes playing running back, sometimes wide receiver. Five times he rushed for touchdowns, scoring in four straight games at one point. His runs and catches became highlights as he broke tackles and just seemed to take off, roaring downfield. Memphis was winning, rolling to an 11-2 record and a Cotton Bowl win. At last, Gibson believed, the NFL would notice.

‘Somehow I knew’

Only, it turns out, Gibson still wasn’t on the NFL’s radar. When representatives from 12 teams met around Thanksgiving with scouts for the Senior Bowl — an all-star showcase Gibson absolutely had to be invited to if he had any hope of being drafted — none of the NFL people had Gibson on their list. After 1,749 total yards in his senior year, he was invisible again, the five-star talent going nowhere once more.

But Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl’s executive director, likes to be sure that no deserving players are missed, and he noticed that while Gibson had touched the ball only 71 times from scrimmage in 2019, he had scored a touchdown on 17 percent of those plays. Nagy watched several minutes of Gibson’s highlights, and even though most of the Senior Bowl invitations had been sent, he added Gibson to the list as a running back.

With one last shot in a frantic year full of them, Gibson ran hard through practices and led his team with 68 rushing yards in the game. He got invited to the NFL’s scouting combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds. Then, on the draft’s second day, the Redskins chose him with the second pick of the third round.

That night, when Redskins Coach Ron Rivera was asked where he found out about Gibson, he said it was during Senior Bowl practices. Kyle Smith, the team’s vice president of player personnel, and some of the team’s scouts had gotten the coach’s attention. They “kept pointing him out,” Rivera said.

Yes, someone in the NFL had seen Gibson with the ball in his hands and thought he was special, too. It was just as Gibson had hoped, even when it seemed impossible to believe.

“Somehow,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it.”

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