The past year has indeed been a whirlwind for Homestead all-state football defensive end Ben Gardner.
Since the Highlanders loss to Arrowhead in the 2007 state final, the newly-minted Stanford recruit has been motivated and active, working hard to build muscle, speed and attitude. He made himself 25 pounds stronger, made himself a headache to opposing offenses and an equal to linemate and Wisconsin recruit Shelby Harris and helped Homestead reverse its state fortunes this fall with a state championship 2008 season.
But on national signing day Wednesday, with teammates Harris, Bobby Ollman (North Dakota State) and Casey Barnes (Northern Michigan) also inking letters of opportunity and intent, Gardner reflected on the last convoluted and complicated 10 days. A happy recollection it was indeed, as he found himself glad to make great, good friends with the Harbaugh family; make his westward-bound moving family delighted that they were only going to be a couple of hours away from where he was going to school and then found out that he was smarter than he thought he was.
Let's take it back to that Jan. 26 day, when he was in guidance counselor and assistant football coach Todd Reineking's office. He and Reineking had spent days prepping four complex essays that are neccesary for admission to Stanford, one of the elite universities in the country. A school that requires students earn academic admission before they can be offered a scholarship. Granted, he was doing this without a clear certainty that a scholarship was going to come his way.
It had been a relatively short time since Gardner had the good fortune of meeting Mequon-area resident Jack Harbaugh, who is the father of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. The elder Harbaugh himself knew a little about football himself having won a national collegiate grid title while coach at Western Kentucky. Gardner and the elder Harbaugh had a good 20-minute chat about things and the old coach was impressed enough to send off a tape of Gardner's highlights to his son. "A great guy," Gardner said of Jack.
Harbaugh's son was impressed enough to dispatch a couple of assistants for visits to discuss things with Gardner. The only problem was, was that football scholarships were tight at Stanford and Jim Harbaugh wasn't sure if he could come up with one for Gardner.
Which brings us back to Jan. 26, when a phone rang in Reineking's office while he and Gardner were going over things.
"It was really cool to see his face after he found out it was (Jim) Harbaugh offering him a scholarship," Reineking said. "The funny thing is, cell phone reception isn't always the best in my office but I could tell it was good news when his face went blank. He said 'I'm scared', but he had done well with the essays. Sometimes kids just don't realize how smart and talented they are."
"This whole thing has just been icing on the cake," Gardner said. "Just unbelievable. That I'll be going to a Pac-10 school and my family (which is moving out west at the end of the school year) will only be an hour-and-a-half away is just a great gift. ..We just fell in love with the place (Stanford). Everyone who helped make this possible gets my highest regards." He will major in management science and engineering.
"We all just about lost it when we found out," head coach Dave Keel said.
A bonus will be the fact that Gardner now gets to joke around with Harris about eventually meeting in the Rose Bowl someday.
"Hey, we both have a lot of work to do to get there, man," laughed Harris.
But because of the work they put in up to this point, they now belong to the elite fraternity of recent Homestead defensive line collegiate recruits. A long and healthy lineage that includes Mike Matar, Adam and Erik Grimm, Qortney McLeod, Wale Adedokun and others. They all didn't succeed on the college level but they had the opportunity and line coach Tom Fugate is just delighted to see the run continue.
"A great deal of the credit goes to Dave (head coach Keel) and Fritz (defensive coordinator Rauch)," Fugate said. "They do a great job of distributing players (in camp). It's a time where we sit down and find out where they can contribute the best and be the most effective."
He said Gardner took it upon himself to improve himself starting with that 2007 state final.
"That's where he really takes off," Fugate said. "His attendance and interest in the weight room was superior, among the top 10 percent of our players. ..and his conditioning was phenomenal. That became apparent at the two-a-days in August, where we lined him up opposite of where plays were going and he would still get into the pursuit angle and bring the ballcarrier down."
As far as Harris, the 2007 WFCA state defensive player of the year and consensus all-state this season, is concerned, the scholarship for Gardner is not a surprise.
"I'm 100 percent happy for Ben," he said. "He's a good guy and deserves what he's getting."
The "good guy" thing is something that Harris, Keel and the rest who attended the signing ceremonies are proud of.
"All four of us have been together since youth football," Harris said. "It's a good feeling. We've all been together a long time and now we get to continue the dream. It just goes to show you how good the staff is here. They show us how to be good people and develop a good work ethic. Show us how to contibute to the community and still succeed."
And as for Keel, a man who introduced himself as "someone who just stays out of the way of all the other coaches", his pride was wider and deeper than the smile he carried this day.
"Shelby (going to Wisconsin) was a foregone conclusion," he said, "but the fact that he was able to stay in state and achieve is still amazing. Ben's thing came up so late but we were ecstatic when they (Stanford) found a place for him."
He was equally as happy for his All-Suburban strong safety Ollman, whom he said "found a home" at North Dakota State and for his quarterback Barnes, whom he said was "really jacked up about" going to Northern Michigan.
The whole event had a familial, cozy feeling, an emotion that Barnes summed up well. He said the NMU coaches were excited about his preparation and ability ("They made it clear that the school wanted me a great deal," he said), something he said was the result of the hard work of the Homestead coaches.
"That they send three or four guys a year (onto college ball) says a great deal about the program," he said. "A great deal about them (the coaches)."