How Philadelphia Eagles’ Shelton Gibson veered from East Cleveland to the NFL
Shelton Gibson Sr. knew his idea was a long shot, a parenting method bred from sheer hope. But if he slid sports movies into the VCR most weekends, he remembered thinking, maybe he could help his son sidestep the drugs and violence that permeated East Cleveland.
This was about 15 years ago, well before Shelton Gibson Jr. emerged as a wide receiver with breathtaking speed who heard his name called as a Philadelphia Eagles fifth-round pick last month.
The elder Gibson had no hunch about his son’s impending athletic glory back then, when “Little Shelton” was 5 or 6. He knew only of the dangers that existed in his hometown, where 60.2 percent of children lived in poverty as of 2015 and violent crime rates were more than double the statewide average, according to the most recent public data.
“You don’t have to look for trouble here,” said Katie Gibson, whose grandson starred at West Virginia the past three seasons and will suit up for Eagles rookie minicamp at the end of this week. “Trouble finds you.”
That’s where Gibson Sr. thought the movies could come in. East Cleveland might have presented steep obstacles to prosperity, and Gibson Jr.’s childhood bouncing between his father’s house there and his mother’s place in neighboring Cleveland Heights was never simple.
But Gibson Jr. was receptive. He always listened when people spoke, his father said. And Gibson Sr. appreciated that “Rudy,” “Remember the Titans” and “Invincible” presented messages of perseverance and faith, so he turned those movies on and hoped his son would find motivation.
He prayed his son would envision a future defined by broad possibilities rather than restrictive circumstances.
Shelton Gibson Jr., left, poses with Cleveland High teammate Dorien Gibson. (Photo courtesy of Shelton Gibson Sr.)
Though Shelton Gibson Jr. loved to play football with neighborhood kids on his block in East Cleveland, his father first pondered his son’s startling talents when watching him play alone.
Little Shelton often stood on one corner of the street, reared back and launched the ball down the road. Then he sprinted to try and nab it before it crashed into the pavement.
“He always caught it,” Gibson Sr. said. “He was fast enough. It never hit the ground.”
The younger Gibson ran track growing up and played other sports on his block in East Cleveland, too. One neighbor’s dad bought a basketball hoop they stuck on the side of the street, making way for hours of shootarounds and pickup games, Katie Gibson said.
By middle school, Gibson Jr. had his routine down: He and one of his sisters stayed with their mom, Shalett Morris, during the week to go to school in Cleveland Heights’ more reputable school district.
They spent many weekends and summers with Gibson Sr. and Katie Gibson in East Cleveland, where many friends and neighbors tangled with drugs and violence, Gibson Sr. said.
2013 Shelton GIbson – Cleveland Heights – Sr yr – WR1
Nonetheless, Gibson’s athleticism shined through. Gibson Sr. said his son’s blazing speed stood out to anyone who watched him, whether on the track, football field or streets of East Cleveland.
Cleveland Heights football coach Jeff Rotsky took notice and decided to help mentor the younger Gibson and provide a demanding presence, he said. By ninth grade, Gibson was starting on the varsity team and improving his grades.
But Gibson Sr., Katie Gibson and Rotsky all said they interacted with teachers at the school who didn’t support Shelton.
Rotsky, who works as a financial adviser by day and runs a mentorship program with his wife for inner-city kids, said some faculty members at Cleveland Heights didn’t know how to handle a black kid with an East Cleveland background. Gibson Jr. was brash, energetic and confident in middle school and high school, Rotsky said.
The most recent Census data shows Cleveland Heights has about 49 percent white residents and 42 percent black residents. Data on East Cleveland shows the city is about 4 percent white and 93 percent black.
“There are some faculty members that don’t know how to deal with some of the African American athletes I’ve coached over the years, and instead of finding out what makes them tick, they just take the easy road out and overlook them,” Rotsky said. “So there was a lot of people who thought, ‘Oh he’ll never do this or he’ll never do that.'”
That presented a challenge, Katie Gibson said, because negativity could make it difficult for Gibson Jr. to engage in school or athletics.
But Rotsky landed on the same conclusion Gibson Sr. did: Little Shelton listened. An empowering message or firm, tough coaching often caught the young football star’s attention, Rotsky said.
Rotsky said a group effort helped guide Gibson Jr. toward the appropriate decisions — if Gibson Jr. was late for practice or missed a class, the coach called Gibson Sr. or Morris.
“And he’d be like, ‘Where’s your son at?'” Gibson Sr. remembered. “And I’d call [Gibson Jr.], and I’d be like, ‘Shelton, you know Coach Rotsky done called me, man. Go to practice.'”
Thanks to the strict guidance, Gibson Jr. never dipped into serious trouble during school, his father said. Soon the scholarship offers started rolling in, and Little Shelton was ascending toward his dream.
“I think very highly of Coach Rotsky,” Katie Gibson said. “He took him up under his wing, and he saw something in Shelton.”
Shelton Gibson Jr. (No. 1) poses with (from left to right) Jeff Rotsky, Shelton Gibson Sr., a Cleveland Heights assistant coach and Katie Gibson. (Photo courtesy of Shelton Gibson Sr.)
The thought of Gibson Jr.’s athletic potential materialized at different times for Rotsky, Gibson Sr., Katie Gibson.
Rotsky remembered that Gibson mesmerized coaches during offseason workouts — he said a Bowling Green recruiter offered the wideout a scholarship during his freshman season, before even watching him play. The Bowling Green coach simply saw Gibson Jr. run through speed drills, Rotsky said, and felt compelled to pull the trigger.
Gibson Sr. recalled a game during his son’s freshman season when he returned a kickoff to about midfield before defenders swarmed him. Fans looked down, assuming the play was over, Gibson Sr. said. But Little Shelton bounced out of harm’s way, blew past would-be tacklers and sprinted into the end zone for a touchdown.
“That’s when I was like, ‘He’s going to do something with this,” Gibson Sr. said.
Katie Gibson, meanwhile, was never fully convinced. She loved going to her grandson’s games and cheering as he hauled in catch after catch and sped by defensive backs.
But it wasn’t until a teacher at a nearby school voiced her opinion that Katie Gibson began to consider the possibilities sitting before her grandson.
“God let other people see it,” Katie Gibson said. “One of the teachers that I work with, they were playing against Shaw High School, the Cardinals, and when she saw him perform, she said, ‘Mother Gibson, he’s going to the NFL.'”
Gibson Jr.’s rise unfolded quickly. While his father’s football career petered out in high school — “I could run, but I couldn’t catch,” Gibson Sr. said — Little Shelton was raking in high-major scholarship offers midway through his high school career.
Playing at Cleveland Heights helped. The school had produced a handful of NFL players, including Eagles center Jason Kelce and his brother, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
So recruiters and media outlets knew where to find Gibson Jr. — and they did. He was an Army All-American as a senior in high school, enrolled at West Virginia and racked up 17 touchdown receptions over three seasons with the Mountaineers.
He declared for the NFL draft, and he watched with family members April 29 as his name popped on the screen. The Eagles, in need of a wide receiver to stretch the field, selected Gibson in the fifth round, with the 166th pick.
“I know they thought I was a crazy old woman,” Katie Gibson said. “I screamed at the top of my lungs praising the Lord. I kept thinking, ‘This is not real, this is not real. Somebody pinch me because this is not real.'”
West Virginia wide receiver Shelton Gibson is seen in a drill at the 2017 NFL football scouting combine Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Rotsky thought it was funny that, tucked away in Gibson’s bio on the West Virginia athletics website, there’s a mention of his former player’s 3.6 GPA and spot on the Big 12 honor roll. Many teachers at Cleveland Heights never saw that coming, Rotsky said, because of Gibson Jr.’s background and energetic personality.
And Gibson Sr. still chuckles when he thinks about Gibson Jr.’s journey, recalling those football movies. He didn’t turn those on because he thought his son would reach the NFL; instead, he just wanted to infuse some inspiration into his life.
Gibson Sr. doesn’t know what impact those movies had on his son’s life, if any at all. But he knows Gibson Jr. developed a goal and that he’ll move one step closer toward it when he slips on an Eagles jersey Friday to begin rookie minicamp.
“I’m really thankful to God that he really listened,” Gibson Sr. said. “It’s a very exciting, emotional feeling when you can Google your name and see your son in the paper, and it’s not for nobody getting robbed or nobody getting killed or nothing. It’s positive.
“It’s just an awesome feeling. I’m really glad. I’m really happy for Shelton that he had a dream and he stuck to it.”
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