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Football: Veteran safety Rodney Gillis back for his sixth season

Tim Buckley, Daily Advertiser, August 11, 2013

UL safety Rodney Gillis is all smiles again after making the big decision to return for a rare sixth year of college football this fall.

UL safety Rodney Gillis is all smiles again after making the big decision to return for a rare sixth year of college football this fall. / Leslie Westbrook/lwestbrook@theadvertiser.com

As UL’s 2012 football season neared its conclusion, then fifth-year senior safety Rodney Gillis wasn’t sure what his short-term future held.

For a short while, it turned out to be the sofa in his parents’ living room.

But Gillis, whose 75 total tackles last year were second among team leaders behind only linebacker Justin Anderson’s 105, is no couch potato.

And that made the few months that followed so much harder to handle as he tossed and turned, uncertain what to do.

After redshirting in 2008 and undergoing major knee surgeries that cost him both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Gillis had a chance to seek a rather-rare sixth-year medical hardship waiver from the NCAA so he could play again in 2013.

But he was falling apart, again, and he didn’t know if he had in him one more season of pain wrapped around reward.

So Gillis went through Senior Day ceremonies prior to the Ragin’ Cajuns’ Nov. 24 win over South Alabama, figuring it might just his last chance to play a game on Cajun Field.

“I had a thought in the back of my mind,” Gillis said, “but I still embraced that like it was my last one.”

Cajun coaches, meanwhile, were figuring the whole time that once the NCAA granted his hardship request Gillis probably would be back.

* * * * * *

GILLIS CAREER PATH

A look at the lengthy career of sixth-year Ragin’ Cajuns safety Rodney Gillis:
2007: Played for Florida Class 5A state-championship team St. Thomas Aquinas High as a high school senior
2008: Redshirted at UL, did not play
2009: Out while recovering from ACL knee surgery to repair injury sustained the prior spring
2010: Out while recovering from second knee surgery to repair injury sustained the prior spring
2011: Appeared in 11 games as a reserve defensive back and special-teams player
2012: Recorded a team-high five interceptions and made 75 total tackles while playing all 13 games as a first-year starter for 9-4 New Orleans-Bowl winning team
2013: Sat out the spring, but plans to play a sixth season after receiving NCAA medical hardship waiver for an extra year of eligibility

* * * * * * *

But after he returned home to South Florida to play UL’s final regular-season game, a Dec. 1 Sun Belt Conference win at Florida Atlantic in which he pulled in his team-leading fifth interception of the season, then spent the next few weeks preparing for the finale, a Dec. 22 New Orleans Bowl win in the Superdome over East Carolina, the truth came out.

There was doubt aplenty.

“The whole time we were hopeful it was gonna happen,” Cajuns secondary coach Tim Rebowe said.

“Deep down, I kind of just knew it was still inside of him,” Rebowe added. “But at the end of the year – and he’ll tell you – he was so beat up and his body was so beat down.”

Hidden injury

Tell Gillis does.

Now the last man still standing at UL from the 2008 recruiting class of fired former head coach Rickey Bustle, Gillis revealed this week that he finished 2012 with a busted bone in his wrist.

“I really didn’t know (about returning),” he said, “because I was still dealing with some injuries.”

UL never did disclose the worst of them.

That’s because Gillis, fearful a season-ending injury might mean he’d never play again, never let on that his wrist just wasn’t right.

The last thing he wanted to do was spend the latter half of a second straight 9-4 season watching from the sidelines.

“I really didn’t say anything about it until after the bowl game,” he said. “It had been hurting me the whole second half of last season. But I really didn’t know (the extent of the injury).

“After last season, that’s when I found out my wrist was broken,” Gillis added. “So I really was second-guessing (pursuing the sixth year).”

Bittersweet trip home

A UL bachelor’s degree in general studies in hand – the good one, presumably – Gillis returned to Florida.

The product of Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High had no particular plan, no real hope beyond healing and finally staying healthy.

His old bedroom long ago repurposed, sleeping options were limited to one.

“I went to my spot on the couch,” Gillis said.

As spring practice approached, meanwhile, the Cajuns had no idea what Gillis intended.

He wasn’t enrolled at UL, and wasn’t ready to commit one way or the other.

“It was always kind-of, ‘I really don’t know yet,’ ” Gillis said. “I was just pretty much thinking about it, getting everything together, just getting everything straight.

“The coaches, they wanted me to come back. Coach Rebowe, he knew the things I had been through and all the work I had put in. Him and Coach Hud. So they wanted that sixth year for me.”

But Gillis wasn’t positive he wanted it for him.

His joints ached. He had no interest in another year of spring ball. The spring, after all, was when he sustained both of the ACL knee tears that kept him out two seasons.

The big decision

Returning for the fall, however, was another matter. But even it was such a difficult call.

“I thought about it every day I was home,” he said. “That was something that was heavy on my mind.

“My family – my dad (Broward County Athletic Association athletic director and ex-Iowa State running back and receiver Rocky Gillis), my brother – they all talked to me. They encouraged me to go for it.

“The area we stay in, there’s nothing too positive,” Gillis added. “So they really wanted me to get away.”

Yet Gillis still wasn’t sure.

He even considered – say it’s not so – getting a job.

Doing just what, Gillis did not say. Suffice to suggest, though, that it probably would not have been anything to his liking.

“That really wasn’t what my plans were for myself,” he said. “I have higher expectations for myself, so if I’m gonna go for something I’m gonna go big. I’m not gonna settle for less.”

A few more nights crashing on the couch helped seal the deal.

“I couldn’t do that too long,” Gillis said.

Decision made, then.

“Man, my passion and my love for the game – it just wouldn’t let me walk away from it right there,” he said.

Coaches on board

Correctly confident the NCAA would rule in his favor, all that was left then was to phone Hudspeth and position-coach Rebowe.

He did so in the spring.

“I remember the day I called,” Gillis said. “I was like, ‘Man, this is what I want to do. It’s my passion, and it’s what I love to do, so why wouldn’t I give it another shot when I have this opportunity, when I’m blessed with the opportunity for that second chance?’

“Coach Hud, he was excited about it. He was pretty happy for me. A lot of (other coaches and teammates) were surprised, because they didn’t think I was coming back at one point. … But some of them had it in their mind I was coming back.”

Rebowe was one, but even he wouldn’t have bet a dime.

“We hadn’t penciled anything in yet,” Rebowe said.

“But I kind of thought that if he gave it a little bit of time … It’s something I couldn’t force on him. Nobody could force (it) on him. It’s something he had to come to the decision on himself.

“Me and him used to talk a bunch about it,” the Cajun assistant added. “I said, ‘Hey, I can’t force you. I can’t make you. You’ve got to be all in. And when you realize you want to do it, then we’re ready to do it too.’ ”

Rebowe knows Gillis is driven by the competition.

But he also suspects he was steered back to UL by the thought of what he would have been leaving behind.

“I think being away from it a little bit (in the spring) made him miss it,” Hudspeth said.

“He’s probably talked to a bunch of his buddies that say, ‘Hey, when it’s over, it’s over, and you can’t go back and get it,’ ” Rebowe added. “I bet (if asked), ‘Hey, if you had a chance, when it’s all said and done, to come back and play one more year, would you do it,’ nine out of 10 of them would say, ‘I’m coming back. I want to play.’ I think that had to have a little bit to do with it too.”

So Gillis is re-enrolled, this time working on a second degree in criminal justice.

Services needed

With that, UL has one of its starting safeties back from a much-maligned secondary seeking two new starters at cornerback to replace 2012 seniors Melvin White and Jemarlous Moten.

The two starting safety spots technically remain unclaimed for now, but there’s ample reason to believe Gillis – jokingly called “Grandpa” by some these days – will again be in the Cajuns’ three-man regular rotation by the time UL opens Aug. 31 at Arkansas.

“As soon as he came back, my thought was, ‘A veteran leader back there,’ ” Rebowe said of Gillis, a reserve and special-teams contributor in 2011 who didn’t miss a game as a first-year safety starter in 2012.

Initially, and especially during the period Gillis was waffling, Hudspeth figured the Cajuns might be OK moving on without him.

But now that he’s back, the head coach is happy to have the affable and level-headed 5-foot-11, 186-pounder.

“Physically we’ve got a lot of guys that might measure better than him right now,” Hudspeth said. “But he’s a guy that’s just football-savvy. He’s that cagey, ol’ veteran, you may say, that just has a knack for being around the ball.

“Anytime you can get a kid that’s a veteran that’s played in as many games as he’s played in the last two years I think that’s a plus. Just the experience factor, the leadership factor, the maturity – that can only help your team.

“Obviously a little bit of the layoff probably hurt him just a little bit. You know, (he’s) trying to get back into shape – because these (other) kids have been grinding pretty good since January. And he didn’t go through spring ball,” Hudspeth added a few days after preseason camp opened last Monday. “But he’ll eventually, I think, get back to the level of play he wants to be at.”

And then he’ll get to experience one more time something special he’s been through once already.

This one will come Nov. 30 at Cajun Field vs. Sun Belt-rival UL Monroe

“That’s what it’s looking like,” Gillis said. “Another Senior Day.”