There have been many times over the past year when Gilberto Espinoza thought his days on the gridiron were over.
Heading into his senior season in 2009, the 5-foot-10, 240-pound linebacker for Johnson High had several colleges interested in giving him an athletic scholarship for his services.
Furman. Middle Tennesse State. Charleston Southern. Both Eastern and Western Carolina.
But a week before the season started, Espinoza injured his knee in practice. He figured the injury to be serious — he said he “felt a pop and my leg started burning” — but decided to rest the remainder of the week and attempt to play in the Knights’ season opener against North Hall.
Espinoza lasted just one series before completely blowing out his knee.
A day after the game, he was given bad news on two different fronts. Not only had he torn his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus, ending his high school career, but he also learned his paternal grandmother had died in Mexico.
“I was more worried about my dad and we was worried about me,” Espinoza said. “He knew how much I cared about football but I knew family comes first. ... It was very rough for both of us. We were crying for my grandma and my knee.”
Espinoza put off surgery for two weeks to drive to Mexico and put his grandmother to rest. When he returned to Gainesville, he had surgery and began preparing for his new role on the team — moral supporter.
While he took his new role in stride, the colleges recruiting him didn’t place much value on it and communication ceased.
For Espinoza, the future looked grim.
“Football was my ticket for a better living,” he said. “I didn’t know how I would get to or pay for school. It got to the point where I was telling myself I’ll just go to Gainesville State, get a degree and not play again.
“I thought football was over for me.”
Despite uncertainty of what was next for him, Espinoza held out hope for an opportunity to play college football. Within a month of his surgery, he was rehabbing. He sent out highlight tapes of his high school career — he was a starter since his freshman season — to more than 30 schools. He was e-mailing and phoning coaches on a weekly basis.
Still, none of those activities served as an adequate substitute for being on the field. And riding the sidelines wore on Espinoza over the course of a season when the Knights stumbled to a 3-7 record. His defensive presence on the field was greatly missed as Johnson was shutout three times by a combined score of 132-0.
Above playing in college or helping to provide damage control on defense, Espinoza simply wanted to be on the field for his senior season.
“A lot of us seniors grew up together and we’ve played on the same teams since kindergarten,” he said. “We played basketball, baseball and football and wanted to get together for one last hurrah. But I couldn’t do it. I remember one game at halftime I just started crying because I wanted to be out there so badly.”
As the offseason progressed, Espinoza was having little luck with colleges, because, as he puts it, “No one wanted damaged goods.”
Then, Virginia Union University expressed interest in him and he made a verbal commitment. But close to signing day, VU backed off its offer and Espinoza was left at square one.
“Once Virginia Union stopped talking to me I said, ‘I guess I’m not going to play,’” he said. “I was giving up.”
Later, Espinoza was about to go out for a night with friends but checked his e-mail first. He saw a message from Belhaven College coaching assistant Ray Caldwell expressing interest. After a visit to the school, located in Jackson, Miss., Espinoza was offered a partial athletic scholarship and accepted.
Espinoza is now in a situation to earn a starting spot at linebacker for the Blazers, who compete in the NAIA’s Mid-South Conference.
“Everything played out exactly as God planned,” said Espinoza of the opportunity at Belhaven. “Ultimately, my goal was to play college football after high school and in one way or the other, it did happen. The end of this story will still be happy because I get to play.”
Espinoza has spent the offseason running and training to strengthen his knee. Throughout the injury ordeal, he dropped weight — his lowest was 210 — but he said that’s a good thing because he needs to increase his speed for the college level. He’ll start practicing with the team this month with the hopes of earning a starting spot.
“Mindset-wise, I want to come in and earn what I’ve always wanted,” he said. “But first, I’ve got to work hard. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to work hard and play football. I want to play one more time and now I have the opportunity to suit up and play and compete again like I always wanted to.
“I’m not going to take this opportunity for granted. I’m going to work hard.”