Brett Gabbert wasn’t talking about his late-game heroics last Saturday night at Nippert Stadium as he led the visiting Miami RedHawks to a 31-24 defeat of the Cincinnati Bearcats in overtime.
In that game, which was the RedHawks first victory over their longtime rivals since 2005, Gabbert had a herculean performance that has given him marque status in Oxford this week:
» Late in the fourth quarter, Gabbert completed two long passes to move Miami from its own 10-yard line to the Cincinnati 4, where Graham Nicholson made a 20-yard field goal to tie the game, 24-24.
» In overtime, Miami got the ball at the UC 25 and Gabbert ran 17 yards up the middle on the first play. On the next, he competed an 8-yard TD pass to Joe Wilkins Jr. for the win.
» By game’s end, Gabbert had thrown three touchdown passes and run for a career-high 75 yards on just 9 carries.
And yet, the RedHawks fifth-year quarterback had a far more important save-the-day feat nine months ago.
“At the end of the day, football is just a game and I’m out there to win and have fun,” Gabbert said after practice the other day as he sat on a bench just off the field at Yager Stadium. “Saving people from a helicopter crash is more of a life-or-death situation.
“There was more pressure getting those people and making sure they lived, than just playing football.”
With a little prompting, he recounted the situation that he and his two older brothers — Blaine and Tyler — came upon late in the afternoon last Dec. 29 as they rode jet skis in Hillsborough Bay near the Davis Islands Yacht Club in Tampa.
Blaine — the longtime NFL quarterback who then was Tom Brady’s backup with the Tampa Bay Bucs and now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs — was on one jet ski, while Tyler and Brett shared another.
Overhead, 28-year-old Hunter Hupp and his parents were getting a helicopter tour of the area. Suddenly there was a loud bang, the copter lost power and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing in the water 300 yards off Davis Island.
The craft promptly sank, leaving the rotary blades jutting above the surface. Hupp ended up tangled in a seat belt and was trapped underwater for over a minute.
From a distance, Blaine, who was riding ahead of his brothers, saw the wreckage and what looked like two yellow life vests floating in the oily water. He called 9-1-1 and then roared ahead and managed to get the just-freed Hupp and his 59-year-old mother onto his jet ski. Brett and Tyler got Hupp’s 62-year-old father on with them.
Blaine helped the pilot grab hold of some wreckage to stay afloat and the brothers then took the family to safety as the Coast Guard arrived and saved the pilot.
“I was sitting on the couch back home here watching TV when I saw the news come across the ticker,” Miami head coach Chuck Martin remembered. “It mentioned Blaine and I knew Brett was down there, too, and it was like ‘Oh my God!’ I called him immediately to see if he was okay. “He told me, ‘Oh man, I was so scared. I thought there was going to be a bunch of dead people.’”
Afterward, Major Davis Arthur of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office called the brothers “citizen heroes.”
Brett tamped down the high praise the other day when the subject was brought up: “At the end of the day, we just did what I hope any human would do to help out.”
His reaction had been the same when I focused on his play Saturday night against the Bearcats:
“I just did my job. That’s to get the ball to the wide receivers, get us in the right play calls and make the right checks. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Martin, though, said he does that job better than most:
“He has a lot of strengths as a quarterback: Unbelievable decision making pre- and post-snap. Unbelievable pocket presence that allows him to make plays under duress. He has a quick release, a strong arm and he’s a really accurate thrower.
“And yet, for all that, his biggest attribute is that he’s the most competitive son of a gun that we got. That kid plays every play to win the frickin’ game. He never relents, never takes a down off.”
Not only does that approach make for in impressive stat line in the box score, but it has a tremendous effect on his teammates, Martin said:
“When you saw him out there Saturday night running full speed and Cincinnati had some dudes chasing him who were big and strong and tough and he didn’t slide, he flat out dove for the pylon, well, you can’t quantify what that does to his team! They’re like ‘That’s our quarterback and I’m not gonna block for a guy like this? I’m not gonna hit on defense? Not gonna cover a punt?’
“His competition level lifts us up to a different level.”
Saturday’s victory snapped a 16-game losing streak to the Bearcats and enabled the Miami to finally bring the Victory Bell back to Oxford.
The other day, as players filtered off the practice field and into the Gunlock Athletic Performance Center, you could hear some of them ring the bell as they walked past on their way to the locker room.
The RedHawks host 0-3 Delaware State on Saturday afternoon (3:30 kickoff.) With a win, Miami would start the season 3-1, something it hasn’t done since 2003 when Ben Roethlisberger was the quarterback.
“I know it’s been a while since Miami started 3-1, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves and take any opponent lightly,” Gabbert said. “We just have to keep the momentum going.”
‘I regretted it’
There was a brief period after last season when Gabbert thought his momentum was taking him elsewhere.
After playing for the RedHawks for four seasons, enduring some injuries and still becoming one of the best quarterbacks in program history, he suddenly entered the transfer portal.
He released a goodbye statement on social media, thanking everyone and went to see Martin in person.
“He told me he thought it was in his best interests to move on and finish his eligibility somewhere else,” Martin said. “He was appreciative and thankful for being here.”
Martin said he’s never discussed the decision in depth with Gabbert: “Honestly, we never had that discussion. You’d have to ask him.”
I did, and here’s what he said:
“I had surgery (on the broken left clavicle of his non-throwing shoulder) after week one and was told I was going to be out all year. But I ended up coming back for the Western Michigan game. That was 6 ½ weeks post-surgery, which is about as quick as you can come back. Then a couple of games later I re-hurt my ankle and was on crutches.
“I really felt like nothing had gone my way.
“I was mad at myself, mad at the world.
“But soon after that I realized I’d made a rash decision, and I knew it wasn’t a good one. I regretted it.”
He asked to come back and that left Martin with a decision to make.
“I’d never taken a kid back from the portal before and may never again,” he said. “A lot of people, even my coaches — knowing me and who I am — wondered what I was going to tell him.
“I thought about him and what he’d done for the program. He’s as competitive of a kid as I ever coached, and I wanted him leading our football team. From the time he was thrown into the fire as a freshman (he was the first true freshman to be the opening game starter in program history) he’s never flinched. Never blinked.
“A lot of people — including some very close to me — were unhappy with my decision. They thought it went against who I am. But they didn’t know the whole story.”
Eighteen days after he entered the portal, Gabbert returned to Miami.
Making a mark in Oxford
Gabbert’s eldest brother Blaine starred at Missouri and was a first-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011. He’s been in the league since, playing for six teams and is the backup to Patrick Mahomes. His other brother Tyler was a quarterback at Missouri and then the University of Central Florida.
Brett was named the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year when he led the RedHawks to a league title.
He’s now fourth all-time at Miami with 6,925 career passing yards. He’s fifth in touchdown passes and sixth in completion percentage. He’s already gotten a degree in Kinesiology and Health and is working on his masters in Sports Leadership and Management.
This season began with a matchup against the Miami Hurricanes in Florida.
At a press conference a few days before the game, I asked him a light-hearted question about who was the real Miami.
His answer —devoid of posturing or negative intent — was equally light. He answered the only way he could, saying the RedHawks were the real Miami and they were out to prove it.
Many online trolls and pseudo commentators painted Gabbert as someone popping off about the Hurricanes program.
That was not the case. I was there and heard it all.
Although Gabbert said the backlash didn’t bother him, I believe it did.
“I didn’t mean anything by it, except that I have full belief and confidence in my team,” he said. “It got taken out of context. I meant no disrespect.”
The Hurricanes throttled the RedHawks 38-3 and Gabbert threw for 127 yards and was sacked twice.
Since then, he’s been on a roll. He threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-28 victory over Massachusetts and added three more TD passes against UC.
It was one of the biggest victories Martin has had in his 10 years coaching the RedHawks and afterward it made him think back to the flak he took before the season when he welcomed Gabbert back onto the team.
“I don’t think Saturday night about 11 o’clock anybody was too disappointed that Brett Gabbert was a Miami football player again,” Martin said with a grin. “I think people were really glad to see him out there.”
Nine months ago, a family floundering in the oily waters of Hillsborough Bay felt the same way.