CHARLOTTE -- It was early in training camp, as Carolina Panthers defensive line coach Sal Sunseri worked over his high-priced, high-profile players. The only thing bigger than the names or the paychecks were the bodies, but the little guy kept standing out for his effort.
By comparison, he looked like one of the Wofford linemen, not big at all in his current context.
So Sunseri walked around behind his back (just to make sure he had the name right), and then looked again at the last guy in line.
"Hey Gibson," Sunseri barked, a puzzled tinge to his voice. "Where'd you say you were from again?"
Gary Gibson's still a virtual unknown, but considering where he was a year ago this time, his story's still a remarkable one.
The Panthers promoted the undersized defensive tackle from the practice squad last Saturday when injuries left them short at the position, and the former financial consultant made his NFL debut in historic Lambeau Field.
He played exactly eight snaps, made exactly one tackle -- chasing Packers running back Ryan Grant down 10 yards downfield. It's hardly the stuff of legends, but you can't wipe the grin off his face now. He's listed at 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds (both numbers might be optimistic), but you'd think he were 10 feet tall this week.
"The biggest thing is, it was just a major life goal achieved," he said as he sat in his locker after practice. "I got to play in an NFL game. This is just the beginning, but it was a lot of hard work up to this point."
What makes Gibson's story different is that the work wasn't all on the football field.
After a good career at Rutgers, he had a chance to go to training camp with the Baltimore Ravens, one of the undrafted guys who fill out the ends of lines. And a few days into his first experience, someone stepped on him, he "tore a bunch of ligaments in my foot" and he took his first step toward becoming a forgotten man.
The Ravens stuck him on injured reserve, but never bothered to tender him a contract the following year. Happens all the time. But then the phone didn't ring; no one offered him a chance to go to camp in 2006.
Though he wasn't ready to let his dream die, he took an office job, working for A.G. Edwards in Morristown, N.J. Instead of pounding on offensive linemen, he was crunching numbers, and wondering whether he should just give it up.
"There were definitely a couple of times," he said when asked if he thought of quitting. "I felt kind of screwed over by the league, and there's a lot of guys out there like that.
"I'm not upset that it happened, because it really made me realize what I wanted to be doing. Sitting in the office all day, messing with numbers. I could be out on the football field punching the clock."
His break came via NFL Europe, where he began the year with the Hamburg Sea Devils a free agent, not allocated by any NFL club. He made the All-NFLE team, and after the season finished, the Panthers brought him in. Such guys are usually just extra bodies, but Gibson kept showing up, kept impressing them with the way he worked.
They cut him at the end of camp, but told him to hang around, signing him to the practice squad. The money's OK ($4,700 a week), and mostly you toil just to get the other guys ready. The biggest problem is the lack of a payoff, since there's no traveling with the team, no games at the end of the week.
"A lot of times, it's frustrating," Gibson said of the existence on the practice squad. "You prepare, you do everything it takes to play in the game, and it almost makes you feel not good enough.
"But I kind of looked at it like, if I keep working and working and working, things have got to pan out."
They did last Saturday, when coach John Fox gave him the news he'd been waiting and working for. He'd get to go to Green Bay, his salary grew more than 375 percent, but most importantly, he had made it to the NFL.
That triggered an avalanche of calls to and from his hometown of Lafayette, N.Y. (just outside of Syracuse), and a hastily thrown-together party at his parents house, where the normal crowd of Bills, Giants and Jets fans threw in with the Panthers.
"I've got a nice little fan base in my small little hometown," Gibson said. "I called everybody, told them they'd actually have to watch the Panthers game, I'd be playing."
They weren't the only ones thrilled.
Defensive end Mike Rucker said he could tell Gibson was excited when he came on the field last week by the way he was bouncing around, nervous and ready.
"I looked at him, I said, 'You all right?'" Rucker said with a grin. "He's like 'Yeah, I'm ready to go.
"That's what football's about: Seeing guys and their emotions and their first starts and the beginnings of their careers. It's just kind of neat to see."