A Family Affair – A father & son football journey

Trey & Drew Gibbs SoldotnaTrey & Drew Gibbs enjoying one of their passions — the Dallas Cowboys

My name is Trey Gibbs and I have a 17 year old son named Drew that plays high School football in Soldotna, Alaska for the Soldotna Stars.  Soldotna is located 150 miles south of Anchorage and is home to the world famous Kenai River sport fishing area.

The Soldotna (A.K.A. “SoHi”) Stars are led by the future “Hall of Fame” Coach Galen Brantley Jr.  Soldotna has won the last three medium school state championships and is currently on a state record 33 game winning streak. Soldotna has won seven state championships over the last nine years.

My son Drew has been playing football since he was 9 years old.  I remember one of Drew’s last Pop Warner games in 8th grade against another Pop Warner team from Homer, Alaska. The opposing coach came across the field to ask Drew’s coach if he would take him out of the game.  He told him “He is just too strong and our players can’t stop him.”

SoHi’s head football Coach Galen Brantley came to watch Drew play that day.  After the game he walked up to Drew and invited him to come lift weights with the high school kids in the off-season before his freshman year.

Galen and Drew hit it off from Day 1 because Drew would do anything the coach told him he needed to do.  Galen knew Drew had talent, but didn’t realize how much until the All-Alaska football camp in Palmer, Alaska before Drew’s freshman year.

The Soldotna football program has never started a freshman on its varsity football team.  Naturally, Coach Brantley put Drew with the J.V. team to start the camp.

The All-Alaska camp generally has 20-25 college coaches at the camp. Within the first two hours of the camp a college coach tracked down coach Brantley and said, “This kid is too good to play with the J.V. kids.”

Coach Brantley immediately moved Drew over with the varsity squad.  However, I can tell you now that Galen had many long discussions with his own coaching staff about Drew. He wasn’t initially comfortable with a freshman playing varsity.

Then the unthinkable happened! The SoHi Stars’ phenomenal running back, River Calloway, went down injured on a fluke routine tackle.  It was horrible.  That poor kid was writhing in pain on the ground there at the All-Alaska football camp.  It turned out that River had injured his hip with the “Bo Jackson” injury.  His football career was over forever.

River’s terrible misfortune opened a spot at on the SoHi team at the running back position. Coach Brantley put Drew in as a starting RB in the Soldotna Stars Wing-T offense.  Drew was 14 years old.  He handled this new responsibility with respect and dedication.

Over the next three years Drew started on offense and defense in every single game, except for one due to a bruised quad.  Drew started in every game of the Soldotna Stars state record 29 game win streak leading up to the August 14, 2015 “Game of the Century.” Drew only lost one game in his high school career. It was the first game he played in.

Gibbs family

The Gibbs after anther Soldotna victory.

Drew started preparation for his senior year of football with a bang!  He was one of 500 underclassmen invited to the 2015 U.S. Army National Combine in San Antonio, TX January 1-3, 2015.  During the combine trip we stopped at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas to meet with Coach Zach Watkins. Coach Watkins has been one of Drew’s mentors at three All-Alaska Football camps.

In addition to varsity basketball, Drew continued training by competing with his high school track and field team at the end of his junior year.  Drew qualified for the state championships in both the long jump and triple jump.

The final stretch of Drew’s training was a whirlwind 3,000 mile road trip with me across the Midwest to see colleges and attend several college football camps in summer 2015.  Drew and I started that summer quest by flying into Fargo, North Dakota.  We drove to Aberdeen, South Dakota first. There we visited Northern State University.

The Northern State University camp was great.  We spent time with Coach Matt Rechowschi and Coach Tom Dosch. A few hours before we left their university, Coach Dosch asked us to come to his office. We sat down and he told us how much he enjoyed Drew.  Coach Dosch offered an athletic scholarship on the spot!  We were amazed because Coach Matt had told us just the day before that NSU doesn’t normally offer scholarships until official visits in December.

We were off to a great start!  We left South Dakota and drove to Greeley, Colorado to visit the University of Northern Colorado. We met with Coach Jeremy Hayden. We had a very nice short visit.

Our next stop was to spend a few days with Andy Lowery, head coach at Columbine High School and his family. We had the great pleasure of meeting Coach Lowery at the All-Alaska Football camp the year before.  He had kept in contact with Drew and me over the months.  He has been friend and mentor to Drew.  He honored Drew by setting up the visits for us at both Colorado State University- Pueblo, the University of Sioux Falls, and Augustana University.

CSU Pueblo is the reigning Division II National football championship team.  It was awesome to get an hour-long personal tour of CSU Pueblo with head coach John Wristen. We also met with his Defensive Coordinator Hunter Hughes. Coach Wristen even gave me a lecture about letting Drew enjoy his senior year.  Coach Wristen assured me that everything else would work out.  I have a lot of respect for John Wristen.

Coach Wristen sat down with us and told us that Coach Hughes would be coming to the All-Alaska football camp in July.  Coach Hughes would evaluate Drew at that camp. It turned out that Coach Hughes as very impressed with Drew at the All-Alaska Camp.  I will never forget Coach Hughes putting his arm around Drew at the end of the camp as he offered Drew a scholarship.

After CSU Pueblo we drove to University of Sioux Falls. There we spent time with Coach Jed Stugart and his DC Tremaine Jackson. Coach Stugart is the “salt of the earth” kind of person and a truly wonderful human being. We finished our trip by spending time with Coach Schrenk at Augustana.

The trip was the best two weeks of my life.  Drew and I had so much fun driving all over the country side.  Most importantly, I had taken Drew to high quality universities with some of the most honorable people I had ever met.

I never dreamed that our summer tour would prove to be such a monumental trip as we headed into the “Game of the Century.”

After months of hard work and preparation the day of the big game arrived.  On August 14, 2015 the 3A state champion Soldotna Stars were playing the 4A state champion South Wolverines in the game that was previewed by the Alaska Schools Athletic Association as the” Game of the Century.”  The game was being touted as a “David vs. Goliath” situation… medium school vs. large school… country vs. city… etc. etc.  We had prepared for months. Our varsity team, families and fans were ready for this battle.

The importance of the game was heightened by the fact that the Soldotna Stars were coming into the game tied for the longest winning streak in Alaska History at 29 wins.  Soldotna’s 2014 varsity team had tied Anchorage’s own East High School, Class of 1987, football team for that record.  If won, SoHi’s season opener (this “Game of the Century”) would push Soldotna into the state record history book.  There was great interest in this game throughout the state.

I remember sitting in the stands as I watched my son walk to the middle of the field as the captain of a team searching for history.  My memory of the beginning of that game runs like this: the coin toss…couple of SoHi defensive plays…a couple of great runs…and then the nightmare began.

A player went down on the field.  Oh my God.  It’s Drew.

I sat there watching the team doctor twist Drew’s knee while he laid on the field.  Then Drew came off the field.  I watched Drew testing it on the side-lines.  Everything seems OK.

Drew went back into the game on offense.  He ripped off a 65 yard touchdown run.  Good Lord!  An inadvertent whistle had blown. Officials take away 30 yards.  Then Drew runs another 40 yards and is tackled at the 1 yard line.  The team brings then scores.

South scored on their next possession. Soldotna gets the ball again. Drew rips off a 25 yd run to the 10 yd line.

I can already see that Drew is in trouble at the end of the play. He was standing straight up at the 10 yd line before he got tackled. I immediately knew that he isn’t going to get up.

Drew was on the far sideline of the field.  I couldn’t even see him, but I knew right then that he was hurt badly.  I can see Dr. Larson helping Drew off the field.  I also see the coaches take away Drew’s helmet.

Its nine minutes into the first quarter.  My son had 5 carries for 95 yds.  I realize without question that I had just witnessed the end of Drew’s high school football career.

The coaching staff sends up a message up to the stands that Drew wants his mom on the bench.  I can tell you that if I had any glimmer of hope it was quickly crushed when Drew asked for his mother.

Drew & Christie Gibbs

Drew Gibbs with his mom Christie after his knee injury and big win over South.

You would think that I would be hurt that Drew didn’t ask for me.  I wasn’t.  I knew that Drew didn’t need me at that moment.  Drew knew that having me around him would make it worse.

Drew knew that I couldn’t look him in the eye and say, “Its okay. You will be okay. Your scholarship offers are still going to be fine.”

I didn’t know what was going to happen next.  I certainly wasn’t going to tell my son something that I didn’t believe was true.

After the game phone calls and texts came in from all over our community.  The Soldotna community is so strong and supportive — we had a MRI done in less than 12 hours after the injury.  The MRI was completed and read by a radiologist at 9:30am on Saturday, August 15th.

It was devastating as Drew, my wife and I sat in the hospital’s emergency room with Drew’s best friend Trevor Walden (SoHi’s TE/DE) and his father Brian Walden as Dr. Bob Ledda (also a varsity team parent) told us that the ACL was completely torn.

Tears flowed.  I remember hugging my son.  Is this really happening to us?  Yes, it is.  I also thought there is no way I am going to let this hold him back from his dreams of playing college football.  I immediately begin writing emails to every school we visited and/or talked to this summer.

Within five hours of my first sent email, I received this text from Coach Matt Racowschi at Northern State University:

Here was the response:

“In no way shape or form does this affect our feelings towards Drew. Drew’s offer still stands and we would love to have him down for an official visit. Its football, these things happen. Focus on school and rehab and everything will work out.”

We received a similar email from Head Coach John Wristen at CSU-Pueblo.  Drew also received a call from Coach Adam at the College of Idaho that same day letting him know that they were mailing him an offer on Monday.  Drew got a brand new offer the first day of his injury from a school that had just heard of his injury!  How is that even possible?

Even with all of these incredible blessings unfolding hours after the bad news, I was still left with a huge task of finding my son a surgeon. After I emailed all of the coaches I started researching surgeons on the internet.

The very first 10 or 20 ACL articles I read on the internet talked about the” Doctor of the Stars”, Dr. James Andrews in Georgia.  Well heck, my son is a Soldotna Star player!  Dr. Andrews would have the opportunity to be the doctor of this SoHi Star.  I can’t tell you why I had the audacity to put Dr. Andrews’s phone number in my phone contacts…but I did.

The first thing Monday August 17th, I called Dr. Andrews.  I spoke with Chelsea his assistant.  I told her my situation and pleaded for her help.  Without hesitation she told me to fax over the MRI report.  She said that Dr. Andrews would review it and give us an answer within 36 hours.  She said that the doctor chose his patients on a case-by-case basis.

I called back in 36 hours.  Chelsea told us that Drew needed to be at Dr. Andrews’ Gulf Breeze, Florida practice on September 9th for pre-surgery.  She said his surgery appointment was set for September 10th. He would be examined post-op and then go home after September 11th.

It’s important that you know that I drive a taxi for Alaska Cab and my wife is the Director of Business Development for a growing pharmacy. We aren’t wealthy. We didn’t have any special connections to make this happen. We are truly blessed and are now preparing for Drew’s surgery.

Oh, by the way, just in case you are curious… SoHi won that Game of the Century. They won game #30.  They couldn’t have won without Drew.  After five carries and 95 yards Drew was on the bench.  His team moved forward slowly.  The team was struggling to stay ahead. Although he was devastated by his injury, Drew rallied his strength of character to urge his teammates to rally against their weakening position.

With his knee wrapped in tape and two giant dripping ice bags, he hobbled along the sideline shaking the shoulder pads of his teammates. He pulled their helmets to his face to bark encouragement into their tired and worried faces.  He turned to the stands and held his arms up to the crowd.  “Who’s house?  OUR HOUSE!”  The SoHi community stood up to support their team to push game #29 into history.

The Sohi Stars are the true warriors of Alaska high school football.  They just achieved their 33rd victory last week with “Coach” Drew Gibbs on the sideline at all times with them to help push forward on their winning streak.

I love my son. He works so hard.  I will do anything to help him succeed in his goals.  We have been blessed from the beginning.

Now the journey of surgery and rehab begins. I will keep you updated as Drew progresses through surgery, rehab, and the exciting process of choosing the right college.

God Bless,

Trey Gibbs

About the Author

Jeff Fisher
Jeff is an award-winning journalist and expert in the field of high school sports, underscored with his appearance on CNBC in 2010 to talk about the big business of high school football in America. Jeff turned to his passion for high school football into an entrepreneurial venture called High School Football America, a digital media company focused on producing original high school sports content for radio, television and the internet. Jeff is co-founder and editor-in-chief of High School Football America, which is a media partner with USA TODAY High School Sports.

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