Los Angeles Ram defensive tackle sean Gilbert is preparing to come out of hibernation. It's May in Anaheim, Calif., and Gilbert is hunched over a stair-step machine in the Ram weight room, his sweatshirt filling with a small lagoon of perspiration. Gilbert's legs pump, his mind races, and his mouth keeps pace. "I'm not nothing but a gentle giant, a great big teddy bear," he says. "And a bear is not a vicious animal as long as other bears mind their own business. But when they interfere and try to invade his territory, then he's going to retaliate. When a bear comes out of the cave after six months, he don't want nobody taking his honey, taking his berries, right?"
Those who would take anything from the 23-year-old Gilbert, please note: He is 6'4½" and 315 pounds, and he can cover 40 yards in 4.8 seconds. His combination of sheer mass and athleticism prompted the Rams to sign him to a five-year, $7.5 million deal after selecting him out of Pitt with the third pick in the '92 draft. Gilbert gracefully carries a torso the size of a Kodiak bear's on legs that could belong to a point guard—the position he holds on the Rams' basketball team. "You can tell Sean's an athlete just by watching him move," says Ram linebacker Roman Phifer. Playing against linemate David Rocker at an Anaheim racquetball court, Gilbert covers the floor with a litheness not seen in a big man since Fred Flintstone twinkle-toed his way down a Bedrock bowling alley.
Gilbert is an odd mixture in other ways. He has a broad grin and a cheerful voice, but he is also facing felony assault charges for an altercation with a policeman in March during a brawl at a restaurant near the Pitt campus. The case goes to trial in January. The cop says Gilbert was blocking an exit and refused to move; Gilbert says he did nothing wrong and adds, "It didn't happen in the media, so I don't want to testify in the media."
Though for the Steeler media guide he filled out the least-informative information sheet in the annals of public relations—Any humorous incidents while playing football in high school or college? No. Superstitions? No. Comments? He left it blank—he can be as garrulous as Ross Perot, and he is a bit of an armchair philosopher with his ursine take on football.
Offensive linemen, for instance, are "grizzlies that are homeless" and seeking to encroach on Gilbert's turf. Then there's his explanation of his sack dance. After planting New York Giant quarterback Jeff Hostetler on the turf for the first of his five pro sacks last Oct. 18, Gilbert shot one arm up, then the other. His body spasmed as if shot through with electricity. He stomped around the turf. Southern Californians gave his shimmy a name they don't toss around frivolously: the Earthquake. Gilbert believes he was simply sending a primal signal to the wild kingdom of the NFL. "It was my way of claiming territory," he says. "The other bears see that and they don't want to go messing around on those grounds."
For Gilbert, a loss is a "zit-type situation," one that comes and quickly goes. In that same category he places his current legal difficulties. In the "non-zit-type" category he would place the woman he saw on a talk show who has to go through life with a full beard. "My motto is, There's no use complaining, because 60 percent of the people don't want to hear it, and the other 40 percent are glad you're having the problem," he says.
He comes by his philosophy the hard way. His mother, Aileen, raised five children by herself. Until 1977 she worked as a steelworker in Aliquippa, Pa., 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. When the mill closed she moved to Hartford, but work was scarce there, too, and after five years she moved her brood back to Aliquippa. She is now a member of the Aliquippa school board. "Where I come from is all about surviving," Sean says. "I had two pairs of pants to wear five days a week, drank six glasses of water and went to lied. You ever had a syrup sandwich? That's syrup on two pieces of white bread."
When the family returned to Aliquippa, Gilbert was 13 and well on his way to hugeness. Just as the steel town had produced Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett, so too did it forge Gilbert. The nationally ranked Aliquippa High team was a lone bright light in a town dependent upon a dying industry, and Gilbert, 6'4" and 250 pounds as a senior, was its biggest star. Don Yanessa, who coached the Quips, switched Gilbert from the line to middle linebacker in his junior season so that he could avoid double teams. "To get away from him, you needed a field 75 yards wide," says Yanessa.
Gilbert attacked the game with blast-furnace intensity—like the big bad ex-Bear himself, Ditka. "They both went at it the same way, whether it was at practice or on Friday night," says Yanessa, who in the '50s played alongside Ditka at Aliquippa. In 1989 USA Today named Gilbert its high school Defensive Player of the Year. A few months later he again made the paper's headlines when he failed to earn 700 on his SATs; he was forced to sit out his first year at Pitt as a victim of Proposition 48. Because of that and various injuries, Gilbert lined up for only 17 games with the Panthers before turning pro after his junior year. "I told my mom when I went to Pitt, 'My major's NFL, my minor's CFL, and my understudy is the World League,' " he says with sobering candor.
Some preliminary draft reports had Gilbert's linemate Keith Hamilton rated ahead of him. Despite a game against Penn State in which he had 11 tackles, six of them for losses, in a 32-20 victory, Gilbert figured he would be picked in the fourth round. But he put on a show for the scouting combine, racing to a series of 4.8 40s and displaying agility and quickness far greater than the average bear's. The Giants wound up taking Hamilton 96 picks after the Rams took Gilbert.
Even as a rookie Gilbert drew the double teams that signify respect, but he lacked consistency. "Sean has amazing physical qualities," says Ram defensive coordinator George Dyer. "All we need to do is get those unleashed." Gilbert's hustle, however, earned him a nomination to the All-Madden team.
In many ways Gilbert has already hit his stride. He is engaged to Nicole Norman, the mother of his three-year-old son, Deshaun Ahmad. He has bought former Pirate Barry Bonds's old house in Pittsburgh and has settled Aileen in a ranch-style house near his. He has also put his days as a dancing bear behind him after coach Chuck Knox's recommendation of a more stately postsack demeanor. Says Gilbert, "Most people, they're either a prince or they're a dragon. Me, I'm a pupil. I could be a prince, but I don't want to get ahead of myself."
PETER READ MILLER
Gilbert looms large, whether at racquetball or terrorizing passers.
[See caption above.]