IRVINE — When USC center Craig Gibson hunkered down for the first snap of a 1990 game against Notre Dame and came face to face with hulking, All-American nose guard Chris Zorich, all Gibson could think about was the beatings he used to suffer at the hands of his older brothers.
Such as the time Don Gibson, a former USC nose tackle now with the Denver Broncos, body-slammed Craig Gibson into the front yard, cracking his sternum, bruising several ribs and sending him to the hospital for X-rays.
Or the numerous times Boomer Gibson, a former Arizona linebacker, would put him in a headlock and hold him under water when the brothers played tackle football in their back-yard pool.
Surely, Craig Gibson was expecting another whipping that November day in the Coliseum. He was a 235-pound freshman at the time, some 35 pounds lighter than Zorich, who could bench press 455 pounds and was Notre Dame's strongest player. Zorich won the Lombardi Award as the nation's best interior lineman and was a second-round pick of the Chicago Bears.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the trainer's table. Gibson never made it. By game's end, Gibson was still standing, in one piece with no broken bones, and accepting praise from Zorich after Notre Dame's 18-7 victory.
"I had already been through it all, and I held my own against him," said Gibson, a former El Modena High standout now entering his junior season at USC.
"I remember him saying, 'Keep going, you're young, you're going to be good.' I wasn't expecting anything from him. That helped me a lot, knowing I could play with a guy of that caliber."
But if not for those drubbings by his brothers, who with Craig Gibson made up El Modena's most prominent football-playing family, Craig Gibson might not have fared so well against Zorich. And he probably wouldn't be in a position to be a four-year starter at USC.
"As the third kid, I was always beat up on, but I tell you one thing, it didn't make me a wimp," Gibson, 21, said. "It made me tougher, mentally and physically. It taught me a lot. In the long run, I definitely think if they had never done anything to me, I would have been a wimp."
In the short run, when Gibson was growing up, he was pretty much at the mercy of his brothers.
Don Gibson, a two-way tackle at El Modena, was three years older and already well over 200 pounds by his sophomore year in high school. Boomer Gibson, a tight end at El Modena, was six years older and in the 230-pound range in college.
It was a competitive family--their father, Frank, was a three-year football letterman at Army and coached them on youth teams--and that competition wasn't limited to the football field.
"We didn't hold back," Craig Gibson said. "From throwing stuff at each other to hitting each other, we did it all. We even had BB-gun fights."
Brotherly love at its finest.
"We were always pretty physical with each other," Boomer Gibson said. "We weren't lovey-touchy, we beat each other up. We had cuts and bruises. It was just brothers being brothers."
But being the youngest created a double whammy for Craig Gibson. Even when he wasn't involved in a fracas--such as the time Boomer Gibson lunged at Don Gibson with a fire poker, missed him and put a hole through a closet door--there was potential for trouble.
"If I ever told on them, I'd get it worse," Craig Gibson said.
Boomer Gibson, now 27 and selling investment properties in Southern California, says those family challenges helped bring out the best in Craig, though.
"By far, Craig is mentally and physically the toughest of the family," Boomer Gibson said. "He's a strong-minded kid. He's a scrapper. He's not overly physical, but he's so strong and quick to the first step, when he gets you he's got you.
"I don't think Zorich knew what hit him that day. That was amazing. Craig played one of the best nose guards in the country straight up. That game probably made Craig a player."
Gibson spent much of his freshman year as a backup guard but moved to the starting center spot in the seventh game and has held it since. He has gained weight since his freshman year--he's now 6 feet 3, 255 pounds--but still relies more on quickness and technique than brute strength. Trojan Coach Larry Smith says Gibson has the best snap and best first step of any center he has coached.
"I've played tons of 300-pound nose guards, but you can't just look at weight," Gibson said. "You've just got to block them. I have a real low center of gravity, and every time I get up to the ball, I think low, low, low. It's better to be quicker, because a lot of the time you're blocking linebackers who are great athletes."
As Gibson did as a youth, the Trojans endured some growing pains last season. They averaged 12 freshmen or sophomore starters per game and went 3-8, losing their last six games. But with 18 returning starters and a year of experience, Gibson believes USC will rebound in 1992.