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MIKE DOWNEY

Earthquake Is Felt in Pittsburgh

September 13, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

Back in what remains of the hardscrabble coal-mine and steel-mill country of Western Pennsylvania, where the mother of 315-pound Sean Gilbert clothed and fed five hungry children all by herself, this was a football game not to be missed, just as it was in the more upscale township near the Pittsburgh airport where she now dwells in luxury, inside a home previously occupied by Barry Bonds.

Televised nowhere else, the game featured the first professional encounter between the much-adored Steelers and the young favored son with the arms of a smithy who went west to seek fame and fortune. For some, it must have been an unpleasant thing to watch, particularly after a giddy Gilbert began celebrating his fourth sack of the day in full view of a Steeler organization that had gone 57 previous games without being shut out.

In elaborate pantomime, flipping an invisible ball into the air and then slugging it into the stands by using his meaty forearm as a bat, Gilbert stood astride a fallen quarterback from Pittsburgh filled with glee. He proceeded to make a gesture to the crowd with index finger and thumb, crooked into an 0.

"What do you call that?" an inquiring mind asked.

"The old goose egg!" he explained.

Return of the Pitt Panther. What we had here was a full day in the 22-year-old life of a hell-raising defensive tackle who--without any help from three absent Ram defensive starters--put himself in the poor Pittsburgh quarterback's line of fire Sunday until the very last play, personally bulldogging the man to the ground three times in the final quarter alone.

Oh, yes, the Steelers were painfully reminded, this was the same Sean Gilbert who terrorized mere amateurs during his brief career at the University of Pittsburgh, where he made such a name for himself that only two other collegians--Quentin Coryatt and Steve Emtman--were drafted by NFL teams ahead of him.

He is the same Gilbert who during the summer months still calls Pittsburgh home, who wonders what his mom is planning for her next term on the board of education that employs her, who is concerned how his older brother, Mark, is doing since being compelled to leave the Pitt basketball program because of a heart condition not unlike the one that imperiled the late Reggie Lewis.

In days gone by, were the Steelers the family's favorite team?

"Nope," said Sean, who in person is as engaging as he is gifted. "Not at all. It's nice to know the game was playing in my hometown so friends and family got to watch it. But my business is here in L.A."

His is a risky business, fraught with doubt and curiosity as to whether anyone, especially an unproven prodigy with more muscles than experience, is worth the $7.5 million that had to come out of Georgia Frontiere's pocketbook to pay his way. It took a while before Gilbert gave an example of what he could do, making Jeff Hostetler his first victim in a game last November against the New York Giants, and it took even longer for everyone to determine their level of amusement at Gilbert's antics once the play was over.

He introduced the "quake dance," a quirky, funky, happy-go-lucky little boogaloo that put Mark Gastineau to shame and made Ickey Woods look absolutely bashful. Chuck Knox, the new yet old-fashioned coach of the Rams who probably hasn't paid attention to a new dance step since Chubby Checker, took one look at young Gilbert's gyrations that day and said: "I sort of wish he'd act a little more professional."

After a play, he meant. During play, there is an advancing professionalism in Gilbert that suggests he could be a breakthrough player for the Rams, a player other clubs come to fear. Sean himself said between his rookie and sophomore NFL seasons that although he has made it to the league, he hasn't yet made it in the league. Well, he's almost there.

"This is the start of something," Gilbert said after a game in which he and others punished Pittsburgh, 27-0. What he meant was that the Rams pulled themselves together after an appalling season opener, but this also represents the start of something for Gilbert, who got three of his sacks on third down and never let up. It was he who also stopped Barry Foster for no gain when the occasion arose, or who distracted others while Robert Young buried the quarterback for a 19-yard loss.

The excitement was contagious, and why not? We speak here of a player who has had the name "Mr. Excitement" bestowed upon him by quarterback Jim Everett's wife, Christin. He is a player who brings excitement with him to work. When wide receiver Henry Ellard was asked what the team's mood was before this game, he said everyone was subdued and generally introspective, "except, of course, for Sean, who was in there whoopin' and hollerin'."

And eager to dance.

"The earthquake dance is like a celebration of a job well done, as well as a way of relieving tension," Gilbert said. "It's like if you hit Lotto. It's like if you buy a Toyota--you know, 'Oh, what a feeling!' That's why I was still out there playing at the very end. The way I look at it, you start strong, you ought to finish strong."

More goose eggs?

"Hey, you know?" Gilbert said. "Fourteen more chances."

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