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Attitude Adjustment : Kennedy's Gibson Used Football as Vehicle for Reform

November 17, 1994|KENNEDY COSGROVE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRANADA HILLS — Trace Gibson scornfully watched the Kennedy High football players practicing in 90-degree heat and shook his head.

Look at those fools, he thought early last fall while relaxing on the school bus. You wouldn't catch me doing all that hard work.

Why work when you can play? Basketball was Gibson's sport.

And at 6 feet 4, 230 pounds--the biggest player on the Golden Cougar basketball team--he could coast. No serious effort required. It was fun, a diversion.

So was cutting class and blowing off homework to hang out with friends who shared his attitude.

Yeah, life was good. Easy. It got harder when teachers questioned his behavior or asked about a missing assignment. He lashed out.

He got in their face, under their skin. Who could embarrass the other more?

Who was more intimidating? Once he snapped, threw a chair across a classroom and was suspended for two days.

This tendency toward laziness caused his grades to dip so low during his junior year that he was declared academically ineligible for the basketball season.

That was a shock. His failure was public, an embarrassment. Gradually, Gibson took stock of himself.

"I had a reputation of being a loudmouth," he said.

"I had a pretty bad temper when it came to authority. I had no self-control. The teachers thought I was just another stupid inner-city kid."

There is hardly a Trace of the old Gibson now.

After overcoming a slight heart ailment, he is now a starter on the Kennedy offensive line and catching the attention of college recruiters.

He speaks matter-of-factly, in a polite, self-confident manner, insisting the bad days are over.

He seems so sure of his identity, so perceptive and intelligent, that it's difficult to imagine him as a troublemaker with a 1.9 grade-point average.

But that's what he was--if not quite going Nowhere, in the exit lane with his turn-signal flashing.

But then he veered. To Somewhere.

After two years of ignoring Coach Bob Francola's pleas to don shoulder pads, Gibson reconsidered and enrolled in a football class last spring.

The results? His grades have improved, his behavior has made a 180-degree turn and--lo and behold--he even likes to sweat.

"He was an underachiever, and other things were taking priority over the classroom," Francola said. "He's never worked so hard. I think he's having the time of his life."

Gibson didn't know school--and hard work--could be so much fun. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles and attended an Inglewood private school in seventh and eighth grade. That was the last time he played football. He wore flags, not pads, and played running back. "I was a speedster back then," he said.

His mother moved to the San Fernando Valley and he enrolled at Kennedy, where his father worked as a facilities manager. After a rough start, the new setting produced a new Gibson. He went from self-indulgent to self-restrained.

"Football has taught me many things," he said. "I accept criticism better and I don't lash out at people. Now I always think twice of what I'm going to say because of football. It's turned me around quite a bit."

His grade-point average hovers around 2.6, he attends all of his classes and the only time he appears in the office of Tim Guy, a school dean, is to say hello.

"I'm ecstatic," Guy said. "I wouldn't be stretching it too far to say he's becoming a role model."

But not without difficulty. Gibson has a long-standing condition of occasional heart palpitations. One day last spring during a weight-training class he had a severe palpitation. He tried to run to the nurse's office but passed out and was taken to a hospital. It was a scary time, but three days of testing revealed nothing seriously wrong, and doctors granted him permission to play sports.

He still gets the palpitations, but usually only when he is resting at home. He has never had one while playing a sport and says he doesn't think much about them anymore.

A much-less-serious fear--but a fear nonetheless--overtook him the first time he participated in a contact drill.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God,' " he said. "I was scared to death of getting hit, and scared to tackle."

Not the ideal mentality for a linebacker, where he was slotted, but of such humble beginnings are players made. After the team's opener against Sylmar, Gibson was moved to the offensive line and he found a home. "It's fun," he said. "I'm definitely hitting someone real hard now."

He started several games at left tackle and was switched recently to right guard. At each stop he has rapidly improved, quickly absorbing instruction and experience.

Flint Hardman, a senior who switched positions with Gibson, says, "He's good for a first-time player. To master it you have to play for a couple years at least, but for him to even keep up with the average has been a challenge. He's just a true athlete."

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