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No Ordinary Giant

The following feature originally appeared in the Sept. 6 edition of Army Football Gameday vs. New Hampshire.

by Tracy Nelson

When Army fans take a moment to honor the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants this afternoon, one vital teammate will be missing. Perhaps not noticed by the casual fan, those Giants players and coaches in attendance will notice his absence. Had he not been called away by the President of the United States on a special mission, he would be right here in Michie Stadium sporting a number 98 jersey just like he did when he was a player at West Point.

Lieutenant Colonel Greg Gadson’s story begins with a childhood dream of playing football and not necessarily ending up in the military. As life continued to run its course, however, Gadson wound up playing football, becoming a military leader and eventually a member of the New York Giants family.

Gadson came to West Point as a plebe in the summer of 1985 as an outside linebacker for then-head coach Jim Young, who was in his third season with the Black Knights’ program. Like many cadets at West Point, bonds amongst teammates were strong from the start and Gadson become quick friends with Mike Sullivan a defensive back that would wind up impacting Gadson’s life like he never would have thought.

Over the next four years, Gadson molded himself into a standout three-year starter on Young’s defense, all the while grooming himself to lead soldiers off the “fields of friendly strife.”

“My time as a cadet flew by,” Gadson recalled. “My cadet experience was wonderful. I made some lifelong friends that I am still very close to today. I think that’s one of the real, true things about West Point that goes unmatched. There are very few places that you have that kind of forged friendship and hardship. It may sound trite to refer to the Long Gray Line,’ but it really is just that. When you look back, you can see why it is so strong once you’ve left West Point.”

Gadson was commissioned as a second lieutenant when he graduated in 1989 and went on to tours in Operation Desert Storm, the Balkans and most recently the Middle East.

On his way back from a memorial service to honor the memory of two fallen soldiers, Gadson was heading to rejoin the Second Battalion 32nd Field Artillery in Baghdad. It was then that his vehicle was hit hard with an IED (improvised explosive device) that devastated Gadson’s body. He arrived at the hospital and doctors were able to save his life, but just one week later, infection caused his arteries to deteriorate. The result was amputation of the left leg. A week later, Gadson lost his right leg.

While recovering and beginning rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Gadson got visits and well wishes from many old faces, one of which was his old Army teammate Mike Sullivan. After completing his service commitment and graduating from U.S. Army Airborne, Ranger and Air Assault schools, Sullivan started coaching. Launching his career under Tom Coughlin and the Jacksonville Jaguars, Coughlin retained Sullivan when he made the move to guide the Big Blue in New York.

Sullivan asked Gadson a simple question and got a simple answer. Sullivan wanted to know what else he could do for his old teammate. Gadson’s response was that when he was ready, he would like to take his family to a Giants game. That small gesture turned out to be more significant than either Gadson or Sullivan could predict.

On Sept. 23, 2007, Gadson and his wife, Kim, made the short hour-long trek from their home in Fort Belvoir, Va., to our nation’s capitol to watch the New York Giants take on the Washington Redskins. After consulting with Coughlin, Sullivan called Gadson to see if he would be interested in addressing the team on Saturday night at the Giant’s hotel. Upon Gadson’s arrival, Sullivan gave his fellow West Pointer a Giant’s jersey, complete with Gadson and No. 98 on the back.

Gadson spoke for about 15 minutes about life, pride and playing alongside your brothers. He moved the future Super Bowl Champions to silence and later brought them to their feet. New York had lost its first two games heading into its match-up with the Redskins. The Giants went on to erase a 17-3 halftime deficit and win for the first time in 2007.

The team presented Gadson with the game ball. That’s when he became a Giant.

The team went on to rattle off seven straight road wins en route to capturing a NFC Wild Card bid. While he was at Walter Reed having surgery and receiving treatment for prosthetic limbs, Gadson kept the Giants in his mind and they kept him in theirs during that magical run.

When the Giants arrived at their hotel in Tampa, Fla., for their first playoff test against the Buccaneers, Gadson was waiting in the lobby - standing. Two weeks later, along with his son, Jaelen, he was there in Green Bay, enjoying the NFC Championship game, not from a heated luxury suite, but from his wheelchair on the sidelines in single-digit temperatures.

As millions watched the Giants spoil New England’s perfect season on the greatest stage in football, Gadson had the best seat in the house. He stood on the sidelines and watched as players that he came to call friends made their dreams a reality.

From that point on, Gadson’s life became a whirlwind. Many people within the Giant’s organization were quick to credit him for inspiring the team to achieve the height of their ability. Gadson was named an honorary captain and given a Super Bowl XLII ring. Michael Strahan stood on stage and credited Gadson for the team’s turnaround when he accepted the 2008 ESPY Award for “Biggest Upset” in May. The list goes on and on.

“I would say that a lot of the credit, which I’m very hesitant to take, has really just been collateral with my experience,” a humble Gadson said. “I’m just fighting to get myself together and put my life back in order. As I struggle through that, it’s become public in a lot of ways, not by design but it’s just how it’s turned out. I just want to be somebody that can contribute to society. I’m glad and appreciative that my story might make a difference or uplift others.”

In the months since the Super Bowl, Gadson has continued to make a difference.

“It’s been a new life for me,” he noted. “I’ve traveled more in the last year than I have in any other year of my life. It’s been almost like a fairytale.”

A couple of those trips have been back to West Point to spend time with head coach Stan Brock and his Black Knights.

“It brings back a lot of memories to see what those cadets put into the program,” Gadson said. “I was once in their shoes and as I roll the clock forward to now, I really appreciate the impact that playing football at West Point had on my life. It built character and shaped my leadership skills.”

Regretfully, Gadson could not be here today to participate in the Black Knights’ New York Giants Appreciation Day festivities, but for good reason. At the request of President George W. Bush, Gadson left on Thursday as one of seven U.S. delegates in the 2008 Paralympics Games in Beijing.

While important trips like this can sometimes take him a world away, others are just a 22-mile drive from his front door to Walter Reed, where he visits with veterans and wounded soldiers about three times a week. Gadson is also enrolled in graduate school at Georgetown, pursuing a degree in public management.

“In the larger picture, school is part of my recovery,” he said. “As I work myself back into life, it gives me a focus and a mission. At the same time, it’s nice to not have other people depending on me. I’m doing this for myself. Although I do some public speaking from time-to-time, school and rehab remain my primary focuses.”

Some may see Gadson as a giant of sorts, but for him, it’s about taking life one step at a time. In fact, he just went from using two walking canes to one, showing once again that No. 98 will never be an ordinary Giant.

Tracy Nelson is the Assistant Director of Athletic Communicaitons at West Point.

 

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