‘It’s meant to be’
LARAMIE -- University of Wyoming sports information sends out a list of football players each Sunday who will be speaking with the media the following afternoon.
That weekly roster always begins with head coach Craig Bohl and a chosen assistant. Then, it's four Cowboys, typically two on offense and a pair on defense.
That's our new COVID-19 routine. And it's all over Zoom.
Keegan Cryder, Keonte Glinton and Braden Smith were on the docket this time. There was also a little-known linebacker -- Easton Gibbs.
I look through the bios of the guys I don't know much about. Aside form the 10-tackle performance last Saturday against New Mexico, which included a big tackle for loss on a fourth-down attempt, I knew virtually nothing about the redshirt freshman from southern California.
So, I Google their name. I check social media.
I stumbled upon this:
Wyoming is hosting Boise State Saturday at 4 p.m. inside War Memorial Stadium. The guy in the photo above, sporting all that Broncos gear, will make his first start for the Cowboys at outside linebacker, replacing Charles Hicks, who was injured last week in Las Vegas.
So, back to the clothes. What gives?
Turns out, the picture isn't as damning at it appears. There's a perfectly good explanation for it. Just like another photo I came across that features Gibbs in a Colorado State jersey.
Recruiting, you know? We aren't showing you that one for obvious reasons.
Jennifer Gibbs grew up in Idaho Falls and attended that university in Boise. She graduated in 1994. There were plenty of other close friends and family members who went there, too.
None of that matters anymore.
"My closet doesn’t have much of that color in it anymore," Jennifer said of orange and blue. "It's been brown and gold all through high school and now Wyoming."
Does this game mean a little something extra to Easton? Absolutely. But he's not tipping his hand.
"It’s definitely going to be an exciting game," he said. "I mean, every game is important this year, but it is kind of a family thing.
"It's definitely another chip on the shoulder to go into this game."
Temecula Valley shares those same Wyoming colors that now flood Jennifer's closet.
That's where Gibbs, a left-handed high school quarterback and safety, started drawing the attention of colleges throughout the west. Gibbs even had his own mailbox at the school. It was almost always overflowing with letters from schools around the country.
His speed set him apart. His height, well, that, coupled with the lack of success his team had on the field, likely scared some away, too.
Aaron Bohl wasn't one of the latter.
Wyoming's first-year linebacker's coach and son of the head man, liked what he saw from the start. Losing, that wasn't easy for Gibbs, but in talent-rich California there's typically an easy answer for it -- transfer.
Gibbs didn't do that.
“Easton has tremendous character,” Bohl said last Monday. “A lot of kids are transferring to multiple different high schools so they can win right away or play right away. They didn’t win a game his sophomore and junior year, and then his senior year, they ended up making the playoffs. They won six or seven games and saw a guy stick it out.
"He's a great influence in the locker room."
That's when Bohl knew he had a player. A guy who truly embodies the team's motto, "Ride for the brand."
Jennifer Gibbs said the recruiting process served as some of the most stressful times of her life. Easton, like always, takes things in stride, she laughed. The big boys kicked the tires on the 6-foot, 2-inch, 200-pound athlete, including Boise State.
Utah State offered him. San Diego State came in late. CSU was late to the party.
The Broncos do plenty of recruiting in Gibbs' area. They snagged quarterback Hank Bachmeier, Khalil Shakir and others, just up the road. Boise State's staff flirted with Gibbs for more than two years, but in the end, they went in another direction.
Wyoming was there the entire time.
Jennifer Gibbs grew up just 70-plus miles from the Wyoming border. As a kid, she said her dad would cruise to Alpine to snag fireworks. Admittedly, she didn't know much about the Cowboys.
A visit from Craig Bohl changed all that.
"The coaching staff is just a bunch of real good guys," she said. "When I got to meet them all, I was sold, too. Craig likes his wine, so we poured him a glass and had such a great experience with him."
That wasn't the only experience with the head coach though.
Two Decembers ago, almost to the date, the Gibbs family landed at the Denver airport en route to Laramie. Easton was making his official visit. Inside DIA, they ran into a number of coaches from UW's staff, including Bohl. However, they weren't allowed to talk.
NCAA rules, you know?
Quietly, they all boarded the same small plane. A snow storm was pounding the Gem City, forcing the "puddle jumper" to circle the town for hours.
"Who else would ever get this experience?" Jennifer remembers telling her son. "We couldn't even talk to them. Finally, one of them called the NCAA and told them the situation and that it was 'getting awkward.'
"They finally got the OK. It was a really neat experience. Who else gets to fly on almost a private plane with all these coaches?"
Gibbs was sold on the Cowboys.
Gibbs played in just two games as a true freshman. That was on special teams in Wyoming's season finale against Air Force and the bowl victory over Georgia State in Tucson.
It's never easy to crack the lineup as an 18-year-old. Sitting on the roster behind future NFL players Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia didn't exactly help things, either.
Ben Wisdorf was another Cowboy linebacker who was buried on the depth chart because of those two guys. He was a senior on last season's Arizona Bowl championship squad.
The Cheyenne native said he was impressed with Gibbs early on. His speed and quickness was eye-opening, but arguably the most impressive trait about the California kid was his brain.
"Easton has similar intelligence to Chad (Muma)," Wisdorf said, referring to the junior captain, who will be the other starter at linebacker for the Pokes Saturday. "It's obvious he pays attention to film. The first year, he got the basis of the defense down. That's impressive for a freshman. He's young and developing, a really good asset to add depth."
That was Gibbs' role. Now, he's in.
"The biggest thing I learned from them is how they carry themselves the week at practice, their preparation, their gameday locked-in focus and how they carried themselves through the playbook and all that stuff," Easton said of what he learned from Wilson, Maluia, Muma and others. "
Gibbs was supposed to debut against San Diego State last October. An injury derailed that. It was going to be a homecoming of sorts. His childhood home is just 53 miles down Interstate-15 from Qualcomm Stadium.
He hoped to get back in action Nov. 9 when the Cowboys paid a visit to Boise State. That's his mother's birthday. It could've been the present of a lifetime.
Now, because of the ongoing coronavirus, the Gibbs family are the ones who can't make it Saturday. It was just too risky with last-minute cancelations.
Jennifer said watching her son play is a "love-hate" thing.
"I'm so excited for him and I love to watch him play," she said. "I also hate watching him play. I'm always nervous until he walks off the field at the end of the game -- uninjured -- then I'm happy. I'm definitely watching through my fingers with my eyes closed. I get pretty dang excited. It's not quiet in our house."
It won't be Saturday, either.
Friends and family will gather around the flat screen to watch No. 28 play against the program most of them grew up loving. The Broncos are heavy favorites in Laramie. Most aren't giving the Pokes a chance in this one.
No one gave New Mexico a chance last week, either.
Despite all those Saturday afternoons spent inside Albertson's Stadium in her college days, Jennifer said this experience won't be awkward for her.
Her loyalties have shifted.
"It isn't weird. I'm so brown and gold it's not even funny," she laughed. "So many of my friends and family have all switched. A lot of them went to BSU and live in Boise. E has a lot of fans."
Aaron Bohl might be his biggest in Laramie.
"He's the fastest linebacker we have," he said. "He's great on special teams. No one is surprised he came in and played well. He runs so hard to the ball every single snap and is there to make plays."
Wyoming will need that kind of effort from Gibbs in the finale.
Gibbs was straight to the point during his Monday afternoon media session. A man of few words.
He downplayed the Boise State angle. He was asked about playing against his childhood friend, Bachmeier. Gibbs said he hasn't chatted with him lately.
Turns out, in a week of firsts, Gibbs had never been interviewed by reporters before. He handled it with a laser-like focus. Nearly ever answer ended with something about the defense needing to do its job or a grasp of the game plan.
His mother said she isn't surprised.
He barely even talks to her during game week, she laughed. Even when she flew in for the Hawaii game, the greeting was brief. It's after the games he opens up dialogue.
He does his talking on the field. And it isn't with his mouth. It's with his shoulder pads and unwavering intensity.
When that jersey slips on, he's playing for a purpose.
"Wyoming was the first place that believed in me," Gibbs said. "From the beginning, they believed in me."
"Things happen for a reason," she said. "Wyoming was always there and never waivered. Never. They loved him and he loves them."
As this odd season filled with ebbs and flows -- a virus and cancelations -- comes to a close Saturday, Gibbs is just starting what could be a long career in a Cowboys uniform.
It was his dream to play college football. He told his mom that after a varsity practice his sophomore year.
He made it.
And despite those ties to Saturday's opponent, Jennifer knows her son is in the place he is supposed to be.
"I've been to a lot of football games -- college games and NFL games. There is nothing more magical than a Wyoming game," she said. "The people are so amazing. The program is amazing. I couldn't be happier where he's at. I know he is safe and taken care of.
"It's meant to be. I couldn't be happier for him."