Photo courtesy of Wofford athletics
Big schools tend to draw a lot of attention when the NFL Draft comes up, but each year in the league, players from small schools end up making large impacts.
This season, it was an Eastern Illinois product, Jimmy Garoppolo, who quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Historically, players like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and many others came from small schools and had enormous impacts.
We caught up with Wofford’s George Gbesee about his NFL chances. Gbesee finished his senior season with 37 tackles, 10 pass break-ups, one interception and one forced fumble while being named second-team All-Southern Conference.
A Chip on the Shoulder
Q: You come from Wofford, a school overshadowed in the state by powerhouses like Clemson. In 2019, you played “big brother”; when you play against a team like that, playing with a small school, what kind of chip is there on your shoulder or what kind of motivation is there to play big against them?
George Gbesee: The chip couldn’t be any bigger when you’re about to play the former national champions. Also, a team that has the opportunity to be coached by some of the best coaches in the world, these are athletes you see on SportsCenter almost every day in the spotlight. As an FCS player this is your chance to steal that spotlight. This is your chance to give the scouts their answers. “How does he stack up against some of the best players in college football? Does he excel at his job? How will he handle the pressure of playing potential first-round draft picks?” These are the games you break down the barriers that others put against you. When you’re tired of hearing “OK, he can cover great FCS guys but he can’t play with FBS guys”, you show them these tapes.
The Grand Stage
Q: You had five tackles against Clemson in 2019. What did that kind of performance do for your confidence and for your draft profile as a senior and what was it like to play in front of 81,500 fans on that kind of stage?
Gbesee: My performance against Clemson showed I’m not afraid to be physical whether it was tackling or coming off blocks. The Clemson receivers and backs are very versatile and I showed my own versatility by adapting to players that I hadn’t seen before in the FCS. But, regardless, these are guys I’m going to be playing at the next level and I showed I’m more than capable of that. I’d be lying if I said that crowd didn’t boost my aggression and physicality. That’s the kind of adrenaline rush that makes you feel unstoppable.
Experience and Development
Q: You played all four seasons at Wofford. How did you develop in those seasons and how important was it to get all of that playing time and play 50 games in college?
Gbesee: I didn’t have the privilege of playing a game of organized football until I was 15 years old. I knew I had a lot of catching up to do and most nights, I would stay up all night religiously watching videos of college and NFL players. Essentially, I was consuming myself with watching film before I even knew how important it was. Getting all that playing time all four years at Wofford was also crucial for my learning curve.
I took advantage of every snap as a chance to get better. However, my game truly evolved when (defensive backs coach) Rob Greene started at Wofford. He taught me how to pay attention to the intricacies of my opponent and how to truly dissect film. He taught me how to prepare so my mind could do the work when my body didn’t have to. Rob stressed the importance of stance, alignment, leverage, every day, every play. He is a brilliant man and it was an honor to learn under him.
The Toughest Cover
Q: You played against a lot of good wideouts in your four seasons. Can you tell me who was the hardest to cover?
Gbesee: Tee Higgins is the best wide receiver I’ve played against. However, the most difficult for me, personally, was (Samford’s) Karel Hamilton. He’s a physical receiver, who is a savvy route runner and excellent at analyzing defensive schemes. He could run every route in the route tree, take the top off of any defense or catch intermediate passes. However, my skill set has developed significantly since my freshman season which is the reason for my success against similar wide receivers throughout my career.
Q: You had seven interceptions in your career at Wofford: three in both 2017 and 2018. That kind of production is good, but what would you say your biggest strength is?
Gbesee: My biggest strength is my ability to adapt to any receiver. It’s a talent that allows me to be a very successful shutdown man-to-man cornerback. When you watch my tapes, you don’t see me give up very many catches in a game. Despite my size, my coaches knew they could trust me out on an island, regardless of the size or speed of any receiver. Any time someone makes a catch on me during a game, I make minor adjustments and correct what I did wrong. This is the reason I make so many game-winning plays. Of my nine career turnovers, five of them happened in the fourth quarter. I’ll do whatever it takes to win.
Q: You were a part of a team that won three SoCon titles in three seasons. What is it like to have that kind of run, and what does it teach you?
Gbesee: I’ve been able to be a part of two really special programs. In high school, I was a part of the first undefeated regular season in school history at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn. I was a part of a year that turned that part of the state into the powerhouse it still is today. Being able to do the same thing in college — it was the icing on the cake.
Playing football at Wofford was truly a blessing. I put in four years of work in with my brothers and turned it into three championships. It was an unforgettable experience and being a key part of turning a losing program into that kind of legacy made that icing even sweeter. Now, I feel like nothing can stop me from winning. It all just seems second nature to me and I’m excited to do the same in the NFL.
A Formidable Foe
Q: In 2017, you played FCS powerhouse North Dakota State in the playoffs and No. 2 Kennesaw State in 2018. The Terriers took KSU to the wire, losing 13-10. What did it feel like getting that deep into the playoffs and facing teams like that?
Gbesee: Looking back at my career, we had a chance to play some real FCS powerhouses: NDSU, KSU, and Youngstown State the year they went to the championship. It shows the caliber of football we play at Wofford. Making it that deep in the playoffs every year — we want that to be expected. At the end of the day, we want our talent and hard work to be respected across the country and I think we definitely earned that in these last couple of years.
Many of those playoff games came down to the wire and it just shows we are a few plays away from making it to Frisco to compete for a national championship. It was one of my goals when I got to Wofford to help put it on the map and that’s definitely a goal I can cross off on my list.
Wofford and the NFL
Q: Former Carolina Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson was drafted out of Wofford in 1958. As far as I can tell, no Terrier has been drafted since. What would it be like to be the only modern-era Wofford player to be drafted?
Gbesee: Considering the amount of talent I’ve seen come through Wofford, I am actually surprised there hasn’t been a modern player drafted. With that being said being that player a team decides “Yes, we need him” would be nothing short of an incredible honor. Guys like Miles Brown, Jaleel Green, Brenton Bersin, Dane Romero, Eric Breitenstein, just to name a few, are guys in our program that paved the way for me to have the recognition and opportunities that I have now.
Thinking about being drafted also makes me think about where my story started. I was born in a refugee camp in Africa. Just having the chance to come to America, get an education and live in a country free of corruption, war and violence was all I ever wanted. And anything extra has been beyond my wildest dreams. From a refugee to an NFL draft pick, now that’s an American dream. And there’s a team out there that gets to be a part of that story. Incredible. But regardless of how God places the NFL in my life, I know that it’s all in his hands. I do my piece by continuing to perfect my craft, so I can turn this American dream into my reality.
Who is George Gbesee?
Q: Finally, what kind of player is a team getting when they draft George Gbesee and what kind of person is that city getting?
Gbesee: The type of person a team is getting in George Gbesee is a player that will take challenges head-on. Most guys, who answer this question are going to say a variety of generic answers like “I’m passionate, I’m a hard worker, etc.” which, don’t get me wrong, are all true of me. But what makes me different is that I have a resume both personal and professional that proves my abilities and characteristics. My life has always been much like my game: I like my actions to do the talking.
Hardships have defined my life, from fleeing from Africa, moving around to different foster homes, and quite honestly never having a place to fit in or call my own. When people meet me after hearing my story, they are surprised to find out I’m a very goofy, fun-loving person. They expect me to be hardened by the hand I’ve been dealt. But I’ve learned that just because I’ve never fit in doesn’t mean I don’t belong. I have used my differences as an advantage to stand out and succeed in whatever I do.
I take that same outlook when it comes to playing cornerback. At only 5-9, I’m undersized by NFL standards. Throughout college and high school I have been matched up with guys faster, bigger, taller, and always come out on top. When people said I was too short to play cornerback at the DI level, instead of going as a slot or athlete like everyone told me I should do, I went to the school that was going to give me the chance to prove everyone wrong.
Now that there are people telling me that I don’t “fit in” as an NFL player… boy, am I excited to teach them a lesson. What some see as disadvantages, I see as a challenge and readers, you already know how this story goes. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get ready to prove everyone wrong… again. Just because I don’t fit in doesn’t mean I don’t belong.
Every fan is going to want a player like me on their team. Whichever city I go to, I want people to know I’m going to give my utmost love and respect. I want to be a symbol of hope. I want to inspire the next to be even better. I’d want to give back to the community. I want to give others the opportunities I had to fight for.
I’m just a kid that wants to share his story/journey. Becoming the man and player I am today did not just happen; it took a village to get here and I just want to share the same support I received. While I’m aware it’s rare for a player to get to stay in one place for the majority of his career, it really is my dream to give my complete loyalty to one team and city and finally have just one place that I can call home.