Published November 20, 2014
Every college football player who faces a lack of playing time and needs inspiration should read the tattoo on Tom Gilson's left arm.
The words are a shortened form of a Bible verse that Gilson's late father once pointed out to him: Blessed is he who perseveres under trial.
Gilson has traveled a path that so many players are forced onto unexpectedly out of high school. Many dream of a Division I scholarship and then stardom, but it doesn't always go that way.
So Gilson, a redshirt senior who has landed the No. 3 wide receiver spot for the University of Massachusetts, continues to do what he always has - he perseveres.
"Some guys come in on scholarship and have a little easier road," he said. "Doing what I did right now just makes me appreciate it so much more, it makes me feel real good about this season, honored to be on the field, it makes me appreciate all the hard work that I put in."
Gilson's rise through the ranks could reflect his UMass squad, which likely faces some tough days ahead. Oh, the Minutemen opened their season successfully Thursday night with a 24-16 triumph at Holy Cross to spoil the Crusaders' first home night game in their 116-season history. But the Minutemen are wearing targets this season as they make their final trek through the Football Championship Subdivision - and rugged CAA Football - before rising to the Bowl Subdivision, in the Mid-American Conference, next year.
Jonathan Hernandez' 151 rushing yards on 29 carries and Kellen Pagel's two touchdown passes helped lead the escape before 15,942 at Fitton Field. The 25th-ranked Minutemen beat Holy Cross, the preseason third-place choice in the Patriot League, for the ninth straight time.
But their offense lacked rhythm, still unsettled at quarterback as it replaces Kyle Havens, the CAA leader in total offense last season. QBs Brandon Hill, a redshirt freshman who made the start, and Pagel, a transfer from Bowling Green, took turns trying to impress Morris and offensive coordinator Brian Picucci.
Evan Saint-Vil's recovery of a fumble on the opening kickoff of the third quarter and Brandon Levengood's following 25-yard field goal for UMass provided breathing room at 17-9. Then after Hernandez moved the Minutemen down the field, Pagel faked a handoff to him and turned to hit an open Julian Talley for a 4-yard touchdown pass and a 24-9 lead with 7:51 left in the fourth quarter.
Holy Cross closed within 24-16 on Ryan Taggart's 19-yard touchdown pass to Gerald Mistretta with 52 seconds left, but UMass recovered the ensuing onside kick and salted away the clock.
It was a struggle, much like Gilson's UMass career.
His storyline is more typical than atypical for players coming out of high school; it's just often surprising for them to accept being "low on the totem pole," as Gilson says, after being standouts for much of their lives.
Gilson, from Mansfield High in Massachusetts, was a four-year letterman and two-year captain, his first two seasons as a wide receiver and last two as the starting quarterback on back-to-back, undefeated state-championship squads.
Yet his exploits didn't produce any scholarship offers, so Gilson became a recruited walk-on at UMass.
"I didn't really realize (the difficulties of being a D-I standout) when I was coming out of high school," he said. "Because when I got here, it was kind of a shock to see how hard it was. With the help of my coaches from high school who I always keep in touch with, and them instilling that hard work in me, I realized quick that it's going to be hard work and you have to put in year-in and year-out. I think some type of guys don't really realize how hard it is. That's why some guys don't make it sometimes. But if you realize it soon enough, I think you can."
Gilson has gone from working on the scout team as a redshirt in his first season in 2007 to playing in one game in '08 to playing on special teams in '09 and earning a partial scholarship to being a special-teams contributor last season. He's a coach's favorite who earned daily team MVP honors twice during the preseason, including on the first day of camp last month.
A chiseled 6-foot-2, 204 pounds, Gilson is a physical player who knows the offense well. He's a solid blocker and can catch balls in traffic.
"It's a classic story of a kid comes in as a walk-on in the state of Massachusetts," said UMass third-year head coach Kevin Morris, the Minutemen's offensive coordinator when Gilson arrived on campus in 2007. "And he's one of those guys that he's a worker. He's a grinder and he kept working at it and grinding at it and getting better and better every day."
"Each year, I worked harder and harder," Gilson reiterated. "Each year, it showed up on the field and showed more and more (with) my improvement, on the depth chart, just in Coach's eyes. Slowly, but surely, I got there."
UMass' program was at its height in 1996 when it won the FCS (then Division I- AA) national championship and has been the national runner-up twice. With a student body over 27,000, a widespread base of alumni and the opportunity to play games off campus at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough (about a touchdown's throw from Gilson's hometown), UMass is an ideal fit to become the third FBS program in New England after Boston College and Connecticut.
CAA opponents, though, will be anxious to fill UMass' suitcase with some losses. The Minutemen, who finished 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the FCS' toughest conference last season, may find their exit to be like a stroll through Hurricane Irene.
"I think in some cases it's the last time we're going to possibly play teams," Gilson said, "so in some cases where we beat them last year, they're going to try to beat us before we leave. In some rivalry games, they're going to try to beat us so they can have that last edge on us."
"Our goal is to go out and we want to win the CAA and leave this league on top," Morris said. "That's the one thing that we do know is that we won't be in the CAA next year. In terms of how it's going to prepare us for down the road, I think this league is more than enough to prepare you for any league down the road."
UMass' best player is instinctive linebacker Tyler Holmes, the Buck Buchanan Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) nominee who has moved inside while the Minutemen transition from a 4-3 base alignment to a 3-4. He's a senior on a fast, aggressive defense which boasts talented young players.
But Taggart (23-for-44 for 275 yards) showed the unit can struggle when spread out. He scored on a 3-yard rush on 4th-and-goal midway through the second quarter, pulling Holy Cross within 14-9.
Meanwhile, the UMass quarterbacks will have to turn their play up a notch for the CAA opener against Rhode Island on Sept. 17. Hill (5-for-8 for 30 yards) comes from the same high school in Audobon, N.J., that produced Joe Flacco. Pagel (10-for-16 for 104 yards), the son of former NFL quarterback Mike Pagel, threw a 10-yard touchdown strike to Jesse Julmiste early in the second quarter to give UMass a 14-3 lead.
Each QB stays in the pocket and throws a catchable ball, much to Gilson's liking. His 17-yard reception from Pagel in the fourth quarter was the first of his career.
He doesn't figure to put up big numbers this season, but the kinesiology major says he wants people to think of him as a player who does everything the right way.
Gilson's father, Thomas Sr., died during the winter of his son's freshman year. Gilson later added the tattoo to honor his father's encouraging ways to him.
"Basically this year, I just want to play as much as I can, contribute as much as I can," Gilson said. "I have high hopes for this team. We've been putting in a lot of hard work and I think we can make a run at (the CAA title) even though we're not going to the playoffs. I think we can have a real successful season."