Big-time college football and the NFL always were part of Gilbert Pena’s dream.
Then, life intervened.
Heading into his senior year at Saunders High School in Yonkers, N.Y., his mother, Susan, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Pena was selected for the prestigious New York/New Jersey High School All-Star Game. Big-time college programs had taken notice.
Instead, Pena put his life on hold.
“I’m not going to leave, I’m not going to go to school. I’m going to stay with her and get a job,” Pena, a 26-year-old rookie defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers, said after Tuesday’s organized team activities practice.
With his parents divorced and his older sisters having moved away from home, Pena went from student-athlete to man of the house.
For two years, he worked as a prep cook at an elderly care facility. For another two years, he worked at a heating and plumbing supply warehouse.
“My biggest concern was helping her out so the stress wasn’t on her and she wouldn’t have to worry too much about the bills,” Pena said. “Growing up, my mom has always been the financial person in the house. She’s always been the person in the house — the one to go out and get it. I watched her work three jobs just to support me and my two sisters. I felt like in my heart that was the best thing for me to do, kind of the right thing to do. The least I could do. I made sure I was there for me and my family. My sisters helped out, as well. My sisters were always there (but) I was the one (leading) the household.”
After two rounds of surgery, Susan beat the cancer. Pena began to dream — but it wasn’t about football. Instead, it was about making Mom proud by earning an associate’s degree.
ASA College, a junior college in Brooklyn, N.Y., wound up being the start of Pena’s improbable road to the NFL.
“Freakish story. I have a friend — his name was Steve — we grew up together and played football together in high school,” Pena recalled. “I always played a lot of basketball in those four years I was off. He was playing flag football and was like, ‘I’m about to go to this junior college on scholarship.’ He’s like, ‘You should come out there. It’s the first year of their program.’ I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I haven’t played football in four years.’ He’s like, ‘I’m telling you, the way you move on the court, you can still do it.’ No. For awhile, I shut it down. ‘This is not going to be a good deal for me, especially after not playing so long’. He just stayed on my back about it and finally spoke to the coach. The coach had me take a train out to Brooklyn, N.Y., and actually gave me a tour around the school and worked me out. They loved me.”
In 2010, Pena tallied 17 tackles for losses and five sacks and was named first-team all-conference. Scholarship offers began pouring in, including Florida, Florida State, Kansas State, Mississippi, North Carolina, Rutgers, South Florida and Syracuse.
“I was jumping for joy,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is an amazing thing that’s happening for me right now. I had to wake up out of it and pinch myself because I was working two years prior.”
He chose Ole Miss. After posting modest production as a reserve in 2011, Pena tallied 34 tackles, including two sacks and 6.5 tackles for losses, as a senior to help the Rebels rank fourth in the nation in tackles for losses per game. His final game in an Ole Miss helmet was at the Raycom College Football All-Star Game.
Pena went undrafted and quickly settled on Green Bay after the draft concluded.
“I was in the house with her (when he agreed to a contract),” he said. “She was just thrilled. She was like, ‘Is this really happening? Is this for real?’ I was like, ‘It’s a start. We’ll see where it ends. This is the beginning right now.’ Hopefully good things keep happening.”
At 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds, Pena is battling for a roster spot on a deep defensive line fortified by the addition of draft picks Datone Jones and Josh Boyd, along with the return of Johnny Jolly. Pena is an intriguing developmental prospect, considering veterans B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson and Jolly are entering their final seasons under contact.
This chance is more than Pena dared dream, not with more important things occupying his life for four years.
“Honestly, no. That’s the honest truth. I didn’t think it would actually take me this far,” he said. “When I first set out to go to junior college, my No. 1 priority was I’m just going to get my degree and let the rest take care of itself.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.