Gibson carries many emotions to state finals, helps carry IC Catholic Prep to state title
CHAMPAIGN -- Denzell Gibson carried the state championship trophy as he led his IC Catholic Prep teammates into the interview room.
He still was carrying it as the Knights walked through the hallways of Memorial Stadium to pose by a display case with the names of every past state champion.
Gibson carried quite a bit on his powerful shoulders Friday.
It was the IC Catholic program's sixth championship game, but Gibson's first as a player. And he carried with him memories of his grandmother, who died in 2019.
Gibson said his grandmother always watched the state football championship games on TV. He remembered watching many with her. Friday was his turn on the big stage.
"A lot of emotions going into this game. She was on my mind. Being here was special," Gibson said. "I wish she was here with me. But I know she is here with me right now."
She'd no doubt have a smile on her face watching her grandson.
Gibson ran for 138 yards on 10 carries and two touchdowns, providing the fuel to the Knights' 48-17 win against Williamsville in the Class 3A final.
Gibson's 51-yard TD run with 1:34 left in the first half was the go-ahead score as IC Catholic scored 48 consecutive points after falling behind 10-0.
The early deficit was not what the Knights drew up. Gibson, though, wasn't to be denied.
"Looking at those guys in the huddle I could see how much they wanted this. I wanted to contribute as best as I can," Gibson said. "Whether that was running, blocking, catching, whatever the case may be. I was going to do whatever it took today."
For much of the season, that was as the Knights' leading rusher. He came into Friday with 819 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns, with seven more TDs receiving.
Three weeks ago in a second-round win over Stillman Valley, however, Gibson landed awkwardly on his shoulder as he was tackled, and it came out of place.
Gibson watched as junior Joey Gliatta took the ball and ran with it, becoming a playoff sensation. Gliatta had 373 yards rushing and seven touchdowns combined in IC Catholic's quarterfinal and semifinal wins, after carrying the ball only six times the first 11 games.
"Joey had my back," Gibson said. "He did the job. He got us here."
Gliatta started in the backfield Friday, but Gibson took his place to start the Knights' third series.
Williamsville coach Aaron Kunz noticed a different Gibson, and a changed game with him between the tackles. IC Catholic had only 15 yards rushing on its first seven attempts, and 13 of those yards was on a scramble by quarterback Dennis Mandala.
Gibson broke off his 51-yard TD right before halftime. On the fourth play of the first series out of the half, Gibson shot like a cannon through the hole, pin-balled around a Williamsville defender and went 34 yards for a score.
The Knights were off to the races.
"Denzell is so explosive. I felt like when he was out wide that was better for us, for sure," Kunz said. "Joey Gliatta has been unbelievable the last two weeks for them, but I felt like physically that was a matter matchup for us. When [Gibson] started churning and had space, he didn't need much. He was a locomotive. He just seemed like he was healthier tonight. He was the real deal."
IC Catholic Prep junior KJ Parker, who himself scored two TDs, is used to it by now.
If a tackler was going to bring down the violent running 195-pound Gibson Friday, he better bring two or three friends with him.
"It's scary to watch," Parker said. "Seeing him run and lower his shoulders is something to see, I tell you. His motor, his determination to get in the end zone every time he touches the ball. It's really amazing to watch."
IC Catholic coach Bill Krefft said he trusts all three of his running backs: Gibson, Gliatta and Malik Gray. It's hard to decide who is running the hardest because of how hard all three run.
But, he added, "Denzell just felt different today."
"He's that kind of player, and he's done that throughout his career at IC where he's just been able to take over. You can see the leg drive and the forward lean. He's just one of the most explosive players on the field. Once he got in a rhythm, we just stuck with him."
And Gibson was ready, healthy shoulder or not.
"I just knew whether I was hurt or not I had to be here for these guys," Gibson said. "It's my last ride, I'm a senior. When they called my number I was ready."