For a little while Robert Gill was like the rest of us.
He’d watch NFL games on Sundays with his buddies in San Antonio, debating the merits and skills of each player who came across the TV. They’d banter like the old friends they are, play some armchair quarterback and talk about how they’re better than the players they dutifully watched every weekend in the fall.
But that’s where the similarities between Gill and the rest of us end.
While his friends knew in the back of their minds that they weren’t really as good as their Sunday heroes, they knew Gill was. Now he has a chance to prove it.
Gill enters June as the oldest rookie on a current NFL roster, a title rewarded to the 29-year-old after a five-year journey took him the depths of professional football to the Cardinals.
Running routes alongside
Actually, football was never a priority for Gill. He played just one year as a safety his senior year at East Central High School in San Antonio. His passion was basketball but at 150 pounds he wasn’t a glimmer in the eye of any Division I coach, instead becoming a highly-recruited point guard on the junior college circuit.
After one year at Corpus Christi, Gill was one of Blaine Wiley’s first track recruits to Texas State but he wasn’t a very good runner,
“He was OK,” Wiley said. “He worked his way to being good.”
It was a work ethic instilled in him by his mother, Marie, moved to San Antonio from Panama at age 11 and earned her way to the American dream, her son said.
His work quickly paid off as he blossomed into one of the country’s top 400 meter runners. Gill was part of the 4x400 relay team that won the prestigious Drake Relays but he narrowly missed out on making the NCAA championships.
“I was never really a track guy,” Gill said. “They say some track guys can’t play football. I was an athlete who can run track. Everything I do I will myself. I came in just a regular 400 runner. The next year I wanted it so bad, I willed myself to be one of the best 400 runners in the country.”
Gill graduated from to Corpus Christi in 2007 and put the real world on hold. Then it hit him. After five years away from football, he wanted to return to the field. To the rest of us, the window to pursue a football career would have been closed. But the rest of us can’t run a 40-yard dash in less than 4.3 seconds.
With his family on board, Gill began to plot out his return to football – and his road to the NFL. It would have to start at the bottom, which meant arena football.
Before he signed with the Lubbock Renegades of the now-defunct AF2 in 2008, Gill tried out for the Louisville Fire. Three miles from Churchill Downs, it was Gill who looked like a thoroughbred. He was clocked by Fire offensive coordinator Anthony Payton in the 40 at a stunning 4.19 seconds.
The legend of Robert Gill was born.
A year later, Gill said he signed a three-year deal with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League but never saw the field. He was cut right before training camp and returned stateside to play the last two games of the season with Milwaukee of AF2. Gill also earned a try out for the Buffalo Bills and the Las Vegas Locomotives of the UFL, where he met Cardinals’ pro scout Josh Scobey.
In a city where the little man has the same odds to hit the jackpot as the big guy, Gill’s size started to work against him. Despite an impressive tryout with the Locomotives, they passed on him. But Scobey took a liking to Gill.
“(He) took me under his wing and said, ‘You are supposed to be in the league,’” Gill said. “I heard that all the time but it’s all about timing … it’s all about timing.”
Gill was cut four times in one season at one point. But in 2010, he signed with the Abilene Ruff Riders of the Intense Football League, a lower-level indoor league. Waiting for him there was Danton Barto.
Barto coached against Gill in the IFL that season and the first thing he noticed was how fast Gill was.
“This guy is flying by our guys,” said Barto, who was hired as an area scout by the St. Louis Rams earlier this month. “It was the first time I had seen him, heard about him or anything of that nature.
“The one thing you can’t teach is speed. And his speed was … you don’t see too many guys in your life as fast as Robert is.”
Barto said he’s seen one other – Deion Sanders.
“That’s the only guy that I saw in person at the time that you could tell he’s faster than everybody else,” Barto said.
After the season Barto was named the head coach of the AFL’s Kansas City Command and didn’t waste any time signing Gill. Gill was inactive for the first few games in 2011 before getting a chance to prove himself.
Gill’s speed wasn’t causing problems for just opponents. Barto had to rebuild plays, adding extra yardage to correlate with the timing. During training camp, Command quarterback J.J. Raterink routinely underthrew Gill. When Gill wasn’t flying past secondaries, which would often start the play 20 yards or more off the line of scrimmage, he was used as a decoy. Barto told Gill to “just take off, let’s see what happens.”
The stories are endless, but the tales aren’t all about his speed. During his first season with the Command, when they played at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Raterink threw a drag route to the field side of the hash marks. Normally, the throw is supposed to lead the receiver to the wall, they catch it, bounce off the wall and head up field. At the last second Raterink saw a linebacker on Gill and lofted the pass high, intending to throw it away. But as Gill jumped for it, his legs clipped the wall. He tumbled over it and out of sight.
All Raterink heard was a smack against the concrete. He thought they’d have to call the paramedics.
“He hopped up and hopped over the wall and acted like it didn’t affect him,” Raterink said.
Five years after dusting off his football dream, Gill got a call. Scobey reached out in March with two questions: Are you running 4.2s? Are you still that dude that I remember?
He told Gill the Cardinals wanted to work him out, but Gill had a partially torn hamstring and the dream looked like it may die once again. Gill asked for three weeks, a month at most. Scobey complied and the Cardinals invited Gill back for minicamp in late April.
It took just one practice for the Cardinals to like what they saw. After the first practice, he was offered a three-year contract. His jaw dropped.
“He has an element you can’t teach, which is speed,” Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said. “The fact that he’s a 29-year-old rookie who has taken the long road to get here says a lot about his passion, desire and overall commitment to the game.
“Coach (Bruce) Arians has an affinity for receivers that can run, so that gives him a chance and he should be fun to watch in the preseason. When you hear his story and the path he took, you can’t help but root for him to have some success.”
In a league where nothing is guaranteed, Gill feels right at home. He wasn’t a good 400 runner when he arrived at Texas State and left a conference champion. He started his AFL career inactive and left to pursue an NFL career.
To the rest of us, cracking a wide receiver rotation that includes Fitzgerald,
“Being 29 and never playing college football, the odds aren’t with you,” Gill said. “I knew when I got here it was going to be another test for me. I look at it as a challenge.
“I have to prove it. I love it. Every day I love it.”