Gruber shines on Medal of Honor Bowl's big stage

BREVARD, N.C. – Star linebacker Michael Gruber tried to tell himself it was just another game. But even he couldn’t ignore the throng of media members that kept constant tabs on him all week.

“This week was definitely different with all the media attention,” said Gruber a day after returning to Brevard from the Medal of Honor Bowl in Charleston, South Carolina, which was nationally televised on NBC Sports Network. “The big school guys are used to being around scouts, television cameras, and reporters, but coming from a small school that was a new experience for me.”

Gruber proved he belong on the field with those “big school guys” at Saturday’s all-star contest on the campus of The Citadel, recording a pair of tackles as one of two middle linebackers in the American Team’s 4-3 defensive scheme. He brought down former Iowa running back Brandon Wegher for his first tackle, then two plays later tackled game MVP and Miami graduate Ryan Williams as he scrambled away from pressure.

“It was a little different starting practice at the beginning of the week,” Gruber said. “You’re looking out at your teammates and you see helmets from Florida State, Wake Forest, South Florida, Pitt, Kansas State, and others right there next to you. I just kept reminding myself that I was chosen to play in this game for a reason and I belonged there. We’ve all got an opportunity to get our foot in the door and it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I think I stepped up to the challenge well.”

To an outside observer, seeing a player of Gruber’s caliber, who finished the regular season as the second-leading tackler among active Division II players, had a game-high 11 tackles in the FCS National Bowl last month, and recorded double-digit tackles in over half of his games this season, finish a game with two tackles would seem a bit odd. But as Gruber points out, that, too, is a matter of perspective.

The National Team “threw the ball a lot,” he said. “I had to drop back into coverage, break on the ball, and get good reads.” He lamented a dropped pass by Wegher, a check-down option for Harlon Hill Trophy runner-up and record-setting Henderson State quarterback Kevin Rogers, that would have led to Gruber’s first tackle of the game late in the second quarter. “I wish there was more activity, but that’s just how an all-star game goes.”

Gruber was forced into pass coverage as the National Team ran the ball infrequently and rarely utilized the middle of the field. He also rotated in every two series with Edwin Jackson, a former Georgia Southern linebacker who started the game for the American Team.

Both teams used simplified playbooks and schemes with just a week to prepare for the contest, which Gruber said led to a more natural evaluation process for the 138 scouts, many from NFL franchises, that attended bowl week activities. “We only played two coverages this week because we wanted to keep it simple. The scouts just want to see you go out there and play, not go out there and think. They evaluate your instincts: see how you break on the ball, see how much range the safety has, limit the thinking. It’s just smashmouth, basic football.”

Gruber spoke with representatives of the Texans, Chiefs, and Rams during the week. He got positive feedback on his footwork and instincts, but maintains that he always has aspects of his game to work on. “Never being satisfied is how you move on in your career and become a great player, and that’s one of the main things for me right now.”

Gruber was, however, satisfied with the support he received in Charleston. A native of nearby Walterboro, Gruber was a media darling throughout the week’s festivities. Several stories about him appeared in local media outlets and he was even named Athlete of the Week by Charleston’s ABC affiliate. Approximately 250 of Gruber’s family and friends made the trip to watch him play and gave him a rousing ovation on both of his tackles.

The icing on a near-perfect week came as the final minutes ticked off the Johnson Hagood Stadium clock. “The coaches were talking about the next play in a timeout and I heard them call Nate Bristow over the stadium PA system,” Gruber remarked. He heard his stepfather’s name for an unexpected reason—he was the proud owner of a brand new Mercedes, raffled off among the 12,578 fans in attendance during the fourth quarter. “If anyone deserves it,” Gruber said, “it’s him. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here today.”

His Medal of Honor Bowl experience was made complete by his appreciation for those serving in our nation’s military, particularly the Medal of Honor recipients honored in a pregame ceremony. Game proceeds are donated to the Medal of Honor Foundation and the Wounded Warrior Project. “The game itself is about the players, but even more importantly it’s about representing those Medal of Honor recipients. That’s what it was all about for me. I really respect those guys for getting out and fighting for our country and our freedom.”

Gruber will now finish his degree in Business and Organizational Leadership while hoping for a chance to continue his career in the professional ranks.

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