NORMAN — Jayden Gibson eyed the football spiraling its way toward him in the back corner of the end zone.
As it neared the OU receiver, an Arkansas State defender batted at the ball, altering its path and sending it flopping end over toward the turf. But Gibson never took his eye off the ball.
Darned if he didn’t snag the thing.
That touchdown Saturday was one of two catches for Gibson, and both were worthy of the highlight reel. It was the kind of performance the former four-star recruit expected last season as a freshman, but such a day never happened. Instead, he became better known for drops than catches.
“I didn’t really know how to handle that for a long time,” he said, “so that really put me in a bad place mentally.
“It can really mess with you up here.”
He pointed to his head.
“I feel like now in today’s world, it’s more openly talked about. That’s why I feel comfortable, I can just talk about it. It’s a conversation that’s being had. But it’s hard man. It’s just hard when you’re a young kid.”
Gibson candidly spoke at length during preseason camp about his struggles. While he never used the words “depression” or “mental health,” he didn’t shy away from his reality, and during a month designated for suicide prevention and awareness, it’s good to remember mental health issues come in all shapes and sizes.
Sometimes they even come in a 6-foot-5, 196-pound major-college wide receiver.
‘Is everyone still going to love me?’
Jayden Gibson was a ballyhooed prospect coming out of West Orange High School on the outskirts of Orlando. Under Armour All-American. One of the top players in the football-mad state of Florida.
He committed to Florida and planned to become a Gator like his dad and uncle before him.
Then Florida fired Dan Mullen.
A few weeks later, Gibson decommitted from the Gators and reopened his commitment.
OU was in the midst of a coaching change, too, but once Brent Venables was hired, one of the first recruits new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby targeted was Gibson.
“I got here on a Wednesday, was in Orlando on a Thursday,” Lebby said, “and he was here on Friday, and he signed on the following Wednesday. That’s how fast that went.”
Even though Gibson and Lebby had a good relationship — they’d known each other since Lebby’s days at UCF — Gibson arrived in Norman as a mid-year enrollee knowing few other people. Because his recruitment was so condensed, he hadn’t developed relationships with a bunch of coaches. Same with players.
It meant he didn’t have a ton of people to turn to when things didn’t go the way he expected, when he didn’t immediately rise to the top of the depth chart as soon as he stepped on campus.
“I tell people all the time, I didn’t dream of being a college football player,” Gibson said. “I dreamed of being a college football star.”
That drove him to become a big-time high school player, but it also left a dark cloud over him during his early months at OU.
He wasn’t a starter much less a star.
“All I know is football,” he said. “So if you take football away from someone who that’s all they know, who knows how they’re gonna react. Who knows how that’s gonna play with them mentally.”
Gibson, who fell even further down the depth chart after a critical early drop in OU’s blowout loss at TCU, realized what was happening with football was affecting his mood even when he wasn’t practicing or conditioning or lifting weights.
He felt sad every day.
“If out here on the field is not right, I’ll be walking to class just not feeling right, I’ll be eating my dinner just not feeling right,” he said.
Gibson found himself wondering about his worth.
“What if I don’t go for 200 yards in the game?” he remembers thinking. “What if I don’t go for 150 and a touchdown?
“Is everyone still going to love me the same?”
‘I know who I am as a person’
OU sophomore Jayden Gibson. (Steve Sisney/For The Oklahoman]
Jayden Gibson got answers to his tough questions from another receiver.
Looking for a spark midway through last season, coaches shifted around some receivers, and it left Theo Wease on the outs. He had multi-catch performances in five of OU’s first six games. After that, he only had four catches the rest of the season.
Wease, who ultimately transferred to Missouri, had been like a big brother to Gibson, but he learned the most from Wease by seeing how he reacted to his situation. Wease’s example became a life lesson.
“Him being a veteran guy, a five-star from out of high school, an established guy at the college level who has already made plays,” Gibson said, “and for him to have to take that step back for another player? For him to just handle it with so much grace, that really made me feel like, ‘What am I even sitting here upset about? I have no reason to be upset if there’s this grown man that’s going through way worse than me, and he’s coming in here smiling every day.’”
Gibson knew Wease had a child and had a lot to be playing for, but his mood wasn’t determined by what was happening on the field.
While Gibson credits Wease with helping him the most last year, Gibson says he leaned on lots of people. His parents. His coaches. His teammates, especially older ones like Wease and Justin Broiles.
“Those people really were instrumental in just helping me get my mind back right,” Gibson said.
Those closest to Gibson have noticed the change.
“Really proud of the progress that he’s made and the maturity that you’re seeing every day from him,” Sooners coach Brent Venables said earlier this week. “Having success is good for everybody from an affirmation standpoint of doing what we ask him to do, but he’s really had a great transformation in the last six months.”
Gibson knows what he did in the season opener is just one game. Have another drop or two, and outside criticism and internal doubt could begin again.
“But I feel like now, I’m just more sure of myself,” he said. “Regardless of what happens around me, outside of me, on the inside I know who I am as a player, I know who I am as a person.”
He is keeping his eye on the ball on the field and on the bigger picture off of it. Finding such focus wasn’t always easy, but Gibson hopes others might find inspiration and promise in his story.
“One of the things I’ve always wanted to say when I get in front of the cameras and have the opportunity to say it is, ‘Keep your head up’ to people out there who are going through a lot,” Gibson said.
“Trust me when I say I’m speaking from experience.”