Michigan's tough Gardner ready to chase NFL dream

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — For as long as Devin Gardner can remember, he has always known what he wanted to do when he grew up.

He had a stock response whenever a teacher posed that question in class.

"I thought I was going to the NFL out of little league, you have no idea," Gardner said, laughing. "I thought I was the best player ever.

"I wrote down 'football player' every single time ever since I learned how to write. The teacher would say you have to think of something else. No, I don't have to think of anything else. I love learning skills, but this is what I want to do. And it's about to be a reality pretty soon, and that's pretty cool for me."

Gardner was Michigan's starting quarterback the last two seasons and will find out by the end of this week what his football future holds. The three-day NFL draft begins Thursday, and he has been projected as a late-round pick or a priority free agent as a receiver, which he played the first part of the 2012 season.

"It will be a challenge," Jon Gruden, the former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst, said of Gardner's transition to receiver at the pro level. "I'll say this, though: I saw Devin Gardner catch a touchdown pass against Alabama a couple of years ago (in the 2012 opener) as a receiver, so it won't be a process starting from scratch. He's certainly athletic.

"I had a chance to cover him in the Outback Bowl. He's a good kid. He's got a quarterback's perspective on things, so he's going to be a quick study. He'll work hard at it. It will be an uphill battle for him, but … it's been done before."

Gardner has had visits to San Diego, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and last week worked out for the Lions. The Falcons, Patriots and Bengals also have worked him out. To remind himself he's capable of playing the position, Gardner made a video of himself "destroying people" while blocking as a receiver in 2012.

In the meantime, he has kept busy around town. About a week ago, he went to the east side of Detroit as part of Athletes in Action to help a family rebuild a home they had just purchased. He sat front row for Common, was invited to the John Varvatos opening party and met Kate Upton and Justin Verlander, and he still makes weekly visits to Mott Hospital, as he did while a Michigan football player -- just because.

He has found sometimes his too-good-to-be-true character has stunned some teams.

During one of his team visits, he was asked a number of basic questions.

Got a girlfriend? "Nope."

Got a wife? "Nope."

Got kids? "Nope."

How often do you drink? "Never tasted alcohol in my life."

Have you ever failed a drug test? "Nope, never did any drugs in my life."

"He was like, 'Do you have parking tickets or something?' " Gardner said, laughing. "I'm not perfect, I just don't do stupid things. It's not what I like to do. Not saying some of the things are stupid, but for me, I don't do anything I don't want to do. Nobody can make me do anything I don't want to do, so if I get in trouble, it's because of me. I chose to do whatever I chose to do."

Devin Gardner displays his running ability against Ohio State last fall. His too-good-to-be-true character has stunned some NFL teams.

Attitude comes first

He firmly believes in approaching life understanding the only thing you can control is your attitude, and that has helped him deal with hate mail during his career and being benched as a starter one game last season. That makes the day-to-day so much easier.

Gardner doesn't remember making a conscious decision to console Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett last November after Barrett suffered a broken leg during the game, because it felt like a natural reaction. Gardner kneeled on one leg and put his right hand on Barrett's face and offered encouragement while medical trainers stabilized the leg. It was captured on camera and hailed as a moment of great sportsmanship between arch-rivals.

"I feel like I was a human way before I started to play football," Gardner said when asked why he did that. "I wanted to destroy them, but at that time, in that small part of the game, he broke his leg. I felt like any other human who loves people. But as soon as I walked away from him I was ready to destroy them.

"People make a big deal of it, but it wasn't a big deal for me. I understand, it's a rivalry, you're not supposed to do that, nobody had ever done it, but why not? I didn't think about it. I didn't think about the repercussions or what people would think, because I don't care what people think, as you probably know."

Much is made of NFL teams exploring backgrounds of players to determine their character. Gardner said not one team asked him about that moment.

"Teams don't care about that stuff," he said. "They want to win. Teams want to know if I can play. You can't have issues, but nobody cares how good of a guy you are. If you can't play, then you have to get a regular job as a good guy."

But every team he has spoken to has asked about wearing the No. 98 jersey, made famous at Michigan by Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and reintroduced at Michigan with other retired numbers as a "Legends" jersey. While comforting Barrett was an unconscious decision, wearing the No. 98 was a very conscious one made by Gardner, who started all but one regular-season game at quarterback the last two seasons, during which Michigan had a combined record of 12-13.

"NFL teams ask me more about that than anything, because I guess it can be looked at as a burden or a lot of pressure," Gardner said. "I genuinely don't care what anyone else thinks, so when I said I'd wear it, I knew some people would be like, 'Oh, wow, that's cool,' and some people would be like, if I didn't well play, 'He's awful. He's ruining the number.'

"I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. It's not like I was going in, 'I'm blind, I'm so naïve, I'm just going to wear this number.' I knew exactly what was going to happen, and I knew it wasn't always going to be perfect."

Teams have asked whose idea it was to wear the 98 and why. Some didn't know the Harmon history, but most did and were interested how Gardner dealt with the scrutiny. He explained that his coach, Brady Hoke, asked if he wanted the number.

"Because Tom Harmon's family asked me to wear it because they thought of me as the type of guy he was, which is an honor," Gardner said. "For his family to think I'm anything close to what Tom Harmon was, that's an honor."

Devin Gardner: "If I don't get drafted, I'm going to get a shot, and that's all I need."

Toughness has showed

Wearing the number didn't make Gardner more of a target than he already was in 2013, but it made him an easier target to criticize as the team took a beating, particularly the second half of that season. He took a number of sacks that fall, including seven in a brutal loss at Michigan State. If he takes anything from that season, it was proof of his toughness.

"I got sacked a lot. It wasn't sacks like play sacks, they were real sacks, dragged-to-the-ground sacks, probably like ending-your-life-at-some-point sacks," Gardner said, laughing. "I feel like I'm like Wolverine, though. I heal pretty fast. I think that's proven because I was able to play. I can't walk after the game and maybe not even practice until Wednesday or Thursday but somehow I'm able to go play the game. I don't know if it's because I'm (a jerk) and I just won't say no or what. I'm able to go and be relatively effective at least. Sometimes I used to be like, 'I don't know how I'm playing in this game.' "

If he needed more proof of his toughness, that came in the third quarter of the Ohio State game after he suffered a broken sesamoid bone is his foot and ligament damage, continued playing and nearly pulled off the upset, falling short on a two-point conversion.

"I still don't know how I played in that game. That was rough," Gardner said. "It was by far the worst feeling I've ever had in my life."

Gardner is now on the cusp of realizing the dream he has had since he was 5, when he started telling everyone who would listen that he's going to be a football player. He understands that most look at him as a "project" as he continues to work as a receiver.

"But once I get to football, I'm going to be a football player. I'm going to be able to do something," Gardner said. "If I don't get drafted, I'm going to get a shot, and that's all I need."