Hall of Famer George Gilbert Reflects on Life and Death

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Dealing with ups and downs on the football field and in the classroom is common for George Gilbert.

When you have been teaching and working with young men and women for more than four decades, you are bound to encounter some adversity every now and then.

However, the longtime coach and educator is now engaged in the fight for his life.

"This past spring, I went into remission for colon cancer, and then a month ago, I got the news that the cancer was back and very aggressive," explained Gilbert. "Please understand I am not interested in drama or people feeling sorry for me. I do not or ever would want people to pity this situation that I am currently in. God has a plan for all of us and death is as much a part of the life cycle as birth."

Having already determined he was going to hang up his whistle at the end of the 2022 campaign, Gilbert was now forced to go into early retirement.

"On Thursday, July 14, which was one day after my 67th birthday, I announced to the team that I would no longer be able to coach, ending my coaching career at Clinton Central after 22 seasons," Gilbert recalled. "However, I did prepare for this possibility. I had a great recruiting off-season hiring outstanding coaches to add to an experienced quality staff and sought out a man that had coached with me in the late 1980s to be ready if called upon. (New Clinton Central) Coach Tracy Rosa came back into the program as if he never left and I feel confident that the leadership is there to build a quality program back to what we once had."

During his 42-year career, which included stops at Wayne Trace (Ohio), Pioneer, Clinton Central (twice), Tri-Central, and Taylor, he compiled a 231-196-4 record.

Elected to the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 2016, Gilbert's finest hour came in 2013 when he guided Tri-Central to the Class 1A state championship.

This was quite an accomplishment, considering the Trojans were 0-10 in 2009, which was his first season at the controls.

"The Tri-Central years were very special years," Gilbert reminisced. "First, Gary Rhew, the athletic director, is not only an incredible man to work for, but he is such a quality person. I would love to say that the five-year run was planned. It was not. In 2011, the team won six games. In 2012, the team won 10 games, and then came 2013. When I took over the job, I kept a journal [I don't know why, but I did]. It ended up being one of the smartest things I have done in my career.

"In 2013, we had two goals, to win conference and win sectional. The boys wanted to win a regional to become the top team in Tri-Central history, but I shared with them that we should only worry about the game of the week and everything else will take care of itself. The team and coaches never talked about going to state, winning state, or Lucas Oil Stadium. What happened is a true to life Cinderella story. If made into a movie, it would inspire generations (since people don't read much anymore). There would be no need to over dramatize the plot as it is as pure of a plot as if it were fiction.

"I received a great deal of accolades afterward. That was nice, but as I told the news media, TV, and anyone that wanted to listen, it is a story of a community, a coaching staff, a school administration, and most importantly 39 boys that dropped their egos in the locker room each day and came out and played a game of fundamentals to perfection in two games. I feel everything we worked toward came together when we played in semistate and then at state. The team had no superstars, but every player knew how important he was to the rest of the team and responded in practice then took that game attitude to the field on Friday nights.

"One of the criticisms throughout my career has been how plain my teams are, how simple our plays are, and how a George Gilbert team will never go very far. I have been a veer coach my entire coaching career and when the state championship ended, I felt privately that our Tri-Central community showed the football community that hard work and a focus on fundamentals can win the moment."

After spending a year away from the gridiron (2018), Gilbert spent the 2019 season at Taylor before getting the opportunity to return to Clinton Central where he previously roamed the sidelines from 1988 to 2007.

Unfortunately, this proved to be a bittersweet decision for the Rensselaer Central High. Saint Joseph College, and Manchester University product.

"When I was hired as the new head football coach in May 2020, I found out in July found out I had cancer," Gilbert said. "I would have never committed to the job if I had known this. I had surgery in July and the doctors took out my entire colon. From that point on, the rollercoaster ride of early cancer was off and running.

"I had made a three-year commitment to reestablish the program in a direction that the community felt content with. Illness wise, it was a struggle as I started chemo, taught a full academic schedule, and was head of a program that had lost its luster at all levels.

"The first year back, I brought in a quality staff at all levels, worked closely with lower-level coaches, and at the varsity level we had a solid senior class. This was 2020 and we were only able to play eight games but went 5-3 and were sectional runner-up to Lafayette Central Catholic and were down only a point at halftime.

"The second year was more problematic. In week five, I missed my first football game in 42 years of coaching. I was in the hospital for nine days and finished the season but struggled at times."

Now, as he steps away from the game and job he loves, Gilbert reflects on the good and bad times.

"I have never been fortunate to walk into a head coaching job that was in good shape." Gilbert recalled. "A program with great numbers, a winning tradition, great following, and just continue what was already there. At each school, I had to develop the programs from the ground up.

"I have coached many outstanding groups of boys and I truly believe that everything in high school sports starts in the weight room. Athletes learn technique, routine, discipline, fellowship, plus get bigger, faster, and stronger. The greatest feeling a coach can have is when the team they are coaching surpasses all expectations.

"I have always been able to get boys to commit to play, but I have struggled here of late because football numbers are dropping. The speculation of the fear of getting hurt and that they don't like contact sports are all rationalizations we hear today.

"I truly believe the major issue is that football is hard work. We are becoming more reliant on technology and less willing to be physically active. The big schools will always have players, but it is in Class 1A and Class 2A that they are the most challenging. I averaged 42 players a year throughout my Class 1A coaching experience and two of the last three teams have had squads with around 20 boys.

"Football is truly America's game as the life skills learned will be employed throughout life, but the commitment, dedication and passion seem to be weakening."

Although the odds might be against him. Gilbert is not about to give up on his will to live.

One of the activities that has helped him during this difficult time has been writing

"I have gone through the entire depression sequence," Gilbert said. "When I found out in July 2021 that my condition was inoperable and that I was terminal, things changed for me. I felt as if a burden of the unknown no longer existed for me. Last month, the doctor told me I have around three to 12 more months, but he did say that is only based on science and that the final decision will be that of our Creator. He said sometimes people beat the odds and live two years or more and when it is my time, I will be called.

"I feel my final act of leadership for my family and my community is to show character and be strong in the months to come. I have very few regrets in my life and am not afraid of the future. I will continue to follow Indiana high school football and I will continue to work on my wife's farm daily until I no longer am able."

God speed George.

Here is one of the poems Gilbert has written during this trying time in his life.

A Good Day

By George Gilbert (12 months)

It's easy to allow depression to be your friend,

When faced with a terminal end.

It's easy not to see the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel,

When faced with a disease that is not merciful,

But today was different than most,

For today was a good day.

Most days are difficult,

Pain ravages the body into incoherence,

The inability to be normal and carry out daily tasks,

Become impossible and survival becomes the focus,

Hope becomes just a word with little meaning,

I have suffered many days in a row,

But today was a good day.

People are always asking, how you are doing,

Most days I wish they would leave me alone,

They are being kind, so I respond as they want me to respond,

No one really wants to know,

Only they that live in this torture clearly understand,

But today, when asked I can be proud to say,

Today is a good day.

I believe this torture to be a test,

From He that knows me best,

The struggle for success is small,

My goal is to fight and not fall,

I will not challenge the Great One and betray,

As today was a good day!

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