Gilbert Brown to Gilbert Pena: Overcoming adversity is key


Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Gilbert Pena (left) and defensive tackle B.J. Raji work out during organized team activities at Clarke Hinkle Field in Green Bay. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Gilbert Pena, the Green Bay Packers latest undrafted rookie defensive lineman, knows something about adversity, much like another Gilbert – Gilbert Brown.

During his career with the Packers, fan favorite nose tackle Brown battled adversity- ballooning weight and several season-ending injuries early in his career. He overcame those issues and and ended up playing in 15 playoff games. Remarkably, a number good enough for second in franchise history behind Brett Favre’s 22.

That’s quite a testament to the resilience of a mountain of a man who often tipped the scales at well over 350 pounds while terrorizing offensive lines during a storied career in Packers News.

Affectionately known as ‘The Gravedigger’ for the thunderous celebration he’d perform after a jarring tackle or sack, Brown was a dominant fixture on the Green Bay defensive line during the Packers return to glory in the mid-1990s. He overcame multiple season-ending injuries early in his career, becoming a feared run-stopper in the middle of an intimidating rotation that included Reggie White, Sean Jones and Santana Dotson.

Gilbert Brown

At the zenith of his career he was a key contributor on a defense that helped Green Bay clinch a victory in Super Bowl XXXI after the 1996 season. In a move that cemented his legacy in Packers News, he turned down a more lucrative offer from the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1997 to stay in Green Bay following that breakout 1996 campaign after he registered 51 tackles while starting all 19 games.

Brown’s success, longevity and reputation are all things that Gilbert Pena hopes to achieve- if he can overcome his own issues of adversity and make the final 53-man roster this season.

But for Pena, beating the odds is something that he’s been doing most of his life.

Coming out of high school, Pena was an all-state defensive lineman for Yonkers High School in New York/New Jersey. He was selected to play in the dual state’s annual high school all star game after a standout junior year and had several offers to play collegiate football. His future seemed bright and filled with opportunity. Pena was an exceptional student and seemed destined to do great things – both in life and on the gridiron.

And then, in what would become seemingly a theme in preceding years, things took a turn for the worse.

Before his senior year of high school his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

The woman who Pena said had worked tirelessly at multiple jobs to support her children could no longer work and could not even take care of herself. So Pena did the only thing he knew he could do – and should do. He turned down a chance to play football in college and instead opted to take care of the woman who did so much for him during his entire life.

For some, it was a shocking decision. For Pena, he said he was just doing the right thing.

Over the course of four long years he toiled at two jobs. He made sure his mother made her doctors appointments. And he became a man. He put sack dances, road trips, bowl games, an education and his dream of playing in the NFL on hold. That is, until a friend pushed him to start working out. The thought of playing football slowly crept back in. Eventually he got back into shape and was noticed by a coach at ASA College in Brooklyn, N.Y. They quickly offered Pena a scholarship. He’d have the chance to earn a degree … and the chance to play football. He jumped at the opportunity he thought he’d never rediscover. He was 23.

The long road to All-Northeastern Conference honors was worth it, Pena said. He never had a problem doing the right thing by helping his mother. He performed well enough at ASA to gain recognition from several major football programs. Mississippi offered first. Pena values loyalty and so the choice was easy. He accepted. However, the birth of his daughter, a broken hand and several losing seasons put a damper on his experience and NFL scouts didn’t really take notice. He held his own over the course of his college career and flashed some serious ability, registering 45 tackles and 7 stops for loss over that two-year period at Ole Miss.

Ultimately, he wasn’t selected in April’s NFL Draft and Pena assumed his chance at playing professional football was all but over. It was yet another stroke of adversity, it seemed.

That is until Green Bay came calling.

Well, Glibert Pena is now 26. Which make’s him older than 62 other members of the Packers.

In the NFL, the average lifespan for heavy, collision-prone defensive linemen is painfully short. A player in their mid-twenties heading into their first NFL training camp, like Pena, may have already reached their physical peak. A 26-year-old should technically be entering his third or even fourth year in the league. Ted Thompson understands the risks. But he also understands the reward of a player like Pena panning out. And he understands what he’s been through. For a Packers team looking to inject life into a soft defensive line, Pena represents hope. Perhaps, Pena says, he can circumvent the perceived limitation of his advanced NFL senility by bringing a refreshing attitude about his life experience and maturity.

The adversity that Pena’s been through in life, he says, has only helped prepare him for the challenges that he’s faced as his acclimates himself to an NFL training program for the first time while being on the wrong side of 25. Clark Hinkle Field is a long way from Brooklyn.

But what stands out in this story is that Pena’s also been able to succeed by displaying a noticeable ability to hold the point of attack in the run game and an endless motor. He’s far from just another long shot sympathy story.

And it hasn’t gone unnoticed so far.

Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac has said he likes what he has seen to this point from Pena in how he uses his hands and moves his body while maintaining his assignments. He said Pena’s an extremely physical, aggressive and smart player. All traits that have value in the Green Bay 3-4 and which fits in among a group that includes fellow rookie Datone Jones, Nick Perry, B.J. Raji, Ryan Picket, C.J. Wilson, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels and Jerel Worthy.

Trgovac knows this group may be the deepest he’s had since the Super XLV season. It might even be as good as the one that featured Gilbert Brown in 1996.

For a team looking to overcome their own collective adversity on the defensive side of the ball while establishing their identiy, and if Trgovac has it his way, Pena may be a perfect fit.