TEMPE, Ariz. — Dennis Gardeck was a pretty good high school linebacker in Illinois who absolutely loved to play football. So when a few NCAA Division II schools had interest in his ability, he figured a small-college scholarship would be a great way to partially pay for his education and allow him to stay on the field a few more years.
“And I just wanted to see — how good could I get at it?" Gardeck said. “Let's see how far we can take this."
Turns out he got pretty good. Seven years after he took a scholarship to little-known West Virginia State, he hopes to make his ‘Monday Night Football’ debut when his Arizona Cardinals travel to face the Dallas Cowboys.
The 26-year-old linebacker is coming off a breakout performance after he had two sacks in the team's 30-10 win over the New York Jets on Sunday. The third-year player was needed after 2019 All-Pro linebacker Chandler Jones suffered a biceps injury in the first half. Gardeck's role will likely increase since Jones is out for the remainder of the year because of season-ending surgery.
Gardeck said he's enjoying the moment now that he's having his 15 minutes of relative fame, but won't change his blue-collar approach just because he had a few highlight-reel plays. The linebacker is battling a foot injury but expects to be available against the Cowboys.
“I always tell the young guys, ‘Don’t ride the roller coaster of getting too high or too low,'” Gardeck said. "I feel like that's a game breaker for the NFL, being able to stay consistent and level headed. So the preparation won't change. I've been preparing this whole time.
“As far as the role goes, when my name's called, I'll go in and do the best I've can.”
Gardeck, signed in 2018 as an undrafted free agent, has carved out a role over the past three seasons as a special teams ace and is so popular that he was voted a team captain during the off-season . Even so, the 6-foot, 232-pounder was little more than an emergency defensive option, backing up one of the league's best defensive players.
But coach Kliff Kingsbury wasn't surprised that Gardeck was ready when Jones got injured.
“He’s hell on wheels going on scout team against our offensive line,” Kingsbury said. “They hate trying to block him because he’s nonstop. He’s relentless. That’s what you saw out there (against the Jets). He just keeps going and the play’s never over for him. He’s a guy that gets there earlier than everybody, studies harder than any player I’ve ever seen and it’s awesome to see what a great story he is."
Kingsbury might have thought Gardeck could contribute, but nearly everyone was stunned at the two-sack outburst in his first career defensive snaps. After his first, he did a little dance he called “Hitting The Strobe” and after the second sack he did one he dubbed “Turn The Corner.”
It was all a blur for Gardeck, who said his main goal was to not jump offside.
“I'm not gonna lie, I kinda blacked out a little bit,” Gardeck said when recounting his first sack. “I remember spinning around in a circle.”
Gardeck says his humour and work ethic are a product of his no-frills back story. He played three seasons at West Virginia State before transferring for his final year at Sioux Falls. He was nominated for the Harlon Hill Trophy, which is Division II's version of the Heisman, but still thought finding a spot in the NFL was a long shot.
He's simply having fun and not taking himself too seriously.
“Who am I at the end of the day?" Gardeck said. “I think that's kind of where I came from. Even going back to high school, I was never ‘The Guy.' You can think what you want about me, I'm just going to have fun playing football."
He's made an impression on his teammates, drawing praise from cornerback Patrick Peterson and receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald. Peterson said Gardeck is a guy who knows what he wants in the NFL and has sacrificed to get it.
“Dennis is just a ballplayer,” Peterson said. “I believe if Dennis didn't go to college and was on the couch, he'd still make it in this league, just because his mindset. He's a grinder, he's a dog. It's hard to deny someone that has that type of character.”
Peterson also rated Gardeck's dance moves after the sacks, giving the first one a seven out of 10. He wasn't as big of a fan of “Turning The Corner," giving it a three.
And that's just fine for Gardeck, who can find the good in just about anything these days.
“I got a seven and a three? That's a 10!” Gardeck said.
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David Brandt, The Associated Press