THEY CALL HIM MR. INTENSITY
It takes more than a devastating knee injury to hold back Falcon linebacker Chris Gizzi
By Kim Goss
Published: Winter 1997
“Your ACL is torn.”
Those are the most defeating words a football player can hear. ACL stands for anterior cruciate ligament, one of the primary structures that keep the knee together. The ACL is so vital to the stability of the knee that when it goes, often so does an athlete’s career. Even if the athlete does manage to adhere to the long, tedious rehabilitation protocols and return to the gridiron, it’s a sure bet that he will not be the player he was. So when Air Force Academy inside linebacker Chris Gizzi’s knee collapsed during the third game of the 1995 season, you would think that Gizzi would have thrown in the towel and concentrated on his career as an Air Force officer.
No way. No how.
Two days after the doctors were able to confirm that his ACL was torn, Gizzi set about establishing a game plan and mind set to get back on the field. He would follow precisely what his doctors and trainers told him to do and, most importantly, keep his attitude positive. “I gaaaar—run—teeeee,” as Head Coach Fisher DeBerry would say, “it’ll take more than three letters of the alphabet to beat Chris Gizzi!”
Just two days after the injury he was back in training. Jack Braley, the head strength coach for the Academy for the past 34 years, was impressed. “Immediately after the injury Gizzi set about doing everything he was told to do, and he had a handle on the pace of progress he needed to follow.”
Gizzi’s work ethic and enthusiasm paid off; and not only did he become as good as he was before, he became better. The following year the 6-foot, 233-pound Gizzi played so well that he won the Pacific Division WAC Defensive Player of the Year, and this year he is front-runner for the Butkus Award. As for numbers, he leads the team in tackles, recorded four sacks in the shut-out against in-state rival Colorado State, and in the weightroom has shattered his personal best with a 379-pound clean, a below-parallel squat of 575, and a vertical jump of 39 inches. Says Braley, “If you wanted to say that someone was totally recovered from an ACL, he is—and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it in anyone else.” In fact, Gizzi doesn’t even need to wear a brace when he plays.
“The knee feels stable and steady, and they told me I wouldn’t need a brace unless I wanted one,” says Gizzi. “And to tell you the truth, I now feel that the leg I had the surgery on is stronger than the other one.
“Something I learned with my knee injury is that it may not be necessary to train harder, but to train smarter. You’ve got to follow your workouts to a Tee and make every set count. You need to get that sense of urgency when you lift, and you’ve got to know when to say ‘when’, to call it a day—that’s the way you train smarter.”
In recognition of his commitment to train smart, defy the odds and reach the upper limits of his physical potential, Gizzi received the most coveted honor given to Air Force Academy football players. It’s called the “Mr. Intensity” award, and has been a Falcon tradition for the past 18 years. Braley, who came up with the idea for the award, says he wanted a way to recognize those who work hard in the weightroom, achieve success, and inspire others to do the same. In addition to having his name engraved on a plaque in the weightroom, Gizzi’s picture is hung alongside such notable recipients of this award as the Dallas Cowboys’ Chad Hennings and the Denver Broncos’ Steve Russ.
OF BRAWN AND BRAINS
The Air Force Academy football program is a source of pride for the Academy and the entire Air Force, and has enjoyed a long tradition of winning. Although the team is noted for the “wishbone turned flexbone” offense, it is also noted to have a stubborn defense. Says Defensive Coordinator Cal McCombs, who has been with the team for 14 years, “I think that in any defensive football team you have to have linebackers who are making a lot of tackles. When your secondary is making too many tackles, or when your defensive linemen are making too many tackles, you’re in trouble.”
To make those tackles, linebackers have to be among your best athletes and best players. “Gizzi’s got a tremendous work ethic—year round, not just during football season,” says McCombs. “He is a better player due to his weight training because he’s become bigger, he’s become faster and he’s become stronger,” says McCombs. “He’s what I call ‘a student of the game.’ Gizzi studies football—he’s football smart. You tell him you want him to look for something, or you want him to play someone a certain way, and he locks in and studies the film until he makes sure he knows what’s going to happen to him on every single play.”
The fact that Gizzi listens and learns from his coaches should come as no surprise. He’s been doing it his entire life. His father, Alfred Gizzi, is on the coaching staff at Baldwin Wallace College, a Division III school in Ohio.
Gizzi’s also mentally tough. During preseason practice he got a cut on the bridge of the nose. “It’s been a mess,” says Gizzi. “It was just a little cut that started the second week of August, the first day of hitting, and from then on it was kind of dormant for a while, then it exploded and it’s been bleeding all over me during the game. Right now there are 20 internal and external stitches; my total is getting close to 80.”
Jim Conboy has been the head athletic trainer of the Academy since 1955, and he explained why the cut has been such a problem. “It’s hard to stop these cuts when you get them under the helmet,” says Conboy. “The trouble is you can’t put anything over the cut without affecting the vision—we’ve tried many things, and we’re still trying. Of course, if he didn’t play against CSU we could have taken the stitches out, but I’d hate to have been the guy who would have to tell Gizzi he couldn’t play!”
In his 42 years with the team Conboy has seen many great football players, and he gives Gizzi the highest praise. “He’s one of the best ever, and fits the mold of all the good ones we’ve had.” McCombs agrees, ‘We’ve been fortunate around here to have had many great linebackers—Terry Maki, Steve Russ, Brian Hill—and Gizzi is right in there—he’s one of those great linebackers.”
Although he has certainly earned the respect of his coaches and teammates, it wasn’t always that way. “I remember coming in here and just wanting to contribute to the team,” says Gizzi, who turns 23 in March. “I wasn’t heavily recruited by a lot of schools, and the Academy gave me a chance. I wanted to do my best, and I’m pleased with the way things have gone.”
One factor that helped him achieve his accomplishments was a strong base strength that he built at Cleveland St. Ignatius High School in his hometown of Brunswick, Ohio. The school is a perennial high school powerhouse and was ranked by USA Today as number one. It has a great program by Chuck Kyle, and Gizzi has nothing but fond memories of his high school athletic career. “We pretty much follow the BFS program, with plyos Monday and Friday. It was a tremendous program that helped me form good habits that I’ve been able to build upon.”
When asked if he wanted to recognize any major influences on his success, Gizzi didn’t hesitate to mention his high school coach, who he says was never too busy to help him with his off-season training. In addition, Gizzi says he’s thankful for his lifting buddies who were always there to push him and help him out.
Gizzi’s influence is still present at his high school. Says Coach Kyle, “Gizzi is one of those kids that, years later, players still talk about. ‘In the weightroom, he’s like Gizzi!’ That’s what the players will say around here. And every year he stops by—in fact he helps out a little bit in the summer when he can—and it’s great. Our kids will see the way he approaches each workout—the way he gets excited and goes after it. Kids will see Chris lift and get the idea of ‘Wow, that’s how y