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May 11, 2014

Justin Gilbert eager to kick off NFL career this week in minicamp

After watching Justin Gilbert selected No. 8 overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 NFL Draft last Thursday, family and friends gather

HUNTSVILLE — The past few days have been quite the whirlwind for former Huntsville Hornet standout Justin Gilbert.

First he was selected eighth overall in the NFL Draft on Thursday night by the Cleveland Browns. Then he flew to Cleveland for Friday’s introductory press conference alongside fellow first-round draftee Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M.

On Saturday, he was back in Huntsville and approximately 200 of his closest family and friends were on hand to congratulate him for a get-together at the Texas Prison Museum Conference Center.

“I knew it was going to happen. I just didn’t know about all of the cameras and media and stuff,” Gilbert said of Saturday’s party. “That kind of caught me offguard. There were more people than I thought was going to be here.

“I enjoyed (the NFL Draft experience). It was just the feeling of all of my hard work finally paying off. It was fun (in Cleveland). I got to meet the press there, along with Johnny. He’s a great guy and I’m glad to have him on my team. He’s a competitive guy and I love the way he plays football.”

From family members to friends, former coaches and old teammates, there wasn’t a shortage of people wanting to show their pride for Gilbert.

“Just to see him accomplish something like that,” said George Perry, who played varsity basketball and football at Huntsville High School with Gilbert. “I know it means the world for him and I’m just so excited for him.

“He was amazing in high school. I still look at some of his highlights now. His speed and the ability to move between traffic was amazing. He made it and I’m just happy for him. No matter what happens, he’s still my friend.”

Relatives and friends drove to Huntsville from all over the state in order to celebrate Gilbert and his achievements and filled the conference center to capacity throughout the affair.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Iwanna Rolling, Gilbert’s mother. “This is a good Mother’s Day gift. There’s a lot of love if you look around and see the crowd. I’m just happy that everybody came out to support him.

“His old football coaches, players that he played with in high school, his high school counselor, his pee wee coaches, family were all here. They all came from Bryan, Texas City, Austin, Dallas, my cousins from East Texas. There’s a lot of people. There’s a lot of love in this room right now.”

After coaching him for two seasons at Huntsville and watching him grow and progress at Oklahoma State into a consensus All-American cornerback for the Cowboys, Shane Martin believes that Gilbert can also become a strong defensive back in the NFL.

“I think he’ll always remember where he comes from and the people who are here,” said Martin. “It’s a grind and it’s a job for him now.

“He’s going to go in there and make a difference pretty quick. It’s going to take a little bit for an adjustment. I guarantee that within a couple of years, he’s going to fit right in. He’ll be just fine.”

Due to his popularity, especially in Walker County, Gilbert hopes to see Huntsville painted in orange and brown.

With jerseys, caps and T-shirts among family, friends and former teammates who will eagerly look to see how Gilbert performs, it’s likely not a reach to expect to see plenty of Browns apparel around town in the near future.

“I’m hoping we can start getting some Browns jerseys in this area,” Gilbert said. “I’m hoping they’ll sell pretty good here and in surrounding areas. I know I have the support and I’m just thankful for it.”

“There’s going to be orange and brown everywhere,” Perry said. “It’s going to be everywhere. I already bought a hat.”

Life as a professional football player begins quickly for Gilbert.

Gilbert will be back in Cleveland this week preparing for the Browns’ rookie minicamp. The mandatory minicamp will be held June 10-12, then training camp will begin in late July.

“We’ve got minicamp coming up Thursday, so I’ll be back in Cleveland tomorrow,” Gilbert added. “I’m looking forward to meeting the older guys on the team and getting it underway.

“I’m still trying to believe that I made it. I’ll pray every night and thank God for all the blessings. I’m still trying to take it all in. I’m excited right now.”

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