The fifth-year junior — who had come into this showdown game with Toledo as the Mid-American Conference leader in passing yards — was in the process of leading the RedHawks to what would be, in the words of coach Chuck Martin, “one of the best comebacks in Miami history” when he tried to plunge into the end zone from two yards out to cut the Rockets lead to just four points with the PAT that would follow.
Instead, he had been stonewalled by Toledo’s 295-pound tackle Judge Culpepper and in the scrum of pushing and pulling and plunging players who piled up around him, Gabbert crumpled with what one RedHawk on the scene called a badly “broken” right leg.
Landing on his back, Gabbert screamed out in pain, pulled his helmet off and pounded the ground. Players from both teams who saw the injury immediately motioned toward the benches that medical help was needed…now!
Martin hurried from the Miami sideline and soon nearly 15 people — including trainers and Oxford paramedics — were huddled around Gabbert.
Although reeling himself, Martin — in his red sweater vest and khaki pants — knelt on one knee next to his broken quarterback, who managed to lift his right hand toward his coach.
Martin reached down and clasped it and the two held onto each other throughout the duration of the on-field treatment.
An antiseptic powder — used to prevent infection in open wounds — was poured on Gabbert’s injury and eventually a black air cast was placed around his leg.
After the game Martin would not discuss the actual injury other than to say it was “a tough injury … a real tough injury.”
As a red Oxford Fire Department rescue vehicle with flashing lights backed into Yager Stadium and finally stopped in the end zone, the Homecoming crowd of 17,321 was silent.
Martin briefly bowed his head into his other hand and said, in his jumble of thoughts, one thing kept rising to the fore:
“I really felt terrible for Brett. I really thought this would be the year (for him). Everything he’s done for this program, this school. His fight, his competitiveness. It’s everything you’d want in anything you’d do.”
And that’s when Gabbert did one more thing for his coach and his team.
As Martin recounted: “He kept saying to me, ‘We’re going to win this game, Coach! We’re gonna win the league! You guys can do this! You can!’
“That’s the type of kid he is. He’s just an amazing young man.”
As Gabbert was lifted onto a gurney, the Miami team rushed en masse from the sideline and surrounded him. From the Toledo sideline, a dozen Rockets’ players followed suit. They all wished him well. Some reached out to him.
The last player to acknowledge Gabbert was RedHawlks running back Kenny Tracy, who tapped fists with him just before he was loaded into the ambulance and taken to Mercy Fairfield Hospital.
Gabbert’s injury put a cloud on the game that was a showdown of MAC powers. Toledo led the West Division with a 6-1 record and was 3-0 in league play. Miami was tops in the East with an identical 6-1, 3-0 mark.
Although the RedHawks stumbled in the first two quarters and trailed 21-3 at halftime, Gabbert had rallied the offense in the third quarter. In the team’s first possession, he completed a crucial 17-yard pass on third down to Gage Larvadain that set up Tracy’s two-yard burst for a score to cut the margin to 11.
Meanwhile, Miami’s defense “‘bulled its neck,” as Martin put it, and was in the process of holding Toledo scoreless in the second half.
Although Gabbert was intercepted on the next possession when his pass bounced off his receiver’s hands, he promptly led the team back down the field the next time he got the ball and was on the Toledo two-yard line when he was hurt.
Backup quarterback Aveon Smith — who started nine games last season when Gabbert was injured — took over the signal calling and on the next play, Rashad Amos scored on a two-yard burst. With the PAT, Miami trailed just 21-17 with over a quarter to play.
Martin admitted at halftime human nature had taken over and some people were “mad and upset” and started to “blame and point fingers.”
Martin said he and his coaches tried to refocus them:
“I said, ‘I don’t know what the final score is going to be, but this — THIS — is not how we are going to go out!’”
He was right.
In the second half things got much better for Miami.
And then they got so much worse.
Family of QBs
Gabbert has been trying to follow in his two older brothers’ footsteps.
Blaine was a star at Missouri and an NFL first-round draft pick in 2011. He’s been in the league since and now is the back-up to Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.
Tyler played at both Missouri and then Central Florida.
Brett has had a remarkable, but often rough go at Miami. He’s third all-time among RedHawk quarterbacks in career passing yards and touchdown passes.
But he’s also endured injuries and missed most of last season, first with shoulder surgery on his non-throwing arm and then with an ankle injury that left him on crutches at season’s end.
Upset by his bad luck on the field — and buoyed by his good fortune in the classroom, where he had graduated (and now has a 3.76 GPA) — he decided to play his last season elsewhere and entered the transfer portal.
Almost instantly he said he realized he’d made a rash move and he wanted to stay at Miami. Martin went against his usual rule and took him back 18 days after he had left.
We talked about that decision last month and Martin said Gabbert was the most competitive player on the team, the kind of guy he wanted leading the RedHawks.
And Gabbert was living up to his coach’s belief. He’d had yeoman performances in several games this season, beginning with his late-game heroics in an overtime victory against Cincinnati, a rival the RedHawks hadn’t beaten since 2005.
The 6-1 start was Miami’s best start since 2003 and just as the team was enlivened, so was much of the fanbase.
Nate Bowling summed it up in a message he sent to Gabbert’s X (Twitter) account soon after the quarterback was injured:
“So gutted for you. Thank you for bringing life back to Miami football. You had me and other alums coming back to games and having fun. Praying for a speedy recovery.”
Senior linebacker Matt Salopek, the cornerstone of Miami’s defense and a good friend of Gabbert’s, said it was “super emotional” for him and his teammates to lose their quarterback:
“He’s a tremendous leader of this team. He’s just a tremendous person on and off the field.”
Martin said the whole team was shaken by Gabbert’s injury:
“We had some guys pretty torn up and rightfully so. Some of his best friends were out there and they saw it. And it wasn’t just players, but coaches, too.”
Martin was asked how you lift a team after such a devastating loss just a few minutes earlier and he struggled to find the words.
“I don’t know the answer,” he said softly. “I don’t know the answer.
“The only thing we talked about was what Brett Gabbert would expect from us. I didn’t know anything else to say, except that if that son of a gun knew we were pouting over here, he’d be very disappointed in us.
“As he was lying on the field, holding my hand, he’s saying, ‘We gotta win this game, Coach!’”
Before the game had ended, Gabbert posted a message on his X account:
“Everything happens for a reason. The toughest battles are given to the strongest soldiers.”
Back at Yager Stadium, Miami had four more possessions and failed to get anything going. Their last chance ended when Smith fumbled near midfield with 80 seconds left.
“It would have been nice to come back and get the damn victory,” Martin said quietly. “At least then, when I drive over to the hospital, I could say, ‘Hey, we pulled it out for you, Brother!’ At least it would have been something to make him feel a little better.”
Martin’s voice trailed off, so that only one thought remained.
He had said it earlier:
“Sometimes life sucks.
“And today, it really sucks.”