ATHENS, Ga. — Fred Gibson had to do some growing since the last time he played in a football game.
When he reported for his junior season at Georgia last week, Gibson had gained more than 10 pounds after finally heeding advice from his coaches on spending time in the weight room.
The more painful growth for Gibson came when he became the most outspoken of the nine Georgia players who landed in trouble for selling their 2002 Southeastern Conference and Sugar Bowl championship rings.
Gibson and the others were temporarily declared ineligible for selling the rings. That was a big scare that was relieved when the NCAA restored the players’ eligibility without any further penalties.
Gibson also had to answer for public comments he made immediately after the ring controversy became news. Anything but contrite after the news broke, Gibson said players shouldn’t be given rings if they weren’t able to sell the rings. He also said the championship rings were not important to him.
In a team meeting early in the summer designed to address the ring scandal and other off-the-field issues, some players apologized to their teammates. Gibson says “I’m not a person that will get up and say things in front of people,’’ but he says he wishes he could take back his actions and comments.
“That whole situation, if I could do everything over I wouldn’t do it again,’’ Gibson said. “It was a situation where I was mad and I just let things come out.
“I was real wrong for saying some of the things I said. I apologize to the football team and to the people who really care about the university for some of the things I said.’’
Added Gibson: “If I could do it all over again, we wouldn’t even be discussing it right now.’’
Gibson does not have his ring yet. Most of the rings have been recovered, but the players who sold the rings have to reimburse the athletic association for buying the rings back from the internet dealer.
“Hopefully after the season, Coach (Mark) Richt will give it back to us,’’ Gibson said.
Told that he was playing for two rings this season, Gibson said he is relieved he has the chance to play for another championship.
“You know, people make mistakes,’’ he said. “I’m not a perfect person. I made a mistake I thought was going to cost me, but in the end it came out in my favor.
“I just thank Coach Richt and everybody who stuck behind us 100 percent and got us back on the football team.’’
In some ways, Gibson’s sophomore season was a disappointment long before his involvement in the ring controversy. After setting the school record with five 100-yard receiving games as a freshman in 2001, he had only two 100-yard games last season.
Though his receptions total rose from 33 in 2001 to 43 last year, Gibson’s receiving yards total dropped slightly from 772 to 758 and his touchdown total dipped from six to four.
Amid concerns about his poor blocking, fumbles and dropped passes, Gibson lost his starting job and then suffered a thumb injury that forced him to miss two games and then play with a cast on his hand.
Gibson lost his starting job before the Tennessee game, and it wasn’t a total surprise based on comments from Richt the week before the game.
When Richt was asked to compare two 6-foot-4 sophomore receivers — Gibson and Tennessee’s Kelley Washington, Richt called Washington “a full grown man.’’ Added Richt: “If you stood them side by side, you’d see a tall skinny kid and you’d see a man.’’
Gibson caught only one pass for two yards in the Tennessee game and, still out of the starting lineup, caught only one pass again the following week against Vanderbilt.
Despite playing with the cast on his hand, Gibson regained his starting job and his momentum as a big-play receiver late in the year.
Gibson’s 41-yard catch helped to set up Michael Johnson’s game-winning grab against Auburn, and he caught five passes for 93 yards in the SEC Championship game victory over Arkansas.
After playing last season at about 191 pounds, Gibson says he now tops 200 on the scales.
“I had to realize that if I ever want to get to the next level, I’ve got to get stronger,’’ he said.
“The coaches kept telling me to lift weights. I got tired of hearing it. You get tired of hearing something, you want to do something about it. I got tired of hearing I was a skinny football player. That was just something I wanted to focus on and I think I did a pretty good job over the summer.’’
Georgia receivers coach John Eason says he can tell Gibson “appears at this point to be a lot stronger than he was last year.’’
Gibson says he finally learned the lesson when he saw former teammate Terrence Edwards snubbed in the NFL draft last April.
Edwards finished with the SEC career record for receiving yards, but scouts feared he was too thin to play in the NFL after he weighed less than 170 pounds at the draft combine.
Edwards signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent and is enjoying a strong training camp, but Richt said “if (Edwards) was maybe 10 pounds heavier and a little more muscled up he might have been a third-round pick or maybe higher.’’
Gibson calls Edwards’ NFL draft snub “a motivator.’’
“I talked to a whole lot of people about it,’’ Gibson said. “I talked to Terrence about it. He said the only thing I need to focus on is getting bigger. I think I did that. I’m going to continue lifting weights and hopefully everything else will happen for me.’’