Tragedies in Dayton rattled Cajuns linebacker Gardner
In late May, an outbreak of devastating tornadoes struck the city where he attended high school.
In early August, a mass shooting in what is known as the Oregon Historic District – a downtown bar area there – claimed the lives of nine victims and injured 27.
So when UL starting inside linebacker Ferrod Gardner returns to Ohio on Saturday to face Ohio of the MAC, his mind will be focused on what the Ragin’ Cajuns are doing against the Bobcats in Athens.
But his heavy heart hurts for Dayton, where tragedy took hold in recent months.
“I had a few friends at the Oregon district that night in the bar,” Gardner said, “and one of my friends ended up getting shot.
“Didn’t make it.”
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The death hit hard, and being so far away attending college in Louisiana didn’t make everything that happened any easier.
“At first,” the senior said, “it was really tough.
“But I just kind of talked to my mom about it, just tried to keep a positive head about it, prayed about it, and just tried to push forward.
“So I’m just trying to think positively on the situation,” he added, “and just trying to keep my friends level-headed, and help them as much as I can.”
The recent tragic weather event also rocked the area of Dayton that’s considered a home for Gardner, a product of Trotwood-Madison High located just outside the city in Trotwood, Ohio.
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According to the Dayton Daily News, an “EF4 tornado that hit Trotwood on Memorial Day damaged 419 buildings and roughly 850 multi-family units.”
Earlier that same month, Gardner had been back in Dayton to watch his mother graduate from Ohio’s Central State University.
Not long thereafter?
“Where I’m from really is in shambles right now,” Gardner said. “The city is really bad.”
'SPORTS IS THE OUT'
The Dayton area is one of two locales Gardner called home before heading off to college, first to Missouri of the SEC, where he redshirted as a walk-on freshman in 2015; then to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas for a season in 2016; followed by the move to UL the next year.
The other is Atlanta, where relatives on his father Francis’ side of the family all live.
As a freshman in high school, Gardner attended Brookwood High in Snellville, Georgia.
But Gardner said he moved to Trotwood when his mother, Tracey Tucker, grew “homesick” for the Dayton area, where all her relatives reside.
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While he was in high school, Gardner often flew back and forth between Ohio and Georgia.
For a spell he’d be in Atlanta, which he called “a modern city” where “they’re rebuilding everything” and “everybody’s trying to build up wealth.”
There, he spent time with paternal grandparents living in the heart of the city.
Then it would be back to his area of Dayton, which he called “a poorer community who’s trying to get up.”
“Every time I talk to my friends back in Dayton, all they talk about is leaving Dayton,” he said. “That’s all we talked about in high school, because there’s literally nothing there other than trouble.”
The one saving grace?
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“Everybody gets together to look at sports,” Gardner said. “Sports is the way out in the Dayton. Sports and academics.”
It’s a rough world not that much different from many around the nation, from Ohio and the rest of the Midwest to parts here, there and everywhere.
For Gardner, that means just one thing: “I’m just happy to make it out,” he said.
'TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS'
As for his two home cities, they — as Gardner sees it — are a tale of two worlds.
“It’s a complete difference,” Gardner said, “but I’m just happy to make it out.”
The road traveled to get there for Gardner, however, is a well-chronicled one which hasn’t always been smooth.
He left Missouri after one season, then spent another year at the juco.
Before his first season at UL began, Gardner had to have surgery to put a screw in his broken foot.
Later that same year, he was dismissed from the team after being arrested and charged with felony identity theft — only to be reinstated by coach Billy Napier after the legal situation later sorted itself out.
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All that in mind, the recent tragedies in Dayton serve as reminders for Gardner to appreciate the opportunity he has now.
“I feel like all the trials and tribulations I’ve been through over my college career have definitely made me into the man I am today,” he said. “I definitely am blessed to be in the position I am, for sure. I don’t take anything lightly.
“I just take everything day by day, and try to move forward positively, and I try to leave an impact that will be looked at as a leader for everybody in this community.”
'HE CAN RUN'
On the field, Gardner has become an integral piece for a Cajun defense playing its final non-conference game at Ohio before opening Sun Belt Conference play one week later at Georgia Southern.
“No question, we’ve been very impressed with Ferrod,” Napier said of Gardner, who has been playing exclusively on the inside this season and bouncing inside and out last year.
“Ferrod’s a good athlete. He can run. He’s really taken a step forward in terms of his football IQ, his understanding of our defense, and really having a language that he speaks about the other side of the ball — formations, running plays, pass patterns.”
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Extensive off-season film work helped with that.
“I took it a lot more serious than I did in 2018,” Gardner said. “I just felt like I worked a lot harder this year, in the film room and out on the field.
“Coach Napier really is trying to preach to me about mental toughness, and I took that as a challenge and attacked it head on.
“I spent countless hours in the film room, just trying to learn offenses and break down schemes and break down formations, and being able to have play recognition, and be able to recognize a formation and realize what plays they run out of that formation and be able to attack and go faster.”
“This year is a lot more fun,” Gardner said. “I feel like I’m playing a lot faster. I feel like I’m a lot (more) fluid. I feel like I’m more certain with my decision-making.
“I feel like me and my brothers out there, we’re all on the same page. And when we’re all right, we’re alright and we can play fast that way.”
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All of which serves to make a game close to home — one of them, at least — especially satisfying for Gardner.
Dayton and Athens, Ohio, are only 135 miles apart, allowing many family members who never have seen Gardner play college ball make it to the Cajuns-Bobcats game.
“It’s been a long college journey for me,” Gardner said, “and this is the first game they ever get to see me play live.”
Yet focusing on it, he vowed, would be no different than any other week, no matter who is in the stands, where he was or what tragedies have made times so trying.
“Once the game usually starts, I’m usually in a zone, I like to say,” Gardner said, “and I just want to go out there and play my game the best I can, and do what I can for the team, and be the best I can.”
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