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"To Me, Youth Football Was Special"

This is the third installment of "Why We Play," a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game. 

Football was a family affair for current Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III.

Gilbert began playing youth football in Ocala, Florida at the age of five where his father Ulysees II was his coach. As he got older he graduated to the next level of competition where his coach was his cousin Mike. 

“I always had some type of family around when I played,’’ Gilbert, who just completed his rookie season with the Steelers, said. “To me, youth football was special. But it was even more special to have my father there. It made me bond even more with him.’’

Gilbert has fond memories of his days growing up in Ocala were he would eventually star at Trinity Catholic High School before moving on to Akron University where he would eventually become a 2019 sixth-round draft choice of Pittsburgh.

It all started, however, with his father’s youth football squad.

“He did a great job as a dad being a coach,’’ Gilbert said. “He allowed me to always enjoy the game. When we went home he was never overbearing or tried to do too much. He didn’t play me because I was his son. He made sure I was good enough to play. And he also treated the other kids very well. Kids would always come back after the season, or even years later and thank him for what he did for them. That was always great to see. He wasn’t a dad that just wanted his son to be a star; he wanted to help everybody.’’

Gilbert says not just playing for his father’s team and then his cousin’s team, but youth football in general helped him become not just the football player he is today, but the man he is as well.   

“To me youth football is very important,’’ he said. “It teaches you so much at a young age. Football itself teaches you so many lessons and a young age to be able to play football with the kids you grew up with, you form relationships that last forever. I had my Dad as a coach so I had the benefit of the love to make you a better person first, and a better football player, second.’’

Former Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie and current New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams are just two of the former Ocala Youth League players who preceded Gilbert to the NFL. Now that he’s made that elite group, he some times thinks back to his days as a youngster playing for the first time. 

“I do, and it’s kind of a weird thing,’’ Gilbert said. “To be able to make it to this position you think back to how you played all the games, practiced all those times, played in the backyard, played with all your friends, you dreamed about it, now it actually came to fruition.

“At the same time as you grow up you think about this, but you try not to focus too much on it. You just want to go day to day and try to have fun and win your games. But then you’re watching football on TV, NFL, or college and you say ‘Hey Dad I want to get there one day.’ When it gets closer and closer and it gets real, it’s like, ‘Dang, this is going to happen.’”