From April 26 to 28, the annual NFL draft will be taking place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Dozens of college football players will finally achieve their lifelong dream of playing professional football. For one local former athlete, the memories of the 1989 NFL draft are still crystal clear.
Gary Gooden was a football star at Nazareth H.S., East Flatbush, in the early 1980s. His journey has come full circle. He is currently the boys’ and girls’ varsity track coach at his alma mater, where he is living proof to the student-athletes that they too can accomplish their goals.
Gooden’s work ethic and determination were evident right from the start at Nazareth when he received a letter from JV football coach Dom Laurendi about tryouts for the team in August 1981.
“At that time, I was 5’7”, 112 pounds,” said Gooden, who had never played organized football before. “I told my dad and my mom that I was going to try out for the football team, and my dad laughed. He didn’t think any football team was going to pick me up because I was that small.”
Following the tryouts, Laurendi started giving out helmets to each of the players that he intended to keep. Gooden began getting dejected that Laurendi had not yet given him a helmet.
But sure enough, the coach saw something in the speedy freshman.
“He (Laurendi) walks over to me, calls my name and gives me the helmet,” Gooden said. “He says, ‘I don’t know why I’m giving you this helmet. Something was telling me to cut you, but something is telling me to give you this helmet.’”
Gooden immediately ran home to tell his father, Lascelles, that he had made the team. Lascelles was leaving for work, but Gooden caught him just in time. When he told his dad the news, again Lascelles laughed and continued laughing as he began driving away.
“I went upstairs to my room, and I cried because I felt like there was no belief in me,” Gooden said.
“Right then, I started doing pushups … a lot of them. I was going to show him (Lascelles) and everybody that I could this. That’s how the fire got lit in me.”
That fire burned brightly for four years in East Flatbush, as Gooden starred as a running back for the Kingsmen. He played three years on varsity, and as a senior captain, his team won the Metro Bowl championship in 1984. He was the league’s leading scorer and earned All-City honors.
Meanwhile, Gooden also ran track at the school. To this day, he holds the school record in the 100- and 200-meter races.
He had a number of college scholarship offers, and he chose to attend the University of Indiana, Bloomington. He played as a wide receiver on the football team and was able to continue running track as well.
When the NFL draft came around in April 1989, Gooden was not expecting to be drafted. However, though he had been written off as too small his whole life, the Los Angeles Raiders were enthralled by the size of his heart – and of course his blazing speed.
The Raiders selected Gooden in the ninth round that year. Soon after, Gooden received a phone call from his father, who wasn’t laughing this time.
“He (Lascelles) explained to me how proud of me he was and how I’ve outlived all the expectations as a son,” Gooden said. “He told me that you must come back to Nazareth and Brooklyn to show the kids how you did this.”
First though, it was off to rookie camp, where Gooden said things went well as he prepared for an NFL career. However, during the team’s main training camp, Gooden severely injured his knee while running a route during a scrimmage.
He took a year off to rehab and then earned a tryout with the Miami Dolphins in 1991. His knee though still wasn’t 100 percent healed, and he didn’t make the team. At that point, he realized that what his dad told him after the draft was the way to go.
“I think that was a sign for me to get home and be active in the community and be a role model,” Gooden said. “I wanted to be home to give a positive environment to the kids of the community.”
He coached football at Nazareth under Laurendi for several years and has since taken over the track program. He uses his experiences to prepare the current Kingsmen student-athletes for what they can expect at the next level.
“Like I tell the kids that I coach every day, if I can make it without any formal training, you have every opportunity to make it,” he said. “I’ve been to the mountaintop in both sports, and I came from simple beginnings.
“Now I’m back there to tell them the same thing. That’s probably the most important thing I’ve done in my life. I did it, and you can do it. If you put your mind to it, it can be done.”
The soon-to-be NFL draftees can learn a lot from Gooden’s story. It doesn’t matter where you come from; it’s about what you do with the God-given gifts you have that make all the difference.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.