Gardent making climb to NFL

French-born NFL Europe linebacker enjoying his time with Redskins


ASHBURN, Va. -- On the walls of his bedroom hung the heroes of his youth. Alberto Tomba. Pirmin Zurbriggen.

Jean-Claude Killy?

"Killy was too old for me," Philippe Gardent said one afternoon last week at Redskins Park, sweating and smiling and still a little in awe of his surroundings.

Thousands of miles from his home in the French Alps, in the town of Grenoble, made famous by Killy's triple gold-medal triumph nearly 40 years ago, Gardent is living out his own Olympic-sized fantasy as a prospective member of the Washington Redskins.

"It's a dream for me," said Gardent, a 27-year old linebacker who played the past four years in NFL Europe. "My dream was to play in NFL Europe, and I do. The next level is the NFL. Now, I've just got to show I can stay in there. Every year, I want to get to the next step."

It's only the second week of August and Gardent, who was the league's defensive Most Valuable Player and leading tackler as a member of the Cologne Centurions, could get no further this season than the practice squad. But Gardent has made a pretty good impression so far.

"He looks like a football player," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said. "It's always interesting to get someone like that coming from such a distant game from what we're used to. It will be interesting to see how he does. I'll say this: It'll take a bright guy to come over from there to do this."

Said linebackers coach Dale Lindsay: "I don't think he's a bad athlete. I do like his toughness and his ability to work. He wants to do what we want to do. Nobody has worked harder."

After playing in the special teams drills and with the third-team defense in Saturday's scrimmage against the Ravens, Gardent will likely see some time in Sunday's exhibition opener in Cincinnati. Because Gardent is ineligible to play during the regular season because of the rule that international players stay on practice squads, the preseason is his Super Bowl.

"There's a lot of study for me. I was not in OTAs [offseason workouts], I was not in minicamp, this week I didn't sleep that much," said Gardent, who at 6 feet 1 and 238 pounds is a bit undersized for the NFL. "A lot of players told me that if I can learn this playbook, I can learn any playbook in the NFL."

The son of an Alpine ski instructor, Gardent gave up skiing - and a burgeoning career as a member of the French national bobsled team - and started playing American football when he was 16 and some friends in Grenoble invited him to work out with the town's amateur team, the Centaurs.

Gardent spent seven years playing amateur football while finishing school, and wound up in NFL Europe in 2003. As a rookie for the Berlin Thunder, Gardent had a rough indoctrination when he suffered a season-ending broken leg. He earned a World Bowl ring with the Thunder in 2004.

Not bad for a player who didn't even watch his first NFL game until the 1997 Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots.

Though the odds are against Gardent making the jump to the NFL, his coaches are not ruling out the possibility. Gardent was the first European-born player to lead NFL Europe in any major category and the first to be named an MVP.

"He might be a great special teams player," Lindsay said. "I don't want to ignore him, but at the same time I don't want to take away from the other guys. We have to find out if he could possibly help us if we lose two or three linebackers during the year."

Gardent studies the flip cards he made diagramming the team's defensive formations. As much of a mental picture he can formulate to ensure he is in the right place on the field, he is still trying to adjust to the speed and physical nature of the NFL game.

"The adjustments, the calls you've got to do on the field, that's a lot of work," Gardent said. "I think I'm ready for that. I've got a lot of work to do. There are some calls I don't even know yet."

Gardent is constantly bombarded with teammates or fans saying "Bonjour," and last week he took part in the traditional rookie hazing of having to sing a song to the veteran players. Rather than serenade them with "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, Gardent sang, "La Riette."

"It's just about some girl walking in the forest and meeting up with some guys," Gardent said.

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