By Adrienne M Turzuoli @a_m_terzuoli
It’s the bye week for the Wagner College Seahawks, and the players have exactly two full days off before game preparations begin for their next Northeast Conference (NEC) opponent, Robert Morris University. I’m a frequent visitor to this campus. Usually, I can be found in the football offices, interviewing fifth-year head coach, Jason Houghtaling (Coach Hoss), or the media office discussing photos and social media content. But today, I came to interview, for the second time in his career, senior defensive lineman, Cameron (Cam) Gill.
We meet in the “Union,” a central location that houses the bookstore, a small art gallery, the dining hall and the president of the university’s office, among other offices. I buy a cup of coffee from a grab and go spot called the “Hawk’s Nest” and wait for Cam at a table by the window in the lobby, that looks out to the Verrazzano bridge- admiring one of the major advantages to Wagner- the view.
As Cam runs up the stairs coming from breakfast, I stand to greet him and he pulls me in for a giant hug. He is dressed as you would expect a college student-athlete to dress: sneakers, sweatpants, and a Wagner College football sweatshirt. On the back of the sweatshirt reads the acronym W.I.N in large white block letters, outlined in neon yellow. Underneath the acronym in smaller white block letters reads, “WHATS IMPORTANT NOW.” It’s an acronym that has gotten a lot of attention this season, and was even the subject of my bye week photo story. I thank Cam for allowing me to bogart some of his free time on his day off, and in true Cam Gill fashion he assures me that “it’s not a problem.”
* * * *
If you don’t know Cam Gill, you should. Named 2018 NEC Defensive Player of the Year, he is a one man wrecking machine. Offenses hate playing against him, quarterbacks have been tossed on their behinds twenty-seven times by him, and coaches change schemes to stop him, but that doesn’t concern him in the slightest. “At first it was a bit frustrating. I’m often double teamed on every snap, and taking hits from all sides. But now, I look at it all as a sign of respect. They [coaches and players] look at me as someone they need to double team, because I’ll run around you every time. It sounds cocky, but it’s not at all. I’m actually humbled by it, but it’s still fun.”
For the next hour plus, Cam and I talk about all things football, and all the in between.
* * * *
As a young kid, Cam describes himself as talkative. “I didn’t love school. I was outgoing and always talking in class. It got me into trouble because of it, but nothing serious. I just talked, a lot.” It’s hard to believe that he wasn’t born with a football in his hand or that he didn’t try to tackle the doctor that had to give him his first set of shots, but his first love wasn’t football at all- it was basketball. “I didn’t start playing football until around the age of seven. We had moved to Georgia from North Carolina and it wasn’t until I saw my older step-brother play that I developed an interest in it.” He pauses for a second. “Actually, that’s not true. Let me back up. I used to watch lacrosse and football games and found myself intrigued by their equipment. I remember thinking how fun it would be to put all that on and run into people. I figured with all that padding, it probably wouldn’t hurt that much.” He laughs.
While it took Ms. Williams, Cam’s mother, some convincing to let him play, she eventually gave her blessing and let Cam join a local league. “I didn’t really take to football at first. When you’re seven years old you’re literally just running around the field with no sense of direction.”
It wasn’t until his transition from eighth grade to freshman year of high school that Cam fell in love with the game. “Looking back on high school is weird because in ninth grade I had no idea you could even get a scholarship to play football in college. All I knew was that I wanted to play in high school and eventually go back to South Carolina, where I was born, and play for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. Everything I did in high school on the football field was with the idea that I was going to play for USC.”
As a freshman at Chapel Hill High School in Georgia, Cam started as a tight end and had dreams of playing in college at the same position. “I looked up to guys like Tony Gonzalez, and wanted to follow in his footsteps.” It wasn’t until his junior year that Cam split his time between offense and defense, after some of the defensive players were injured. “I was going to play wherever they needed me. I didn’t think I would stay as a defensive end, but my head coach kept telling me how I was a natural at that position and I should consider a permanent switch. I kind of ignored it at first because I really didn’t think it was for me. I was set on staying at tight end. Senior year I made the switch to defense only, made a ton more plays, hit a lot more people and never looked back.”
A solid B student, Cam wasn’t worried about getting accepted into college. He was sure he would have an offer to play for a Division 1 school. USC never called. Instead, he met Coach Hoss from Wagner College and the rest- well we know how it turned out.
“This Georgia number called me one day and I picked up thinking it was one of my friends. Instead it was a local recruiter who said he had watched my film with the Wagner head coach and after two or three plays he said, and I remember the quote, ‘Cut it off. Get him on the phone and offer him a spot.’ I knew from the moment I met Coach Hoss that I wanted to play for him. Here was this man who flew all the way to Georgia, sitting in my living room, amping me up to play. He had passion- he still does- every day. He was in his first year coaching at Wagner and they didn’t have a great season. Most people nowadays would have taken that as a reason not to commit to that school, but I was all in. I believed in him. He was set on putting everything he had into building this team, I was like where do I sign? I didn’t get a call from USC, but God doesn’t make mistakes. I consider myself lucky and blessed that I get to play every day for Coach Hoss and Wagner College. He has taught me so much, but the biggest lesson by far is the importance of communication. He emphasizes that every day. We need to communicate as a team in order to get better- in football, and in life.”
* * * *
A few days after I sat down with Cam, I spoke with Coach Hoss. I asked him about his recruitment of Cam and what he, as a coach and as a person has learned from his four year starter. “To be honest, we were nervous that we were going to lose him. In the fall we had some staff changes and didn’t do a great job of following up. After the new year break, I made it a point to get down to Georgia to have some face time with him. I knew the minute I saw his tape that I wanted him. I said to call him now and make him a offer. There wasn’t a question. It was the easiest recruitment of my career. He was exactly what we were looking for. He was versatile enough to play either outside linebacker or tight end and was extremely powerful. We wanted big, skilled guys who could move.”
I repeated my question about what he has learned from Cam. “Wow, I have learned so much from Cam. He treats everyone with the utmost respect and has a genuine care for people. He especially cares about his teammates and it’s evident by how hard he prepares and practices. It’s not just about him, but the team as a whole. I really have to credit his parents. It’s truly a testament to the wonderful job they did raising him. He is proof that with hard work, talent and determination you can accomplish anything you want. He’s definitely taught me to stay the course and keep grinding no matter the circumstance. We still have a lot of work left to do this year to accomplish our goals, but to say that I am proud of the person Cam is and the player he is would be an understatement.”
* * * *
By recruitment timelines, Cam was picked up late, and didn’t take an official visit to Wagner College until January, after he had already committed to playing. It was a leap of faith, but one that Cam and his mom felt at ease with the minute they landed at the airport. “I remember it was cold and snowing, but I had a great time. They pair you up with a current player and you get to shadow them. My roommate was Tyamonee Johnson.”
I instantly get a chill at the sound of Tyamonee’s name. Tyamonee, “T,” was a five year member of the football team who was tragically killed in his home state of Maryland in December of 2018.
“T met us at the airport and immediately took my mother’s bag. He was so respectful. I appreciated that. He told me not to let the normal stigma of college get into your head. If you’re good, you’ll play. Hoss wants his best players on that field.”
By the end of his freshman year, Cam was a starter. “I’ll never forget what T told me on my visit. He said ‘take advantage of every moment.’ I most certainly am.”
* * * *
We took a break from football to talk about Cam’s family. As a child he spent a lot of time with his great-grandmother while his mom was at work. “We always had a strong bond. She was an amazing lady. Unfortunately, she never had the opportunity to see me play, but before every game I always honor her. She passed away on the 11th of July in 2017, and before I take the field, I tap my jersey, my No. 11 and point to the sky for her. After freshman year I changed from No. 56 to No. 11. I dedicate it all to her.”
I take a moment to blot a tear away from my eye.
“You see, for me, I get to play a game I love- a game I’m good at, but it goes beyond that. None of this would have ever been possible without my mom. I’m lucky because I actually have four parents: my mom and my stepdad, my dad and my stepmom. How many people can say they had four people raise them and help them to become the man I am today? I am blessed. But, from high school, my tunnel vision for playing football went deeper than the game.”
He continues to tell me about how his mom and him would drive to countless football camps and games all throughout the south: Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and she never questioned it. She made sure that when he was given a meal plan in high school to add some weight to his 185 pound frame, all of his food was purchased, and he had everything he needed to set him up for success. She was all in on his goal of playing college football and beyond, and it’s Cam’s dream to be able to give back to her. “I can’t begin to tell you what she means to me. There is no one like my mom. Every time I walk to practice at 6AM, I think about her. Does anyone really want to be up that early to practice? No, probably not, but for her, I push. And I will continue to push until I can make that phone call. You know the one. I want to call her one day and say ‘Stop whatever you’re doing. Put it down, get up and walk out. You’re done.’”
I notice that Cam’s demeanor softens when he talks about his mom. He takes a minute to collect himself as I grab the napkin under my coffee cup and wipe my eyes. I immediately regret wearing mascara that day. I feel slightly embarrassed to have shown this much emotion and quickly change the subject.
I ask him about having a social life as a student-athlete. As a self described homebody, he enjoys staying close to where he is, but never turns down the opportunity to hang out with friends. “I surround myself with good people. That’s important to me. I like to chill, but I also need a change of scenery once in a while. We’re always on the hunt for good food.” We chat a little about local Staten Island eateries and I quickly find out that his favorite food is waffles. I tell him about this little hole in the wall coffee shop close to campus that makes the best waffles and promise to take him there after the season is over. “It’s on tape. I’m going to hold you to that.” He points to my tape recorder and laughs.
We return to our discussion about football.
* * * *
Being named NEC DPOY as a junior is a title Cam calls humbling, but doesn’t think too much about. He says that he continues to fight like he’s number two. “I’m thankful. There’s plenty of my friends and people I know that would have lived for this moment. I get to compete with my brothers every day. For it to be me who gets to do it- I’ve worked for it. It’s nice, but I’m always fighting for more. There are a lot of people who call me an underdog and that’s fine. It’s brings out the fight in me. I don’t love the attention, but I’ve earned it, if that makes sense? I’ll be the underdog. But, if you put me in a one-on-one coverage- that guy on the other side is going to have a long day. So give me that one-on-one all day, then call me the underdog.”
“I don’t think of him as an underdog. I think Cam will be able to play anywhere. I think he’s been put in underdog situations and he still gets it done. I can see why he would think that about himself though. He wants to be the best. He fights every day to be the best. I don’t speak in definites very often, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if Cam Gill walks onto that field with anyone in the country, he wouldn’t just hold his own- he would be a play maker.”
– Coach Hoss
I ask Cam about his biggest influences: “My biggest non-sports influence is definitely my mom. She has the right answers for everything. Moms just know. She’s been through it all- there is nothing I can’t bring to her. She’s my life line. My biggest sports influence would be Coach Knighton.”
Coach Terrance Knighton is a second year defensive line coach with the Wagner College Seahawks and a former NFL defensive tackle.
“Who better to learn from than someone who knows? He’s gotten to the level that I’m trying to get to. I use him as much as I can. He’s always the most real with me. He’s elevated my game in so many ways and always believed in me. We can chat about pretty much everything.”
I asked Coach Knighton what makes Cam so unique.
“He is by far one of the most selfless people I know. He does everything to the absolute best he can. He takes everything with the utmost seriousness when it comes to raising his game. I have no doubt that no matter what he does in life, he’ll be successful because he has the right attitude and attacks everything he does with one-hundred and fifty percent of Cam.”
Over the next few months, Cam will finish his college football career and focus on preparing for the NFL draft. He is hoping to receive an invitation to one of the premier all-star games. “Whenever that call or e-mail comes in, I’ll be there. I’m going in. You have to have that ‘all-in’ mentality with everything you do. I know there are people out there who will question my ability to get the job done because I come from a smaller FCS school. All I can say is ‘watch me.’ I don’t care where you go to school- we all get up, put our pads on and strap it up the same way. Trust me when I say, I’m ready.”
* * * *
As a senior, Cam has been named a captain. Along with four of his teammates, Cam calls themselves the ‘voice of the team.’ “To be named a captain of this team in particular means everything. It means that the team thinks highly of you and looks to you as a leader. I hope they can look at me as someone they can come to. This is our team- we’re in this together.”
As I know I have taken up more of his time than I originally promised, I ask Cam what makes this Wagner College Seahawks’ team special? “Coach Hoss says we are in a great position right now. We’re right where we need to be for the NEC championship run. I agree with him. The team agrees with him. Yeah we struggled a little at the beginning with non-conference play, but you can’t get stuck on that. This team fights. We’re brothers. We lock it in and we do everything we can by any means to achieve our goal. People tried to count us out before the year even started- that just feeds our hunger to prove you wrong. We’re focused – every single day, and I believe in this team. I can’t stress that enough.”
There’s a look of fight in his eyes when he talks about his teammates. You can’t help but admire that. He continues to say that as much as the players want it, the coaches want it just as bad.
I place my hands under my chin to lean on them as I ask him one final question. ‘What do you want to be remembered for long after football has ended- think sixty or so years from now?’
He laughs. “What do I want to be remembered for? Oof that’s a good one.” He rubs his chin and sits back in his chair. After a few seconds he leans in, clasps his hands together, intertwining his fingers, and places them on the table. “I hope people remember that I’m a selfless guy that cares about others. If I care about you, there is nothing that I won’t do for you. But, also, I want to be remembered as a guy that was relentless, a leader, and good or bad, I left it all out there, every game, every play.”
As we say goodbye, we hug again and I ask him about his plans for the rest of his day off. He gives a full mouth smile and as he walks away yells back, “Gotta go get ready for Robert Morris. Let em know, we coming.”