Among the 124 athletes enshrined in the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame are many whose careers spanned not just years but decades, like Jamaal Wilkes, Randall Cunningham, Karch Kiraly, and Jesse Orosco.
Then there’s Tony Gilbert, whose name will be added to the honor roll at the 45th annual Round Table Hall of Fame banquet on Monday night, May 21. His time in the spotlight was brief, but it was absolutely brilliant.
Gilbert blossomed as an athlete in his senior year (1977-78) at Santa Barbara High, when he made spectacular catches in football. He tried track and field for the first time and won two individual CIF championships, in the high hurdles and triple jump.
“He was just scratching the surface,” said Jose Cardenas, who befriended Gilbert in the 3rd grade. “When I first met him, he was the tiniest person. His mother worried about him playing flag football with us.”
“I was always worried about him because he was so thin,” Ruby Gilbert said. She and Floyd Gilbert had three children. Tony, the youngest, was always playing something. “He played football with the dog,” Floyd recalled. “He’d throw the ball over in the corner of the yard. Duke would get it, and he’d come back at Tony and try to get around him.”
Parked in front of their house on East Haley Street was a ’58 Pontiac Bonneville, a large car. “Tony used to jump clear over it,” Ruby said. “Scared me to death.”
“Tony was just gifted as an athlete,” Cardenas said. “But he didn’t start to fill out until his junior year in high school.”
Because of his late start, Gilbert was not known to college recruiters. He went to SBCC, where he set a triple jump record (51′1 3/4″) that still stands, and he continued to amaze people with his athleticism on the football field.
“He was a heck of a receiver,” said Craig Moropoulos, the SBCC coach who was quarterback in those days. “I remember when we played Hancock College, I was trying to throw the ball away out of bounds. Tony came out of nowhere and leaped eight feet in the air, made a one-handed catch, and landed in bounds.”
A Michigan State coach was in Santa Maria to recruit a Hancock linebacker when he saw the SBCC receiver on film. He hustled to Santa Barbara, tracked down Gilbert, and signed him up to play for the Spartans.
Gilbert showed promise in his first season of Big Ten football — 10 catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns — and he made school history at the 1981 Big Ten Indoor Championships by winning two events, the 55-meter hurdles and triple jump. But he fell sick during the outdoor season, and he came home to find out what was wrong.
“That’s when they found out he had cancer,” Ruby Gilbert said. “He had this thing the size of a football in his stomach. It must have started when he was a little kid. He used to complain about his back and his stomach. We’d take him to the doctor. We always thought it was the flu. He got well when his stomach stopped hurting, or it was just that he stopped saying anything about it.”
After surgery and chemotherapy, Gilbert showed signs of recovery. “He went back to Michigan, and it didn’t seem he was sick at all,” his mother said. “He thought he was fine.” But it was a brief respite. By May 1982, he was too weak to continue in school.
“They put him in the hospital,” Ruby said. “We went there to get him. When we got to the airport, he walked to the plane. We sat on the plane and laughed and talked. He walked into the hospital [in Santa Barbara] and got into bed. The next day he couldn’t get up. He never got out of bed again.”
Tony Gilbert died on July 24, 1982, two weeks short of his 22nd birthday. Michigan State honored him posthumously that fall with the Biggie Munn Award for Most Inspirational Player. Santa Barbara High bestows the Tony Gilbert Citizen-Athlete Award to an exemplary student every year.
Cardenas advocated Gilbert’s induction into the Round Table Hall of Fame after he visited his friend’s gravesite and realized it was coming up to 30 years since his death. Now the whole community can recognize one of its finest young men, one who never grew old.
Other members of the 2012 Hall of Fame class are Carpinteria track standout John Barbieri; multitalented Bishop Diego athlete Nancy Craig; UCSB women’s basketball coach Mark French; the late game official Bob Guillen; golfer John Pate; San Marcos and UCSB swimmer Dawn Schroeder; Chris Segesman, water polo player at Dos Pueblos and in the Olympics; Janelle Thompson, Santa Barbara High basketball star; and aquatic program benefactors Bill and Kristi Parrish.
The awards banquet will start at 5:30 p.m. at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort (633 E. Cabrillo Blvd.). Tickets are available at sbart.org.