TAMPA, Fla. - Gale Gilbert made a mistake. A terribly public mistake. The kind of mistake that can end a career, a marriage. A mistake that inexorably alters a life.
He got too full of himself. He got stuck in the web Celebrity spins around Seahawks in football-crazed Seattle. He was too immature to handle it.
He cheated on his wife. He was arrested and charged with rape. A jury acquitted him of rape and indecent liberties charges. He plead guilty to attempted second-degree assault and was sentenced to 200 hours of community service.
He lost his job as a backup quarterback. The wounds may have been self-inflicted, but that didn't mean they were less painful.
He had so much, then suddenly he had nothing. In the spring of 1988, he hit bottom.
``It was a nightmare. It was the worst kind of thing I wouldn't want to wish on my worst enemy,'' said Gilbert, now a backup quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. ``The pressures I went through made football seem like nothing. You can't say, `Hey listen, I didn't do anything,' because nobody will believe you. I pleaded guilty to attempted assault.''
Gilbert could have refused to talk yesterday about his problems in Seattle. He could have shrugged it off as ancient history he didn't want to exhume. But Gilbert says he can't hide from the mistakes. They are a part of his biography.
He understands there are people who always will think he was guilty. There are minds he won't be able to change.
``There's going to be a group who says I didn't do anything, and there's going to be a group who says I know he must have done something,'' Gilbert said. ``As long as I know what happened and my wife knows what happened, that's what counts.
``My wife is still with me. She saw something in me that she believed in. She was able to weather the storm and, as bad as things were, they've never been better now.
``I mean, it's really been a struggle. The hardest thing of all, I think, was telling my mother that this was going to come out in the papers. I mean, I made a mistake. I cheated on my wife and I had to tell my family, my in-laws, what happened.''
Gilbert was a three-year Seahawk veteran at the time of his trial.
``Things weren't going that well football-wise at the time, either,'' he said. ``The Seahawks had signed Jeff Kemp, and I was put on injured reserve. It's funny, because in 1986, my second year, (Seattle Coach Chuck) Knox said the quarterback job was going to be mine for the rest of the year.
``I played a game and a half, then never played again. Knox told me he was going to start Dave Krieg the next week. That was the last time Knox talked to me. It was weird, really weird.''
Gilbert started two games in 1986. He was 25 of 44 for 274 yards in a 38-7 loss to the New York Jets.
The next week, he was 13 for 26 for 140 yards against Kansas City, before being pulled at halftime in favor of Krieg.
Gilbert played 20 plays in a 1987 summer scrimmage with Houston. He completed the only pass he threw.
The next morning, quarterback coach Ken Meyer gave him the bad news.
``Sean Salisbury and I thought we were the best quarterbacks behind Dave, but Kenny told us Jeff Kemp and Dave were going to take the rest of the snaps that year.
``During the trial the next spring, the Seahawks pretty much took a `no comment' approach to my problems and stood at arm's length from them. I never talked to anybody in the front office. I knew that I was going to be released.
``That year (1988) was real tough. You have to wonder if it's over. Shoot, I was sitting home watching every Sunday. I was seeing all of the quarterbacks getting hurt. I knew I could play. My attorney and I put together a tape and sent it to every team but Seattle and San Francisco. I think that tape really helped me.''
The Bills had been interested in Gilbert since his college days at California. They invited him for a tryout in March of 1989. He passed the audition.
``They were looking for a backup who had some experience and probably wouldn't cost them much money,'' Gilbert said.
He broke a rib in an exhibition game and spent the 1989 season on Buffalo's injured reserve. He played well in exhibitions last summer and saw his first regular-season action since 1986 in the second half of the Bills' final regular-season game, a blowout loss at Washington.
Now, he is the backup to backup quarterback Frank Reich. He probably won't be activated for Sunday's Super Bowl. But his cameo appearance this season has rekindled his football flame.
Gilbert is 29 and knows his biological clock is ticking. He has resurrected a career and a life that was in ruins. Now, he wants to take the next step.
``I got a taste of it, and to play again, in a regular-season game, I mean, there's nothing like it,'' he said. ``That's going to give me something to build on. If there's Plan B free agency next year, that might be a possibility. I know I can play.
``I've learned a lot through this. I've learned perseverance. I've learned not to listen to what people say, because so much was said that wasn't true. I've learned that a lot more is important than football.
``I think I got caught up in being a football player. You think things are great. You can go out and drink beer and do whatever. Well, you can't. You have responsibilities. I had a responsibility to my wife, and I wasn't taking care of that.''
Gilbert has pieced his life together. His wife is student-teaching in Buffalo. He's in the Super Bowl. He has survived the wounds.
``I can look back at the bad times,'' Gilbert said, ``and know that it will never be that bad again.''
Steve Kelley's column usually is published Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the Sports section of The Times.