No offense can enjoy much success in football without a strong center.
He is the one who always touches the ball first. He has to snap it to the quarterback perfectly every time, and then must help open holes in the line, usually facing the biggest and strongest players on the opponents’ defense.
Coaches will remind you that the shortest route to the backfield is through the center.
The Navarro Panthers have that kind of center in junior Jon Gilbert. He has started for the Panthers in every game this season and game film shows why. He is easy to spot as he devours hapless defenders, helping open huge holes for Navarro’s talented running backs to slide through.
And Navarro has had all kinds of success on offense this year. Behind the biggest and maybe the best offensive line in school history, the still unbeaten Panthers have racked up an average of more than 400 yards rushing and 42 points per game.
What you likely will not be able to tell from watching them, however, is that Jon is legally blind. And he has already fought through far more daunting challenges than he will ever encounter on a football field.
According to his mother Amanda, Jon has a condition known as Pseudotumor cerebri. This condition increases intercranial pressure in his brain. At age 12, that pressure pushed spinal fluid onto his optic nerve and cost Jon most of his vision.
A blood clot later led to his suffering three separate strokes.
“In his left eye, he is 20/400 which is pretty much completely blind,” she said. “In his right eye, he has central vision loss and no peripheral vision. He has to find a little pinhole to see out of and then can only see four to five feet ahead.
“He has a VP (ventriculoperitoneal) programmable shunt in his brain. It drains the fluid out of his brain because his body produces too much of it and too fast. Without the shunt, it would continue compressing his optic nerve and then he could go 100% blind.”
With what he had been through and still faced, one would not have thought that football was in Jon’s future. But he thought differently.
“I’ve always loved playing football,” he said. “If I can play, I’m going to play.”
His mother took a little convincing, however.
“I did not want him to do it,” she said. “It took a lot of convincing from the neurosurgeon and the hematologist and the neurologist by telling me that others had played football with a shunt and were just fine.”
Jon said he also worked on his mother “every day” to let him play.
Amanda said she finally lost the argument and said “OK but if there is one injury in the head area, you’re never playing again.” She admits that she cringed a lot when he started playing his freshman year but felt better as the season went on.
Later that year, Rod Blount took the reins as the new head coach at Navarro. He said he heard about Jon and wanted to learn about him and his ability to play.
“I visited with him and his mom and found that they were comfortable with it,” Blount said. “He just had this happy-go-lucky attitude that he just wanted to be out there and be around his friends and play the game.”
Blount has been more than happy with what he has gotten from Jon.
“He is an outstanding football player,” Blount said. “He works so hard every day and doesn’t complain. He is a living example that you don’t have control over everything but you do have control over your attitude and how you work. Everybody loves him and responds to him.”
A fellow lineman, Cole Booker, is glad to have Jon by his side in the trenches.
“It’s so much fun having him as a teammate,” Booker said. “He cracks us up in the huddle. The plays revolve around him and we need him for us to score touchdowns.”
Jon, who also throws the shot-put during track season, says that when his Navarro days are done he would like to be a personal trainer and eventually own a gym.
No one should be surprised if he succeeds.
“He has been a determined kid since the day he started walking and talking,” Amanda said of Jon. “Once he makes up his mind to do something, he’s going to see it through. I don’t know how he plays football but he does it.
“I’m really proud of him.”
That is a sentiment everyone around Navarro can share.