This is the fifth in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020. From 1946-2005, the first 60 Outland Trophy winners were profiled in the book 60 Years of the Outland Trophy by Gene Duffey. In celebration of the Outland Trophy’s 75th Anniversary we are catching up with the last 15 recipients.
(Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi became the second Wisconsin offensive lineman to claim the Outland Trophy during a five-year period. He had 49 starts at left tackle in his four-year college career. Carimi was selected by the Chicago Bears, 29th overall, in the 2011 NFL Draft. He played four seasons in the NFL, two with the Bears and one each for Tampa and Atlanta.)
By Gene Duffey, Author
Early in his career as a Wisconsin Badger Gabe Carimi showed he could follow a legend and do it his way.
The phone call surprised Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema. Alayne Gardner-Carimi, the mother of Bielema’s redshirt freshman offensive tackle, wanted to talk.
Alayne told Bielema that her son, Gabe, was Jewish and would be fasting before the Iowa game, Sept. 22, for Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays. Tradition dictates that Jews fast from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.
“Thank goodness Iowa’s a night game,” said Alayne.
“It took me by surprise,” said Bielema. “We’ve had a number of Jewish kids on the team. There’s a large Jewish population in Wisconsin.”
The Badgers entered the Iowa game, their Big Ten opener, with 3-0 record. They beat the Hawkeyes, 17-13.
Carimi played. He said that fasting did not affect him. He did eat some bread before taking the field.
“I made that decision on my own,” he said of the decision to fast. “I felt fine.”
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish religion, came into play again during Carimi’s senior year. Once again he fasted for the 24 hours before the Sept. 18 home game vs. Arizona State. The Badgers beat The Sun Devils, 20-19, in Wisconsin’s third game of the season.
A favorite axiom in sports is don’t try to succeed a legend. Carimi did just that at Wisconsin.
Offensive tackle Joe Thomas won the Outland Trophy in 2006, the same year Carimi arrived on campus. Carimi took over at left tackle for Thomas in 2007 as a redshirt freshman and started for four years.
The Cleveland Browns selected Thomas with the No. 3 pick overall in the ’07 draft. Instead of leaving a gaping hole at left tackle, Carimi made it seem as if Thomas had never left.
“When you replace an Outland Trophy winner and there’s not one article written about it, (it must have been a smooth transition),” said Bielema.
What did Carimi learn from his one year with Thomas at Wisconsin?
“I talked to him a little bit,” said Carimi. “I watched his films and I was able to emulate his play, his techniques. I didn’t make aspirations. Just take it day by day. I felt like I believed in my abilities. I always thought I would try to be as good as him.”
Carimi came from Cottage Grove, Wisconsin which used to be home to chewing tobacco farms. The area eventually evolved into a bedroom community for Madison.
He seemed destined to go to Wisconsin. Carimi remembered watching the Badgers beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1993 season. He attended at least one Wisconsin game a season during his high school years.
When Carimi developed into a desirable recruit his senior year of high school, Michigan State, Indiana, Nebraska and Michigan all wanted him. “Once Wisconsin offered me, I knew I was going there,” he said. “They’ve always produced good offensive linemen.”
Bielema saw the potential for growth in Carimi.
“He was good in camp here before his senior year,” said Bielema. “He was probably 6-5, slender build, about 250, but a big frame. His father was a large man, so he definitely had the potential.”
Carimi’s father, Sanford, a doctor, stands 6-foot-6, but didn’t play football. He went out for the team his freshman year of high school, but ended up playing in the band. Talk about the Big Band era.
Gabe began playing organized football in seventh grade, on the offensive and defensive lines. His size made him a natural.
He was born in Lake Forest, Illinois and his family moved to Cottage Grove for his eighth-grade year. He played at Monona Grove High School for Coach Mike Stassi, making the all-state team as a senior. He also competed in track, throwing the shot put and discus.
Once he arrived at Wisconsin, there was no question that Carimi would play offense.
“I thought I had a better chance of being a better player on offense,” he said. “I realized I could be a quick offensive lineman or a slow defensive lineman.”
Going to a school that thrived on running the ball made sense.
“Pass blocking was always harder (than run blocking),” he said. “You’re moving backward on a pass against someone moving forward.”
While Carimi redshirted his first season at Wisconsin, another offensive lineman, Jake Bscherer, played as a true freshman. Bscherer and Carimi competed for the job to replace Joe Thomas the following year. Bscherer eventually started eight games at left guard and right tackle in 2009, then transferred before the 2010 season.
Carimi started as a redshirt freshman at Thomas’ former spot at left tackle against Washington State. Most freshmen are nervous in their first game. Not Carimi. “I played really well,” he said. “I thought it was just like practice.”
The Badgers won, 42-21, before the usual sellout of 81,547 at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin marched up and down the field, totaling 486 yards of total offense.
Good competition should make any player better. Carimi faced one of the best every day in practice, blocking defensive end J.J. Watt, who ended up being the first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans in 2011.
“I got to practice against the best offensive lineman in the country every day,” Watt said of Carimi. “I think we made each other better. I think that’s why we were both first-round picks. He exposed my flaws, I exposed his. When you get to face a guy (like that) every single day, it makes you a whole lot better.
“He’s very smart, strong guy,” Watt said of Carimi. “For his size, he could move very well. He always knew what he was doing and he could anticipate the defensive lineman’s moves.”
No matter how often linemen hit each other in practice, they rarely get close off the field, the offense and defense going their own ways.
“Offensive linemen mostly hang out with just offensive linemen,” said Carimi.
“I was defense, he was offense, there’s always that little bit of head butting,” Watt said. “Those offensive line guys are a different breed. They lead within their own group. We were buddies. He’s definitely a quiet guy, a little reserved. But he’s got a quiet confidence about him. That’s why he has success.”
Although Carimi enjoyed similar college success as Thomas, they were different types of people.
“On the field, their personalities are similar, always willing to play through the whistle,” said Bielema. “(But) Joe was pretty outgoing. Gabe takes his time to get to know somebody.”
The teammate who probably appreciated Carimi the most was tight end Garrett Graham, who also went on to play in the NFL.
“He helped me out a lot along the way,” Graham said of Carimi. “He’s a great blocker. Sticking that big paw out and knocking people over, makes you look a little better than you really are. When you’ve got a guy like that playing next to you, and the line we had, it makes it easier on the tight ends. Me and Gabe had countless double teams in practice, and in the games. You want to run behind Gabe, that’s for sure.”
Graham saw the serious side of Carimi during the games and the fun side away from football.
“When it comes to on the field, making calls, getting everybody ready to go, hyping up the team, he’s definitely not shy when it comes to that,” said Graham. “We became good buddies. (Off the field he’s) opposite than how he is on the field. Like a big, teddy bear, all about having fun. You’d see him out all the time, mostly with the O-linemen. They tend to get rowdy, walking around Madison. They were definitely a fun group to hang out with. When you put five 300-pounders together hanging at a bar, things tend to get worked up. You can use your imagination.”
Carimi suffered a torn medial collateral ligament his sophomore year in a three-point loss to Ohio State. “I put my guy on the ground and the whole pile fell on me,” he said. “I heard about five clicks. I jumped up and realized (I was hurt) and fell back down.”
He did not require surgery and returned three weeks later against Michigan State.
“I probably shouldn’t have come back that quickly,” he said. “It takes some time for those to heal. I played and nothing happened. But I wasn’t at full strength.”
Including Watt, Carimi played against four first round draft picks his senior year. He said he played his best game of the season against Iowa’s A.J. Clayborn, taken by Tampa Bay with the 20th pick overall, and also faced TCU’s Jerry Hughes, selected by Indianapolis with the 31st choice, in the Rose Bowl.
Carimi allowed only one sack his senior year, against Michigan State. “I didn’t set right,” he said. “Possibly being relaxed on the play and he beat me to the inside.”
Michigan defensive end Tim Jamison tried to get around Carimi several times in their college career.
“He had good footwork,” said Jamison. “That separated him from a lot of guys I went against in college. You’ve got to use your hands going against him. A young Joe Thomas, I guess. He wasn’t a trash talker. He’s a hard-working guy. He deserved (the Outland).”
Jamison said he knew about Carimi ahead of time because his brother, Terrence, played at Wisconsin.
Wisconsin had been stopped by close losses several times in Carimi’s career at Madison.
In 2008 the Badgers lost to Michigan by two, to Ohio State by three and to Michigan State by one, then fell to Florida State in the Champs Bowl in Orlando to finish with a disappointing 7-6 record.
In 2009 the Badgers roared off to an 8-2 start before losing, 33-31, at Northwestern. They ended the season with a satisfying 20-14 victory over Miami (Florida) in the Champs Bowl. The Badgers used a 430-249 edge in total offense to control the game.
“We were heavy underdogs,” Carimi said proudly. “We were way more physical than they were.”
Everything fell into place his senior year in 2010. Wisconsin went 11-1 in the regular season, losing only at Michigan State, and scored 70 points on Northwestern and 83 on Indiana late in the year.
The Badgers then met undefeated TCU in the Rose Bowl. Carimi’s college career ended with a tough 21-19 loss to the Horned Frogs.
Wisconsin outrushed the Frogs 226 yards to 82, but the whole game was decided by one play.
Wisconsin scored on a four-yard run by Montee Ball with exactly two minutes to play, then failed on the two-point conversion that would have tied the game.
“A linebacker (TCU’s Tank Carder) went the wrong way, we had a guy wide open and he batted down the ball,” said Carimi. “He got lucky.”
Wisconsin became known for its tough running backs, from Alan “The Horse” Ameche winning the Heisman Trophy in 1954 to burly Ron Dayne winning it in 1999. The tradition was built around offensive linemen such as Dennis Lick, Ray Snell and Aaron Gibson, people in the mold of Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi.
Opponents know what the Badgers will do on offense and still can’t stop them.
“We’d look at the film later and they would have eight or nine in the box,” Carimi said of opposing defenses. It didn’t matter.
Carimi blocked for quality backs in Madison named P.J. Hill, John Clay and Ball. “You always block the same,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s back there.”
Graham fondly recalled the rushing offense at Madison.
“Everybody took pride in the Wisconsin running game,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s such a tradition there for so long.”