By: Angela Tegnelia and Kevin Jones
Tashaun Gipson is the Peter Parker of the NFL. Yeah, Spiderman.
Gipson, like Peter Parker, came to acquire unordinary traits making him one of the most talented and rarified safeties in the National Football League.
All of the sudden, everything slows down.
Parker senses the school bully, Flash Thompson, approaching behind him. A paper airplane slowly soars through the cafeteria. A fly lingers overhead.
*Gipson hovers near the Browns 43-yard-line. It's first-and-10 with 3:37 left in the second quarter. Super Bowl-winning gunslinger Drew Brees licks his first two fingers as he walks to the line. *
Parker turns around. A fist inches toward his jaw like something from a dream.
*Gipson's muscles tighten. Shotgun. Brees motions to both sides of the line. The ball is snapped. *
Parker follows the fist with his eyes and shifts to his right. The bully's knuckles bash into the locker.
*Gipson reacts. Brees drops back to pass. He sees Jimmy Graham deep. The ball is launched. Time stands still as the ball creeps 10 yards, 20 yards, 30 yards… *
Parker stares down his attacker. Flash regains composure and continues his assault. He swings right, then left. Parker sees each blow coming, effortlessly ducking and dodging the punches before laying a blow of his own right to the gut of his massive enemy, sending him flying through the hallway and onto his back.
*Gipson tracks the football as it approaches. He leaps in the air and cradles the ball into his chest. Now, it's go time. Gipson takes off, dashing toward the end zone to the 50, to the 40 – Donte Whitner with the block – to the 20, to the 10, to the Dawg Pound. TOUCHDOWN Cleveland Browns. *
"The game has completely slowed down for me," said Gipson.
The undrafted free agent turned Pro Bowl-caliber safety has been a nightmare for even the league's top quarterbacks with two interceptions in five games so far this season.
"It's like I'm reading my keys, I'm getting my jumps, and I'm just able to play football."
With his uncanny ability to track passes, expose quarterbacks and capitalize on opportunities, Gipson seems like a natural NFL ball hawk. But his "spidy senses" weren't always tingling. Tashaun remembers a time when it was his older brother Marcell who was the most dominating Gipson on the gridiron.
It was like something out of *Friday Night Lights. *
Three years older than Tashaun – Marcell Gipson was heralded all over Dallas, Texas as a superstar running back and hometown hero drawing excitement and massive crowds to Sunset High School football games. Being so close in age, the two brothers didn't always get along growing up.
"He used to torture me," Tashaun said. "He used to do all sorts of things like spray starch in the kitchen and ask me to race. I'd run in there, slip and fall and hit my head."
Sibling rivalry aside, Tashaun couldn't deny his admiration for Marcell on the football field. The All-District and All-Area selection rushed for 1,650 yards on 221 carries and scored 21 touchdowns in his senior season.
"I looked up to him," Tashaun said. "I remember going to the games and everybody was coming to watch him because he was one of the best rushers in Dallas, Texas."
Even though he left The Lone Star State to play college ball, the older Gipson remained a Cowboy, signing with the University of Wyoming where he made the switch from running back to cornerback.
Meanwhile, the younger Gipson dominated the high school sports scene. As college crept closer, the three-sport athlete, like his two older brothers and father before him, began contemplating where football would take him next.
"Tashaun was coming out of high school. I wouldn't say he was a big time recruit, but he had a few teams that offered him scholarships like Louisville and Fresno State," Marcell said. "Not the biggest schools, but they were bigger than Wyoming."
But Wyoming had one thing that those schools didn't. It had Marcell.
The thought of playing on the same field as his brother – the revered running back he'd watched light up the field on so many Friday nights as a child – and the fact that Tashaun would start immediately at cornerback as true freshman for the Cowboys made the decision a no-brainer.
"I went to Wyoming because of my brother," Tashaun explained. "I was hesitant because it was Wyoming, but when I went up there for my recruitment trip, my brother was my host…I just fell in love with the coaches, the atmosphere and being able to play with my brother was definitely a huge thing for me."
Marcell took a greyshirt his first semester at Wyoming – he didn't actually enroll until the spring. The following year he redshirted, putting him two years behind. It was a "blessing in disguise" for Marcell and Tashaun. Instead of playing together for one year, the Gipson brothers would get the opportunity to lock down the secondary for three.
As you can imagine, the local papers wrote themselves.
Two brothers. Both cornerbacks. Playing together in the back end of the defense. Things like this didn't happen in Wyoming. The Gipson boys were a hit.
"It got real hectic for us," Tashaun said. "It got to the point where the coaches were just like, 'No more media.' It was just a big thing. The Gipson Duo."
The Gipson Duo was more than just media gold. The brothers were a devastating force to be reckoned with on the football field. Even though he was smaller, Marcell was the tough guy – one of the biggest hitters on the Cowboys defense. Tashaun on the other hand had a knack for making reads and breaking up passes. On film, number 39 sent chills down the spines of the apprehensive quarterbacks. On top of their individual talents, the pair had a "super-natural" trick up their sleeves.
Call it ESP, telepathy or just plain brotherly instinct – the duo could communicate on the field with nothing more than a glance.
"Sometimes we'd just make that eye contact and we just kind of knew what was going to happen," the older Gipson said.
The "super power" came in particularly handy in a battle against San Diego State during Marcell's final college season.
The Atzecs had conquered the Cowboys in the last five-out-of-six meetings. The Gipson brothers were dead set on making this Saturday a different story. Marcell caught a signal out of the corner of his eye – something he'd seen before. He glanced across the field at Tashaun. The brothers, if only for a brief moment, locked eyes.
"It was a non-verbal communication like 'Here's that play call,'" Tashaun said.
With his brother dropping the hint, Tashaun saw a chance to exploit his competitor. He made it look easy. Stepping right into the passing lane, Tashaun snagged the football and before the offense knew what had happened, he took off down the sideline for 19 yards. The Gipson Duo struck again.
After 38 games of Tashaun and Marcell's one-two punch, it was time for the older Gipson to move on. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings, but life as one of the undrafted guys isn't always easy.
"When you come in undrafted, any undrafted guy will tell you, you've got that feeling like you're just not wanted," Marcell said. "When you come out to practice there's going to be a point in time where you feel like, 'I'm not going to make this team.'"
For Marcell, it was time to move on from locker room life, but was Tashaun going to yet again follow the same path as his older brother?
Tashaun Gipson was not naïve. His performance at the NFL Scouting Combine didn't jump off the charts. Wyoming isn't exactly a luxurious destination for scouts. Circumstances dampened his chances of being selected and even though he knew his name wasn't going to be called, that didn't mean the sting of rejection wasn't sharp.
Two teams called Gipson hours after the draft ended, late on a Sunday afternoon as family members consoled him in his Texas home. One happened to be the Browns. The problem? Cleveland envisioned Gipson as a safety – not the cornerback position he had thrived upon his entire life. After contemplating the life-altering decision for a moment, Gipson had an epiphany: safety is where he belonged.
"Honestly, safety was always in the back of my mind because you can play off of shear instincts," Gipson said.
After some early summer struggles, other things started floating in Gipson's mind, like a career after football.
His first preseason against the Detroit Lions in 2012 left fans wondering who is this rookie safety and why is he missing so many tackles? Gipson whiffed six times. It was ugly on tape. With his head held low, Gipson walked off the field asking his teammate Bubba Ventrone, "When are first cuts? Cause I think I'm gone."
Signs of discouragement were written all over Gipson, so starting strong safety T.J. Ward intervened. The current Denver Bronco and former Pro Bowler for the Browns, Ward saw flair in Gipson's athletic ability, but the rookie needed to be taught how to take the proper angles. Ward sat with Gipson in the locker room and the class room, pointing out things to the rookie on the iPad.
And then, one day soon thereafter, it just clicked. Gipson started de-cleating people in practice. He was picking of passes, dragging his tippy-toes on the sideline. In mid-November of 2012, safety Usama Young went down to an injury, Gipson started the next couple of games.
By the end of the season, the strides he made were so blaring they couldn't be denied. Gipson was named the starting free safety the following season.
And you know the rest.
Since putting on the brown and orange, the undrafted free agent has proven to three separate coaching staffs that he's not only a starting safety – he's the answer at the position. He's no longer missing tackles, and has picked off seven passes since 2013; bested only by Pro Bowl corner and Super Bowl champion Richard Sherman during that time.
Now, the Tashaun Gipson from that first preseason game in 2012 no longer exists. The Tashaun Gipson who was worried about being cut from the team before the season only worries about one thing now, shaking the old Cleveland Browns image and breathing new life into the FirstEnergy Stadium every Sunday. But Gipson seems to be up to the task of helping raise Cleveland's football franchise back to its championship-level expectations.
"With great challenges comes great responsibility," Gipson said. "I'm excited for the challenges and am accepting the responsibilities."
Sound familiar? I think our friendly neighborhood Spiderman would agree.