When Chicago Fire defender Cory Gibbs recently appeared on Windy City Live to promote the club's new sponsorship deal with Quaker Oats, the most astute of supporters may have noticed something different about his appearance: his jersey had short sleeves.
"I love my long-sleeves," said Gibbs during a recent interview with Hot Time in Old Town. "I don't think our equipment guy printed one out for me, so I had to stick with the short sleeve."
Even when the Fire played English giants Manchester United at Soldier Field this past summer, Gibbs wore his famous long sleeves in excessive July heat. When Gibbs does not wear long sleeves, it immediately becomes a topic of discussion for many fans across Twitter. Only in the worst heat will you see the Fire center back trade out for short sleeves.
"It's a feel, I've grown up all my career playing with long-sleeves and I don't know if it's due to countries I've played in with colder weather," he said. "I feel more in my element for some reason when I play long-sleeved, so I've just stuck with it."
After an impressive collegiate career at Brown University of the Ivy League Conference, the now-defunct Miami Fusion selected Gibbs in the 4th round of the 2001 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. It should be noted that he wasn't drafted later because of any lack of talent; it was because clubs were aware of his desire to play abroad in Europe.
Despite being born in nearby Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Gibbs made the decision to turn down the chance to play for the Fusion and instead signed with FC St. Pauli in the German Bundesliga. Gibbs admitted it wasn't an easy decision for him. "There was high interest for me to come in and try and help the team right away, but I couldn't pass up an offer playing in the Bundesliga," he said. "That was my dream to play in Europe and while it was a risk, I think it was a good decision for me just to get that experience and exposure and play overseas instead."
Gibbs says he matured dramatically during his first European stint. "You just develop so much as a player just training so hard day in and day out," he said. "It was a battle at times, but it was something I wanted to take on and it all paid off for me in the long run."
After making 60 appearances for St. Pauli over the course of three seasons, Gibbs returned to MLS to join the then-named Dallas Burn for part of the 2004 season. After starting all 21 games he played for Dallas, he made the move back to Europe to join Dutch club Feyenoord in January 2005. After a successful second half of the 2004-2005 Eredivisie season for the Rotterdam-based club, he picked up a knee injury, of all places, at Soldier Field in Chicago, playing in a friendly for the United States Men's National Team in May 2005 against England.
After recovering from his injury in January 2006, he was loaned to Feyenoord rival ADO Den Haag, where he saw little first-team action.
The next two years would prove to be even worse for Gibbs. He signed a contract with Charlton Athletic of the English Premier League in May 2006 just as then-manager Alan Curbishley was leaving the club.
It wouldn't get any better. After being selected for the USMNT 2006 World Cup roster, he suffered a chondrial defect on the cartilage in his right knee during a pre-World Cup friendly. The injury forced him to not only miss the World Cup, but kept him out for Charlton's entire 2006-2007 season, in which the club was relegated.
The 2007-2008 Charlton season in the second division was another one that Gibbs might rather forget: he suffered three broken metatarsal bones and made only five reserve team appearances. After two miserable seasons, four different managers and without having played a single minute of first-team English football, Gibbs returned stateside.
Due to their MLS allocation rank, the Colorado Rapids were able to sign Gibbs. He spent two seasons in Colorado, playing a total of 29 games and scoring one goal before being traded to the New England Revolution ahead of the 2010 season.
Gibbs returned to strong form in his only season with the Revs, starting all 25 games he played in. Despite an impressive year, New England did not protect him, allowing the Chicago Fire to take him with the seventh selection of Stage 2 of the MLS Re-Entry draft.
The rest, at least for Fire fans, is history. Gibbs had perhaps the best season of his career in 2011, starting 26 times for the Men in Red and scoring a career-high three goals, becoming one of the club's best defenders. Chicago Fire head coach Frank Klopas deployed Gibbs in dangerous fashion as the teams forwards were good on the ground and not in the air. Where New England used Gibbs in set pieces 50/50, Gibbs said Klopas' strategy is to deploy him all the time.
"Frank wanted me forward in terms of my heading ability and just getting forward on free kicks." said Gibbs. He mentioned that midfielders such as Pavel Pardo, Marco Pappa and Sebatien Grazzini among others made his job on the offensive front easier: "I'm just fortunate to score some goals and that's been great, but a lot of the respect has to go to the service."
One goal that didn't count in the official statistics came against Manchester United in an international friendly this past July. In the 13th minute, midfielder Marco Pappa delivered a beautiful ball into the box from forty years out off of a set piece, which Gibbs was able to get to and head past United's new keeper David de Gea to give the Fire a 1-nil lead.
Gibbs claims to have not thought too much about the goal at first despite scoring against such a prestigious opponent. "For the moment, I didn't really take it in because I honestly just wanted to win the game," he said. "So to score that goal was great for me, but at the moment, it really didn't hit me until probably after the game and think, ‘Wow, I did just score against ManU.'"
The goal may have also been special because the game took place at Soldier Field. Ironically, back in 2005, this was where Gibbs initially injured the knee that caused him so many problems earlier in his career. Over six years later, Gibbs was able to return to the proverbial "scene of the crime" and score a goal against one of the world's largest clubs.
One of the knocks on Cory throughout his career is that he is injury-prone. My Hot Time in Old Town colleague Gregg Mixdorf recently described him as "being held together by duct tape and twine." Gibbs admits he draws some inspiration from those who question his durability. "Those articles just motivate me," he says. "I feel great and the older I get, the better I feel and I'm just taking my body in stride and taking care of it day by day."
With defenders Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta not returning for the 2012 season, Gibbs is not worried about depth. Even if the club brings in another center back (Stavros Stathakis, anyone?), Gibbs says that an addition could be a positive move for him. "I think we're about four deep and another center back wouldn't hurt to be honest," he says. "It also develops competition, which is good."
Regardless, Gibbs says he is comfortable in his partnership with Jalil Anibaba in central defense. "I started with Jalil in the middle and toward the end of the season, we built a relationship, so we're just continuing from that onto this season," said Gibbs. "The chemistry I have with him right now is just growing and getting better every day."
At 32 years of age, Gibbs says he doesn't mind taking on a mentorship role with the younger players: "I accept that role and responsibility and it's something that I had to do in the past also when I was in Europe." He also mentioned one of the players he just draws his inspiration from: "When I was younger, I learned a lot from Eddie Pope with the (United States Men's National Team) and I really respected that and wanted to share my experiences from that and just pass that on to players like Jalil and (2012 First Round MLS SuperDraft selection Austin) Berry."
Overall, Gibbs says that the Fire feels like a family to him. "There's not one player that I wouldn't hang out with, on and off the field," he says. "The chemistry is there and that's huge for a team."
Gibbs says he hopes that chemistry will pay off this year and will result in more reasons for Fire fans to celebrate. "This is a season where we owe them more than we did last year," he says. "We just want to thank them for the support that they've given us over the years, not just this last year, but over the years, and we just pray that it continues for this season as well."