Dennis Gardeck continually searches for something he might actually hope he never finds – a limit.
That search took Gardeck to two NCAA Division II schools to play football. It took him to Pro Day workouts for NFL teams, none of which drafted him. It eventually took him, as an undrafted free agent, to the Arizona Cardinals, where his constant all-out effort, his long hair flying from under his helmet and his special teams work has made him a favorite of teammates and coaches, as well as Arizona’s fans.
This season, the third in the NFL for the 2013 Crystal Lake South graduate, it even has gotten Gardeck some snaps with the Cardinals’ defense and a pair of sacks in his first game playing at linebacker.
“I just wanted to see how far I could make it on effort,” Gardeck said. “I was never really super-genetically gifted or a great athlete growing up. In college, I saw I was getting better. To me, it wasn’t like all of a sudden athletic ability was there. I worked really hard at it; I saw the improvements you can make through hard work. So what’s the limit to that? There has to be a limit. I’m still trying to find, ‘How far effort can really take me?’ ”
Former South football coach Chuck Ahsmann saw Gardeck play his rookie season against the Bears in Phoenix. He marvels at how far Gardeck has come.
“It’s amazing. He was always a hard worker, always determined,” Ahsmann said. “To get an opportunity as a free agent is rare, and now to have the opportunity to play, he’s certainly taken advantage. He was an all-conference player, but when you look at a 6-foot, 175-pound guy [in high school], you don’t project that guy to be a pro football player.”
Gardeck (6 feet, 232 pounds) scored a touchdown his rookie season when he recovered a blocked punt in the end zone against Green Bay. He received recognition as a Pro Bowl special teams alternate last season. But his biggest day came Oct. 11 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, against the New York Jets.
Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones was lost that game, for the season, with a biceps injury. Linebacker Devon Kennard already was out with an injury, so Gardeck got his shot late in a series in the second quarter.
Gardeck remembers the sequence like it was five minutes ago. His first snap was on the left side and he used a bull rush, figuring he has plenty of energy and it’s easier to run straight at somebody. There was a timeout, during which the Cardinals’ offensive linemen, against whom he practices every day on scout team defense, were yelling at him.
“I really spend most of my time with the O-line, making sure I’m giving them good looks,” Gardeck said. “Them hyping me up was cool. That gave me some energy and confidence.”
Gardeck announced himself to the Jets as a special teamer, telling them to take it easy. He called it “mental warfare.”
“It was more nervous energy than anything,” he said. “Being goofy and keeping it light helps me play better.”
On his fourth snap, it happened. Gardeck had gone for power moves twice. This time, from the right side, the tackle overset for the power move and Gardeck saw the sliver he needed on the inside and made a straight line to Jets quarterback Joe Flacco.
“It was pretty surreal from then on,” Gardeck said. “I don’t quite remember the celebration or anything like that. At halftime, I was like, ‘Man, this has been the coolest day of my life. I got to play defense. I got a sack. Life is good.’ ”
And about to get better. Kennard told Gardeck he had to get another one and do the sack dance he does after getting one in practice. Gardeck said the first dance was “Turn the Kona,” while the second one was “Hitting the Strobe.”
Following the 30-10 Cardinals’ victory, Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury tossed the game ball to Gardeck. The team currently is painting it with the stadium, the score, the date and his name for a keepsake.
“I see it every day at practice, he is hell on wheels,” Kingsbury told reporters after the victory over the Jets. “Going on scout team against our offensive line, they hate trying to block him because he’s nonstop. He’s relentless. And that’s what we saw out there today.”
Gardeck was caught completely off-guard when Kingsbury gave him the ball in the locker room.
“I’ve gotten a couple game balls based on special teams, but never like in the postgame game ball,” Gardeck said. “I was not expecting that. That was very cool.”
Gardeck was an All-Fox Valley Conference linebacker at Crystal Lake South, but he was not highly sought by college programs. He wound up at NCAA Division II West Virginia State because South graduate Nick Benedetto coached on the defense. He played three seasons there, then went with Benedetto when he got the defensive coordinator job at D-II Sioux Falls (South Dakota).
After Gardeck finished there, he prepared for workouts for NFL teams, hoping he could get a shot as a free agent somewhere. His older brother, Ian, was a minor league pitcher and worked out in the offseason at Fischer Institute Physical Therapy and Performance with owner Brett Fischer.
Ian got Dennis hooked up with Fischer as well. Fischer’s impressive client list includes Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. Fischer is the Cardinals’ staff physical therapist and a certified athletic trainer.
Arizona signed Gardeck as an undrafted free agent and has not been able to get rid of him.
“He worked hard at West Virginia State; he did well there,” Ahsmann said. “Then he followed the coaches to Sioux Falls. He had a lot of Division II success. It’s incredible how hard he works. His community service work is remarkable. He’s out there in the Phoenix community a lot; it’s a testament to the person he is. He does a lot of stuff with kids. He’s involved with youth programs, cancer patients in hospitals. It seems like he’s always out there in the community.”
Gardeck is thrilled about getting some defensive repetitions. He played 10 snaps against Seattle, 16 against Dallas and about a dozen against the Jets. The Cardinals (5-2) had a bye this past weekend and host Miami this coming Sunday.
Gardeck still is most valued on special teams – he plays on kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage, punt return and field-goal block – and in practice with the scout team work. Gardeck used that to help his own game. While simulating what the Cardinals’ offensive line would see with Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner, Gardeck added Wagner’s spin move to his repertoire.
“A lot of [special teams] comes down to want-to,” Gardeck said. “Wanting to go out there and execute at a high level. And being able to stay dialed in as you’re flipping back and forth between four different phases.
“Being able to recall which team’s player is a key interior rusher, being able to flip, ‘OK, on kickoffs if this guy goes right, the kickoff is running that way.’ Being able to flip back and forth and wanting to do it.”