When Eric Gardner Jr. takes his stance on defense, nothing can shake him or distract him from the task at hand: getting to the quarterback. When the ball is snapped, his get-off is so fast that blocking him becomes almost impossible. He knows what he’s after, and he won’t let anything get in his way.
Listed online at 6 feet, 2 inches and 240 pounds, Gardner is a standout defensive lineman at Archbishop Wood High. The website 247Sports grades him as a three-star recruit and the 14th-best prospect in Pennsylvania, ratings that have helped him earn FBS scholarship offers from places like Penn State and Texas A&M.
How he got here
Gardner’s journey to Archbishop Wood was anything but smooth.
Last year, the Philadelphia Archdiocese announced the closures of Bishop McDevitt High School of Wyncote and John W. Hallahan Catholic High School, citing financial burdens stemming from year-over-year enrollment decline. The closures left the McDevitt and Hallahan communities reeling, and it left hundreds of students, including Gardner, looking for a new place to call home.
So where would Gardner play out his final two years? With nearby football powerhouse Wood, a six-time PIAA state champion, just 20 minutes from his Wyncote home, the decision on where to take his talents turned out to be easy. Gardner, alongside 15 McDevitt teammates, enrolled at Wood.
That left Wood coach Matt Walp with the challenge of integrating two separate team cultures into one cohesive unit.
”You factor the pandemic in [and] you factor in the fact that we had 16 McDevitt players that transferred over,” Walp said. “My main goal was to develop the chemistry amongst two programs, and when you’re trying to merge those two, you can have your thoughts, you can lay it out, you can have your plan and what you think is going to work, but you need the others to kind of do their part.”
Early in the transition process, one player stood out in that area.
”[Gardner] took that role on immediately and helped with that chemistry in a short period of time,” Walp said. “[He] just exemplified what you want in a young man and a leader in a football program. In the weight room, on the field, the camaraderie, the brotherhood …he took that and ran with it. He fit right in with Mason Yacovelli and Andrew McHugh and guys who have been in our program. They just became immediately jelled.”
It wasn’t just Gardner’s coaches who took notice of his leadership.
”He’s the best there is,” said Yacovelli, a senior defensive lineman and Cornell recruit. “He’s not more of a teammate, he’s more of a brother to me. We have a good chemistry, a good bond. Ever since we started practicing with each other since the beginning of March when he came over, it’s all been up from there.”
Another part of what has made Gardner so successful on the field is his motor. The junior defensive lineman attacks every play, practice and game with a tenacity fueled by his gratitude for every moment and his appreciation of the opportunities he has.
”Where I’m from, every day is not promised,” Gardner said. “So, you know, I take that and I run with it. … I try to never get out of my character or feel as though I’m better than someone because of the blessings that my God has given me.”
Right at home
On the heels of a global pandemic, and in the middle of managing the demands of football, school, and recruiting, a move to a new school and team could have been a setback. But it turned into a springboard toward his development as a player and person.
“It wasn’t too bad, honestly,” Gardner said. “Everybody was dedicated when we got over here. ... We’re just getting after it, honestly. I like the program here; I feel as though I’m improving in everything.”
Gardner’s maturity was apparent on his first day at Wood. His coaches were so impressed with his poise that he was named a team captain without ever having taken a snap for the Vikings.
”As a football player, he is off the charts,” Walp said. “But if I say that there isn’t a chart big enough to speak about the person and about the young man and his maturity level, it goes way beyond his age.
“You could drop him on a street in North Philly, and you could drop him on the Main Line, you could drop him in New Hope, you could drop him in any part of the country. He will adapt, he will adjust, and he will make individuals feel comfortable with the way he interacts and his people skills and how he embraces others.”
Just a little over a year ago, Gardner took his defensive stance play after play in McDevitt’s clash with Wood. While the Vikings emerged victorious that night, Walp acknowledged that Gardner made his job a bit more difficult.
Flash forward to this season, and Gardner impacted the game in the same way. Except this time, to the relief of Walp and the rest of the Vikings, Gardner donned Wood’s signature black-and-yellow uniform. The Vikings’ season ended Nov. 5 in a 17-14 playoff loss to St. Joseph’s Prep.
When Yacovelli is asked about what it’s like suiting up alongside Gardner instead of against him, he smiles and laughs.
”A thousand times better. Way better to play with him than against him.”