Pena awaits NFL call

Published April 25, 2013, in The Journal News/

While the start of Thursday’s NFL draft represents the continuation of many players’ careers, it marks the end of even more.

Only 253 players will be drafted, forcing many to continue life without football.

NFL prospect Gilbert Pena already knows that feeling. At the age of 18 the Yonkers resident chose family over football.

Pena walked away from the game for four years to work full-time to help his mother, Susan Cruz, who had thyroid cancer.

“It showed me the mature part of life and growing up and being an adult,” said Pena, 26, of his time away from football. “I feel like it helped me. I’m a lot more mature than a guy that just graduated college.”

Pena, a 6-foot-4, 317-pound defensive tackle at Mississippi projected to go in the seventh round or as a preferred free agent, worked as a cook and a manager of a plumbing and heating supply warehouse.

Despite earning all-section honors and receiving recruiting letters as a senior at Saunders, Pena’s top priority was his mother’s health.

“Me staying and helping my mom out was my No. 1 concern,” Pena said. “I was like, hey, if (football) happens it happens. I knew that I needed my mom in my life.”

In the fall of 2009, with his mother’s health having improved, Pena enrolled at ASA junior college in Brooklyn and joined the football team. It was there coach Dennis Orlando convinced Pena his size and talent meant he could potentially play in the NFL.

Pena transferred to Ole Miss in the spring of 2011. After 10 appearances as a junior with 11 total tackles, Pena had a breakout senior season. Appearing in all 13 games, Pena posted 34 total tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss, seventh among the Rebels.

Still, Pena didn’t receive an invitation to the NFL combine, something that motivated him as he trained for Ole Miss Pro Day, a workout attended by scouts from 15 NFL teams on March 7.

“I went in to say, I’m going to crush this thing,” Pena said.

While a strong pro day performance drew some attention, his future in the NFL is far from certain.

Pena has a small window to achieve his dream, considering he’s four years older than most rookies. There is also his two-year-old daughter, Peyton.

He struggles with the question of how long he’ll pursue a career in the NFL. The 18-year-old who chose to forgo college to help his mother hasn’t changed.

“I didn’t really get to spend much time with (Peyton) like I should have as a parent, and I feel like I owe that to her,” said Pena of his two years at Ole Miss. “If I make it and I can provide for her at that level, then hey, I’ll be happy. If I can’t, then I don’t know.”

Pena’s family will always come before football.