On a team flanked by so many stars, Jason Gildon more than made a name for himself.
A three-time Pro Bowler, an All-Pro and Steelers all-time leader in sacks, Gildon grew out of his "Baby Lloyd" nickname given to him during his rookie year in 1994.
It was out of no disrespect that he was given a nickname comparing him to Greg Lloyd, Pittsburgh's five-time Pro Bowl linebacker who wreaked havoc on opposing defenses. Gildon's teammates and coaches saw that same ability in the 22-year-old rookie out of Oklahoma state.
He didn't start his rookie year but was a maven on special teams as the Steelers rolled to a 12-4 record and first of four straight AFC Central Division titles. He also recorded sacks in consecutive weeks against the Dolphins and Raiders.
Gildon continued to strive on special teams and as a defensive reserve in 1995. He recorded a sack and a forced fumble in a win over Cincinnati and again against Brett Favre and the Packers in the regular season finale. Adding depth to a star-studded linebacker corps that included Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, and Chad Brown, Gildon and the Steelers won the AFC championship en route to Super Bowl XXX.
"Baby Lloyd" matured into a quality starter and impact player in 1996. With Greene now playing for Carolina and Lloyd out for the season with an injury, it was now time for the next wave of great Pittsburgh linebackers to take over.
After a slow start, Gildon broke out with a 10-tackle (seven solo) effort in a 42-win over the Rams in Week 10. He followed up that effort with a sack the following week against the Bengals. Gildon's true breakout game came against Mark Brunell and the Jaguars in Week 12. After an embarrassing loss in Jacksonville in Week One, Gildon tallied seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in a 28-3 whip lashing.
Gildon and the Steelers' revenge tour continued when they welcomed the Chargers into Pittsburgh in Week 15. With the loss to San Diego in the '94 AFC title game still on their minds, Pittsburgh short circuited the Chargers, 16-3. Gildon led the charge with seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. He recorded another sack off Steve Young the following week.Gildon finished the year with seven sacks as Pittsburgh's defense help lead the team to another division championship.
In 1997, Gildon began his seven year streak of starting all 16 games for the Steelers. He was an intimidating presence in his own way. While Kirkland was big and forceful, Gildon had a wiry, athletic frame to that of a power forward. His speed caught linemen and full backs off balance, and seeing No.92 dismantling a quarterback's pocket became a common sight.
Gildon also had an uncanny knack for getting to the football, which was on display in the divisional round of the 1997 playoffs. Entrenched in a throwback defensive slug fest, Gildon recovered two Drew Bledsoe fumbles in Pittsburgh's gritty 7-6 victory over New England. He returned one of his two fumble recoveries (recovering a Greg Lloyd fumble after he was stripped by Eddie George down the field) for a touchdown during the regular season as the Steelers won their fourth straight division championship.
While the Steelers went into remission in the late 90s, Gildon blossomed into one of the best pass rushing linebackers in the NFL. He notched 11 sacks in 1998 while forcing two fumbles and recovering another. My indelible memory of Gildon took place in Week 16. Playing at home against Cincinnati, the Steelers needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Trailing late and his team needed a spark, Gildon enforced his will on the Bengals offensive line and twice threw down the Bengal's Jeff Blake. While the Steelers still lost the game, watching Gildon elevate his game to a different level when his team needed it most was truly inspiring.
As Pittsburgh re-emerged as a top-tier team entering the 2000s, Gildon staked his claim as one of the best overall linebackers in football. He earned the first of his three consecutive Pro Bowl berths in 2000, tallying a career-best 13.5 sacks to go with four forced fumbles, four recoveries and a touchdown. After an 0-3 start, Gildon recorded at least one sack in nine out of 10 games as Pittsburgh rebounded to win nine out of their last 13 games. He recorded 1.5 sacks in the final game ever played at Three Rivers Stadium and added two more in the team's regular season finale in San Diego.
Just seven years earlier, Gildon was a standout special teams player who drew comparisons to the team's defensive leader. In 2001, he was now the leader of the NFL's best defense. Along with mentoring young linebackers Kendrell Bell and Joey Porter, Gildon recorded 12 sacks to earn All-Pro recognition as the Steelers rolled to a 13-3 record that climaxed with a 27-10 dethroning of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs. Gildon had a sack in that game and two more in the team's loss to New England in the AFC title game. Just as he had three years earlier against Cincinnati, Gildon did whatever he could to keep his team from elimination.
Gildon earned his third straight and final Pro Bowl in 2002 as the Steelers won the first AFC North championship. While he had many impressive moments that season, perhaps his most remarkable feat was sacking the seemingly untouchable Michael Vick (in the midst of his breakout season) in the team's 34-34 tie. He played his final season in Pittsburgh in 2003, breaking L.C. Greenwood's team sack record with a three-sack effort against Arizona. Gildon retired after playing with the Jaguars in 2004.
Jason Gildon was memorable for many reasons. Elementary enough, he was just fun to watch. The seemingly effortless way he shielded off blockers to reach the quarterback was something to see. They way he could changed the came by forcing or recovering turnovers was also something to think about. They way he celebrated by flashing his fraternity's symbol always brought Steelers fans to their feet.
But there was something else that made Gildon memorable. He was a quiet leader that always brought his best to the field. The sheer tenacity that he played with is something that infectious and unquestionably made Pittsburgh better during those years.
Gildon more than lived up to his prior nickname as "Baby Lloyd". The question now is whether there will ever be another player like Jason Gildon.
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