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A Pack’s Eye View of the West Wing

Of all the amazing things that have happened to Robert Gibbs since he graduated from NC State and began his wandering ascent from journeyman political aide to one of the top advisers to President Barack Obama, nothing was more special than the night of May 6, 2008.

That night, sitting in the basement of Reynolds Coliseum, Gibbs celebrated with his boss a pair of big primary wins in Indiana and North Carolina. The victories over rival Hillary Clinton effectively clinched the nomination for Obama in the historic primary battle to nominate either the first African-American or the first woman candidate for United States president on a major party ticket.

“I can’t tell you how amazing it was, that night, to be there in a special place where I spent so much time during college,” Gibbs said. “It was the perfect setting.”

All that has followed – from Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008 to the inauguration three months later to the day-to-day life in the most powerful office in the world – really began that evening for Gibbs, when Obama took the stage, celebrated his two critical wins and briefly flashed the wolf hand sign on the floor of Reynolds.

For Gibbs, a former Wolfpack soccer player and graduate assistant, nothing will top those few moments spent at his alma mater, basking in the successful campaign he helped orchestrate. Now, Gibbs understands that he is a lightning rod figure who, at any given time, has about half the country scoffing at his every utterance and most of the media pushing him for answers – right now. But this isn’t a story about politics, so much as it is about an NC State graduate at the epicenter of presidential power.

He takes more shots on goal now than he ever did in the brief 43 minutes that constituted his Wolfpack soccer career. He arrived from Auburn, Ala., in 1988 as a walk-on soccer player who convinced head coach George Tarantini to give him a chance to be goalie. He sat out his first season as a redshirt, did not play as a freshman or sophomore, and logged action in two games as a junior.

He graduated after earning his third varsity letter and spent the spring semester of 1993 as a graduate assistant before moving on to his other great love: American politics. He had volunteered for Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign while still a student at NC State and then worked for a string of Democratic representatives and senators.

His career path was much like that of a coach: volunteering his services here and there for the experience, succeeding and failing on occasion and finally landing in exactly the right place to ride a wave of success.

Monday afternoon, Gibbs sat in his expansive office in the West Wing of the White House, just across the hall from the Roosevelt Room where the Presidential Cabinet meets and eight or nine steps away from the Oval Office. For a place of such importance, it was oddly quiet, only perhaps because the President was in Austin, Texas, giving a speech. Gibbs smiled quietly while looking through a 1992 NC State soccer media guide, seeing the young faces of his aging teammates and friends. He laughed liberally when talking about his college days, and again when he was asked about the famous incident at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he gave up his necktie to his boss just before Obama gave the speech that brought him to national prominence: Was he really trying to be helpful, or just trying to rid his wardrobe of the light blue tie?

Known to be charming, loquacious and bulldog tough, Gibbs tries to handle his duties calmly, with a needed flash of anger and passion every now and then.

Gibbs cheerfully remembered one of the defining moments of his athletic and professional career: an emotional speech given to the Wolfpack soccer team by Tarantini.

The Wolfpack, ranked in the top 10 nationally, lost 2-1 to Wake Forest at Method Road Soccer Stadium. Tarantini pulled the team into a small room and let them have it with his thick Argentine accent.

“It was a game we probably should have won,” Gibbs says. “We didn’t particularly play well. Before any of us could get showered and dressed, he … told us that the only way we were going to achieve what we were capable of was if we worked harder and worked together and dedicated ourselves to something bigger than what we could do as individuals.”

Tarantini left the players to talk among themselves, and they left the small room a different team. The Wolfpack lost once more in the regular season, but went on to win the school’s only ACC championship and advance to the semifinals of the NCAA Championship.

“At the moment it happened, it wasn’t good,” Gibbs says. “But afterwards, we realized the significance the whole thing had on us. That’s what George taught us throughout our time there, about life and what to expect.

“On the very basic level, it prepared us to go out into the world after college. Whether you work at a company, whether you’re part of a government, you have to learn how to work together. You have to learn to work as a team. You realize whatever individual honors you achieve they’re never going to be as great as what you achieve collectively.”

The lessons were invaluable to Gibbs, who is credited with developing Obama’s effective communication strategy throughout his races for the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

Now, 18 months into his stint as the President’s press secretary and confidante, Gibbs is one of the most recognizable faces in the administration. Nearly every day, he faces the media in the White House Briefing Room, which is little more than a narrow corridor on the north façade of the West Wing. He stands at the elevated podium, as the media peppers him with questions about health care reform, about jobs, about stimulus packages, about the critical topic of the day.

By now, it’s practically a cliché to relate his current job to his old job of being a soccer goalie, with shots-on-goal being fired at him from every direction.

“The difference is, he has 60, 70, 80 shots coming at him at one time,” Tarantini says. “And he has to block all of them.”

Gibbs, the son of two Auburn University librarians, decided at a young age he wanted to be involved in politics. Even at NC State, he volunteered for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and interned for Rep. Glenn Browder of Alabama. He spent time as an aide to North Carolina Rep. Bob Etheridge, South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings, Georgia Sen. Max Cleland and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow. By 2001, he was the press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In 2003, he was introduced to Obama and the two hit it off immediately, in part because of their mutual affection for college and professional athletics. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Gibbs helped Obama keep up with his fantasy football team.

But there was also a personal connection the two shared.

“He’s passionate about folks getting a fair shake,” Obama once told The New York Times. Tarantini couldn’t be more proud of his former player, though he also points out that another ex-Wolfpack goalie, Adam Stockwell, is a Secret Service agent who has also worked in the West Wing.

“He’s always been a very committed person,” Tarantini says of Gibbs. “He loves challenges. He works extremely hard. I think Robert at a very early age knew what he wanted to do. He always knew that what he wanted to do was help people. He thought the best way to do that was to get involved in the political arena.

“I’m not a political person, so I don’t know about political careers. But I have tremendous memories of his hard work and of him helping the program.”

Similarly, Gibbs is grateful for the opportunities he had at NC State, both while earning his degree in political science and while playing on the soccer team.

“The great thing is that you’re in a capital city,” Gibbs says. “One mile from campus, you are looking at the state capitol. I was interested in getting involved in state government and in the [1992] presidential election.

“Every time I drive through the campus, I look at the group of buildings where we had all of our classes and remember walking through campus. We were lucky to have people who were teaching not only from a classroom perspective, but also had that real world perspective of having a capital and a state government right there.”

Like most people, Gibbs remains close to those friends he made in college, even though his demanding schedule prevents little more than an occasional phone call and frequent e-mail exchanges. But he returns to the Triangle when he can – his parents have lived in Apex, N.C., for many years now. On a recent trip, Gibbs took his 7-year-old son to NC State’s campus and spent the afternoon kicking a soccer ball on the lower intramural fields behind Carmichael Gymnasium.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how enormously helpful NC State was in providing the best education and the best opportunities, both in the classroom and on the soccer field,” Gibbs says. “I’m enormously grateful to Coach Tarantini for taking a chance on me and giving me a chance to play in college. I look back and wonder how differently I’d view those four years of college if I hadn’t been involved with the soccer team.

“Those are memories you never forget.”