Ahmad Gardner helps keep No. 5 Cincinnati in College Football Playoff conversation — The Undefeated

Allante Gardner couldn’t find the right words to help dry his little brother’s tears as they walked home from what was initially perceived as a successful audition.

Allante, 13 at the time, had the bright idea for his 6-year-old brother Ahmad to try out for a Detroit youth league team with kids two years older because he was so dominant in his age group. Age aside, surely the coaching staff would accept Ahmad on his ability alone, right?

“They didn’t want him to play because he wasn’t 8 yet,” Allante Gardner said. “[But] I went back and begged them to let Ahmad play. They allowed him to play, and he was so happy. He finished the season with about 20 touchdowns, and that’s when it all started.”

Indeed.

Ahmad Gardner is now a premier college football cornerback who has helped lead the undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats to a No. 2 Associated Press ranking, the highest in school history. The Bearcats are No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings and play to remain unbeaten against South Florida on Nov. 13.

The University of Cincinnati, traditionally a basketball school that produced the likes of Kenyon Martin, Nick Van Exel and NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, is in a position only dreamed about, similar to Gardner’s NFL hopes as a youth, despite the obstacles.

“I worked hard for all of this,” Gardner said. “I spoke this into existence when I was younger. We went through so much adversity growing up, but I remember talking with my brother about going to the pros.”

Alisa Gardner, a single mother of three, managed to raise her two sons and a daughter despite frequent moves around Detroit, which sometimes meant living with other family members or friends. She also survived with multiple low-paying jobs. For years, the two boys slept in the same single bed — Ahmad at one end and Allante at the other.

“We went to three or four different elementary schools,” said Allante Gardner, a sales manager for Penske Truck Leasing, who also played college football at Saginaw Valley State in Michigan. “But she did the best she could. She kept food on the table and the lights stayed on.”

Alisa Gardner’s example of resilience continues to motivate her youngest son.

“My brother is my role model, but my mom is my superhero,” Gardner said. “She leads by example. I remember her working multiple jobs to provide for us. And back then, I told her that one day I’d provide for her. She has a better job and we’re all good now, but things are going to get way better.”

Gardner’s life on the field started to turn around in his first few weeks of youth football. It began when chatter in the Pee Wee football community about some little skinny kid playing like a consistent highlight reel at running back grew louder. Before Allante Gardner pushed to move his brother to a league with older players, a coach had honored the mighty mite with a nickname.

“There was this play where I juked a dude, and another guy who was coming from behind ran into the guy in front of me,” Gardner said. “That’s when my coach called me ‘A-1 Sauce Sweet Feet Gardner.’ Later it changed to ‘Sauce Man’ and then to just ‘Sauce.’ ”

At Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, Gardner developed into a starting wide receiver. But the trajectory of his career changed during his junior year in a game against rival Cass Technical High School. When two of his defensive back teammates collided, the starting cornerback suffered a broken jaw. The coaching staff scrambled to find a replacement.

“We decided on Sauce because we needed someone cocky enough to play corner,” said MLK coach Tyrone Spencer. “You need a corner with confidence. He broke up a few passes and made some tackles. He was the MVP in the next game.”

Gardner started at corner for the rest of his prep career. He also continued at receiver, catching two touchdowns in MLK’s 2018 state championship victory.

“I balled out,” he said. 

He finished high school as first-team all-state at defensive back. He was ranked as a three-star player but didn’t receive much attention from the University of Michigan, right in his own backyard. There was some interest from Michigan State, but Gardner lost interest after a Spartans assistant coach he had developed a relationship with left the program.

Cincinnati was the wise decision

The Bearcats came into focus when Spencer took Gardner and several other MLK players to Cincinnati for a workout. Gardner was impressive enough that the school made him an offer on the spot. Syracuse and Kentucky also wanted to see Gardner, but the choice was made.

“I told him he could roll the dice and bet on himself, but I reminded him that for some reason if he doesn’t run as well or look as well in his workout, the other schools may not make an offer and he could lose out on a scholarship,” Spencer said. “He made a wise decision, and the rest is history.”

Gardner joined a resurgent Cincinnati team led by former longtime Ohio State assistant coach Luke Fickell, who led the Bearcats to only their third 11-win season in his second year at the helm in 2018.

Gardner began his freshman season in 2019 deep down the Cincinnati depth chart. That would change.

The fifth game of the season was against No. 18 Central Florida. The Knights’ wide-open passing attack was enough of a challenge. But, on top of that, Cincinnati’s secondary was besieged with injuries.

Help was near.

“Coach said everybody’s got to play,” Gardner said. “It’s funny how it seems I get thrown into situations.”

Gardner made an immediate impression in his first start, just like in high school. This time, he returned a 16-yard interception for the go-ahead touchdown, which led to the Bearcats’ first victory over a ranked opponent in nearly 10 years.

“I was much more nervous about him being in there than he was,” Fickell said. “His uniqueness to have the confidence he had and to play loose told me a lot.”

Gardner’s ability to rise in that moment, especially in his first start, told teammate Coby Bryant, who was out with an injury, all he needed to know. 

“He stepped up big-time,” said Bryant, one of 12 semifinalists, along with Gardner, for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back. “He always had my respect, but when he made that play, I was like, ‘We got a baller here.’ ”

Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner (center) takes a selfie as he celebrates with fans after defeating Notre Dame 24-13 in an NCAA college football game on Oct. 2.

Darron Cummings/AP Photo

Gardner didn’t go unnoticed last season. He found himself mentioned on several All-America teams, including first-team honors from the Football Writers Association of America. Thanks to his listed size of 6-feet-3 and 200 pounds, he uses speed and strength to blanket receivers. Think Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Gardner has only continued to impress: His 27.6 opponent passer rating this season is the third-lowest in the country. He has been targeted only 24 times through nine games, allowing just 13 receptions for 87 yards. He has allowed only four first downs this season when targeted. And he hasn’t allowed a touchdown pass in 942 coverage snaps and 122 targets in three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus.

“It’s going to be hard for someone to even get to the point where they can score on me, because I’m going to get my hands on you, so you’re not just going to be able to impose your will and get by me,” said Gardner, who has 24 tackles and two interceptions this season. “I take pride in not allowing any touchdowns.”

Gardner, recently named to ESPN’s midseason All-America team, is the leader of Cincinnati’s top-ranked pass defense. The Bearcats lead the nation in pass efficiency defense (92.42) and are No. 2 in the nation in opponents’ completion percentage (52.1%). Cincinnati also ranks No. 2 in red zone scoring defense (57.1%, 16-of-28).

Earlier this month, at then-No. 9-ranked Notre Dame, Gardner’s first-quarter interception in the end zone helped propel Cincinnati to a 24-13 victory — the school’s first over a top-10 team on the road.

The victory also made the Bearcats the first Group of 5 team (American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West and Sun Belt) to record a road win against an Associated Press top-10 opponent from the Power 5 in the College Football Playoff era.

The team’s current ranking and Gardner’s individual success, despite a challenging upbringing, have all brought on possibilities only dreamed of. And just like the start of his football journey, all Gardner has wanted is a chance.

“All of this [success] has been a blessing,” Gardner said. “Especially with me getting thrown into the fire [in high school and as a college freshman]. These are the types of things people wouldn’t expect to happen. But I know it’s all God.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.

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