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December 30, 2012

Pena hopes for opportunity at next level

OXFORD, Miss. -- Gilbert Pena has one college football game remaining, and in the winding story of how he went from four years out of football to Southeastern Conference contributor, the Yonkers, N.Y., native may get a new chapter -- the NFL.

It's only fitting that Pena's time in Ole Miss not be all sunshine, as that's the theme he's had to manage in his life for a while. However, the nose tackle is always able to endure, and while he's not a household name, head coach Hugh Freeze has no doubts a professional team will give him an opportunity.

"Gilbert will get a chance with a 3-4 team as a two-gapper," Freeze said. "He's had a great year. Gilbert will get a chance."

Following Ole Miss' appearance in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Pena plans to get ready for his shot at the next level. When asked if he was thinking about the NFL this time last year or just thinking about finding a job when his time in Oxford was over, Pena was honest, as he took a second to consider the question and smiled considering the answer has changed so much in 365 days.

"(Finding a job with a degree) is probably what was going through my head, but we've got these great coaches who gave us an opportunity to play," Pena said. "I've tried to take advantages of all the opportunities. If all goes right, I have a chance at the next level.

"Last two years have had ups and downs, but for the most part things are going good, and I'm enjoying the experience of last couple days with the team. I'm ready to embark on the next journey I get put in front of."

Pena is a single credit shy of a criminal justice degree. He'll take care of that with an online class in the spring. It's another goal accomplished in the set of events that began long ago.

After graduating from Saunders High in New York, Pena found employment to help his mother, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. For four years he worked first as a cook and next as a manager at a heating and plumbing warehouse. He said the pay was good, and his mother needed him.

"I knew I needed to be with her, and that would help her," Pena said. "I really never thought about football again."

That is until a buddy who had been constructively badgering him about taking another shot told him about ASA College, a junior college in Brooklyn that was just starting a football program. Pena hadn't lifted weights in years and had kept in shape with basketball and running, yet ASA offered him a scholarship. After the one season, he was named all-conference and picked up offers from Ole Miss, Florida State, Kansas State, North Carolina and Syracuse.

He chose the Rebels, then led by Houston Nutt, but his first season was unproductive as he battled weight issues and a team that spiraled to a 2-10 record. The lack of success in that first year took some steam off Pena's goals, but with the current staff in place and renewed energy around the program, Pena has been a crucial part of the Rebels' defense line.

He's at a better-looking 322 pounds and finished the regular season with 30 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. The 26-year-old said while it wasn't always easy, he's thankful for the opportunity in Oxford.

"Not only did I help the team but it gave me the opportunity to show I can play on the next level and just compete," Pena said. "The SEC, playing in the West, playing against ranked teams and the best offensive linemen in the nation has allowed me to show my ability and how I can play."

Pena has developed into a team leader and assisted in the foundation for Ole Miss' expected future success. It's been a successful marriage that will end with a bowl game in less than a week. With his mother's health improved and the NFL a realistic possibility, Pena is excited about what's next.

"You just deal with it as it comes," Pena said. "I'm thankful for everything, and it's a blessing to finish college in this way and see what lies ahead."

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