Professional stars—including Todd Gurley and Brittney Griner—joined in on the surprise announcements
It was just a typical morning for Arik Gilbert and Paige Bueckers.
Gilbert, the former Marietta High School (Maritetta, Ga.) football standout, has been acclimating to college life since January in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he looks to begin the next chapter of his football career under head coach Ed Orgeron and the defending BCS national champion LSU Tigers.
As the day began, he prepared for tutoring…ordinary routines…until his brother came and got him, explaining that they needed to leave.
Arik didn’t have a clue, but followed his brother’s lead where he entered a room filled with balloons, with each step taken toward the chair in front of the television being filmed.
Up north, Bueckers was preparing for what she thought was nothing more than a photoshoot and a fun segment for her YouTube channel that would feature “A Day in the Life” of the Hopkins High School (Minnetonka, Minn.) basketball star.
She sat down with the surrounding cameras ready to roll—but first, Paige was urged to watch a family video, an excellent college sendoff before she headed to UConn.
And that’s where the day, for both student-athletes, turned from routine to history-making to everything you’d expect when learning you are the 2019-20 Gatorade Male and Female Athlete of the Year, including getting to see some of your idols sending messages—as fans of you!
(Check out the surprise announcement and cameos here:)
To be named Gatorade Athlete of the Year is one of those achievements where the incredible odds causes people to tilt their heads and squint, a universally accepted mathematical gesture for “Wait. What?”
It’s not easy. Bueckers and Gilbert were tops among roughly 2.3 and 3.3 million other kids, respectively, who competed in the 12 Gatorade Player of the Year program sports. Even they have trouble grasping the magnitude of that sentence, the culmination of hard work it took over their entire high school years.
“As a freshman—freshman me—never thought about winning an award like this,” Gilbert explained to USA Today Sports via phone call. “And to accomplish this…I don’t know…I’m at a loss for words for how grateful I am.”
Bueckers added the same sentiment: “It still hasn’t sunk in for me yet,” she admitted. “It’s really just mind-blowing and crazy to think about what was being said in the video…it’s amazing, a blessing—it was just everything.”
Then again, neither of them are middle-of-pack talents, both on and off the field.
Paige Bueckers is a pure basketball star. She was the nation’s top recruit (ESPN), she won gold with the USA Basketball U19 Women’s World Cup Team (plus tournament MVP), she was named the 2020 Naismith Girls High School Player of the Year, and helped lead her team an undefeated 2019-20 season. And that’s just a few of her accolades.
Off the court she carried the same type of elevated excellence. Besides an impressive 3.8 GPA, she created a series of youth basketball clinics called, “Buckets With Bueckers,” which offered free admission to players in Minnesota and Montana, while raising funds for local charities through donations and corporate sponsorships.
Arik Gilbert was a nightmare for opposing defenses for several years, fitting the modern-era tight end—one with the speed and agility of a shifty wideout, complemented by the strength and size that takes a handful of defenders to bring down (a young Georg Kittle, if you will).
He was a major part of the Blue Devils’s first-ever Georgia Class 7A state title, and the No. 1-ranked tight end prospect in America (ESPN and Rivals). And winning the Gatorade Make AOY as a tight end is a first in the award’s impressive history.
Off the gridiron, Gilbert had the same leadership that seemingly placed him beyond is years. His campus-wide initiative called “Whisper,” urged students to have device-free conversations, supporting diversity and inclusion efforts. He spent more than 50 hours volunteering at Marietta elementary schools and the Marietta Youth Football program while carrying a 3.14 GPA.
Stepping back and just looking at those resumes, it wasn’t difficult to see why such top-level pro athletes—like Atlanta Falcons’ Todd Gurley and Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner—were such big fans.
Each matched the other’s excitement when discussing these two special talents over the phone.
Griner, who is preparing for the 22-game season in the WNBA bubble at the IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), summed it up perfectly about Bueckers: “She’s crushing it on the court, and—which totally adds to the prestige—she’s crushing it in the classroom, the community.”
The tone in her voice jumped as she reminded me: “And also, that 3.8 GPA? I mean, come on!”
Falcons new running back Todd Gurley had similar perfection when discussing Gilbert’s achievement: “Being from the Atlanta area, and going to an SEC school—and then being able to win the [Gatorade] Male Athlete of the Year award? It’s definitely huge for him. And not just for him, but his family. It’s such an honor and a great accomplishment.”
Of course, when both Paige and Arik were asked to expand on such great words from the impactful faces in their respective games, their attention shifted, highlighting an often overlooked attribute.
“Winning this award, it also brought back really great memories, the experiences in high school, and the great relationships I built,” Bueckers reminisced.
Gilbert touched on a related thought: “My teammates played such a huge part in everything. I saw them as my brothers, and we made each other better. They were some of my best friends, and my best motivators.”
And there you have it, just two award-winning athletes, shifting the focus from themselves to others during an interview—a typical day for the kind of person you’d expect to win this award.
Special thanks to Paige Bueckers, Arik Gilbert, Brittney Griner, and Todd Gurley. For more information about the Gatorade Player of the Year program check out the website here.