Northwestern University

Northwestern's Gaziano Hoping to Accomplish Draft Dream

Wildcats all-time leader in sacks is keeping the memory of his sister Andrea alive as NFL Draft arrives

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It's been about a month now that Joe Gaziano has been living with his parents in Scituate, Mass., a town outside Boston. Since local gyms are closed, the 6-feet 4-inch tall defensive end hasn't been able to work out like he normally does, but that hasn't stopped the NFL prospect from staying in shape. Weights from a local high school and mats from Home Depot have helped turn the Gaziano's garage into a personal workout facility.

"Got some dumbbells, some kettle bells, a lot of bands," Gaziano said. "We have a rowing erg in there that we borrowed from a local gym, so piecing together some stuff and doing the best I can."

Such is life for a standout football player during the coronavirus pandemic. With the NFL's annual annual draft scheduled to start Thursday, Gaziano is closer than ever to realizing his dream of playing on Sundays. He hopes the first step comes when a team picks him. It would likely happen Saturday, the final day of the draft.

"Wherever my name is called, I’m ready for the opportunity," said Gaziano. "I don’t think I have a set number or round I want to be called on, but just to be able to be in the conversation as a draft choice and be someone who can play at the next level, I don’t take that for granted for a single day," he added.

This past fall, Gaziano wrapped-up a decorated career at Northwestern. The 2019 season saw him honored as a member of the All-Big Ten Defensive First Team. It also saw him break NU's career record for sacks. He finished his time in Evanston with 30 of them.

"It takes a village to get that," Gaziano said humbly. "It’s not just me. My name is on the record, but a lot of coaches and players put me in great situations to be able to get those sacks and set the record."

His former head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, says the record illustrates Gaziano's physical toughness.

"You talk about a legacy award," Fitzgerald said. "Leading a program in sacks? You gotta beat your guy one on one. This isn’t a reception and you just make a bunch of catches or throws as a quarterback. You have to physically beat someone every play," he added.

As Gaziano gets set to watch the NFL Draft with his family, one person will be noticeably absent. His sister, Andrea, passed away at 14 in 2006 after a long battle with leukemia. She won't physically be there while Gaziano anxiously waits to hear his name called, but she'll certainly be there in spirit.

"There’s not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about her, and how she was so brave in fighting leukemia," said Gaziano. "My goal is to make her proud and looking down upon me and the way I carry myself on and off the field."

Andrea has even motivated him as he's worked to achieve his dream, one that's tougher to envision during home workouts and zoom calls, not face-to-face interviews, with NFL teams.

"I often think about my battle and I think, ‘Oh – it’s really hard to achieve this dream. There’s a lot that I have to overcome’," Gaziano said. "But it pales in comparison to her battle against cancer. Two bone marrow transplants, many rounds of chemotherapy. For me, I just look at her for guidance and I think about her every day," he added.

Whether Gaziano gets picked or signs as an undrafted free agent, years of hard work are about to pay off. And wherever he lands in the NFL, Fitzgerald thinks a productive career will follow.

"He’s a complete football player, he’s a student of the game," Fitzgerald said. "He’s already been a pro in the way he prepared his body mentally and physically, his film prep, getting ready for practice, you name it. He’s going to come ready."

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