RALEIGH — Of all the education and experience that Robert Gibbs has amassed to become President-elect Barack Obama's communications director, perhaps one of his most important came during his time on the soccer field at N.C. State University.
There, Gibbs played goalkeeper for three years, from 1990-92, defending whatever came flying in his direction and remembered — like all goalkeepers — more for the misses than the saves.
"To be a goalkeeper, you have to be a very special person," Gibbs' former coach, George Tarantini, said in an interview Thursday.
"People remember only the goals. No one remembers how many saves you make."
Sounds a little like standing at a podium in the White House briefing room, fending off reporters. Though nothing has been made official yet, Gibbs is widely expected to be the new public face of the White House for Obama, a job that would have him conducting daily briefings with reporters and explaining presidential policies.
"To be a spokesman is very hard, right? When you have to defend something, it’s very difficult," said Tarantini, who still is head coach for the N.C. State Wolfpack.
Gibbs joined Obama before the president-elect ran for U.S. Senate from Illinois, and has been with him ever since. He is one of Obama’s constant traveling companions and a longtime confidante.
Tarantini said Gibbs stood out as a college student with keen interest in politics, service and the world outside his own.
"I used to say to him, his intellect was too high to comprehend all the things we have to understand in soccer," Tarantini said. "There’s no question about his passion, his desire to work on political issues."
One of Gibbs’ early jobs was as press secretary for U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Lillington Democrat who hired Gibbs when the congressman’s first term began in 1997.
"He's very bright. He's level-headed. He has great instincts," Etheridge said. "He's the kind of person, he'll be honest with you, and I think that's what we need in the White House."
Etheridge said Gibbs, who still retains a bit of his Southern accent, also has enough of an aw-shucks quality that folks can't help but like him.
Gibbs was introduced to politics at a young age, said his father, also named Robert Gibbs.
As a boy growing up in Auburn, Ala., the younger Gibbs — then known as "Bobby" — and his brother were toted around the state with their mother, Nancy, who was active in the League of Women Voters. Later, Bobby Gibbs sat on the high school debate team.
"He was loquacious," the elder Gibbs recalled Thursday. "He was quite social, got along well with his classmates."
The younger Gibbs took time off from the campaign to take his own young son to his first day of kindergarten this year and to take him trick-or-treating for Halloween.
Gibbs' parents now live in Apex. They have met Obama a few times, both during visits to Washington and during the candidate's swings through North Carolina. Robert Gibbs said the couple hope to be back in Washington for the inauguration in January.
For now, they're just very proud of their son.
"Would you believe I talked with him by phone yesterday, and he'd lost his voice?" laughed Robert Gibbs. "I told him yesterday he's done such a good job."