September 5, 2018
A stand-out student and athlete at Fenwick, Billy Gibbs walked on the football team at Notre Dame. Now he looks out for his client’s safety as a trial attorney for a prominent Chicago law firm.
By Mark Vruno
As his 25th Fenwick reunion draws closer, later this month (Sept. 28-30th), Bill Gibbs ’93, the teacher-turned-lawyer, waxes nostalgic, reminiscing about his high-school days. Gibbs was a member of the National Honor Society and a co-captain of the Friars’ football team. He was an All-Chicago Catholic League (CCL) selection at defensive back/safety on the gridiron. “I think I was All-CCL in baseball, too,” he modestly reports.
Gibbs ponders the values he learned on the fields of River Forest, his hometown, and in the hallowed classrooms of Oak Park at Fenwick. Critical-thinking skills, for example, were creatively honed by faculty member and alumnus John Quinn ’76. “Mr. Quinn, in his own, unique way, is the best history teacher one could ever imagine,” Gibbs praises. Citing a practical application, the trial attorney says he also uses techniques taught by Mr. Andy Arellano in his speech classes when arguing a case to judge and jury. “These men, these teachers, have been influential in my development as a person.”
Those lessons and all the others, for Gibbs, transferred so very well -- to the University of Notre Dame, to graduate school at the University of Portland (Oregon), to law school at IIT-Kent in Chicago and to his legal career, now as a partner at the personal-injury and medical-malpractice law firm of Corboy & Demetrio in Chicago.
Gibbs returned to Fenwick in a teaching capacity in 1999.
Gibbs remembers his introduction to the Friars as if it happened yesterday: “Freshman football camp, 29 years ago,” he notes. His coach was, of course, Rich Borsch, Director of College Counseling, who paced the Fenwick frosh sideline for more than 40 seasons. “Coach Borsch was as good or better than any coach I’ve ever had in my life,” praises the player who played for Lou Holtz at ND as a walk-on. “Rich had a passion for developing us into young men, and he had a passion for the game of football and for demanding excellence on the field and off.”
The love and respect is mutual, according to Borsch: “I have been fortunate to have been able to coach young men for 49 years,” the old coach reflects. “During that time I’ve watched thousands of kids compete on the football field. From a coach’s perspective Billy Gibbs was, if not the most fiercely competitive player I ever coached, he certainly was in the forefront of the team picture. He brought the same drive to the college classroom, law school and now to his profession. I suppose one might call him a ‘Rudy’ with brains and character.”
Gibbs as a Friar (1992).
Borsch’s movie reference isn’t lost on Gibbs, the non-scholarship player listed as 5’10” and 171 pounds on the 1996 Notre Dame roster. He dreamed of attending school and playing Ivy League football at Yale University in New Haven, CT. But when plans for his future didn’t go as anticipated (primarily due to an admissions snafu), Gibbs “settled” for South Bend, IN, and Notre Dame. With a powerful endorsement from the late George Kelly, the Fighting Irish’s Assistant Athletic Director, Gibbs tried out for and made the team as non-scholarship, “walk-on” athlete. Twenty-two recruits received football scholarships in 1993, and Gibbs was one of three players invited to walk on. Four years later, “Coach Holtz’s last game was my last game,” he says humbly and matter-of-factly.
“As a freshman I got into one game as a wide receiver [on offense],” Gibbs laughs, stressing that his position was a safety in the defensive secondary. He earned some “mop-up” duty in a game against Pitt. “Halfway through my junior year I was playing on special [kicking] teams and made the travel team.” During his senior season in ’96, Gibbs appeared in every game for the 19th-ranked Fighting Irish, who finished with an 8-3 record. He is especially proud of his work on the punt return team, which led the nation in yards per return and broke the Notre Dame single-season record for punt returns for touchdowns.
Gibbs playing for Notre Dame as a walk-on during the Holtz regime.
All these years later Gibbs says he still draws on what Borsch taught him; messages such as: “‘Don’t ever accept losing. Losing is supposed to hurt if you put in time and energy to prevail.’ I would think about those words at Notre Dame and on the rare occasions when we’d lose law cases.” (His law practice now concentrates on cases arising from railroad negligence, automobile collisions, participation in sports, unsafe pharmaceuticals or medical devices, construction negligence, medical negligence, premises liability, product liability and aviation litigation.)
For years, Gibbs carried with him a booklet of quotations from Friars’ varsity defensive guru, the late Don Heldmann, and linebackers Coach Eddie Formanski. Among the pearls of wisdom:
Anything you vividly imagine,
And enthusiastically act upon,
Must inevitably come to pass.
“This is the quote that I’ve lived by while chasing my dreams as an ND football player and now as a husband, father and trial lawyer at Corboy & Demetrio,” Gibbs states emphatically. “Coach Heldmann provided daily and weekly inspiration to me as a player and as coach.”
Through Notre Dame, Gibbs participated in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program and taught at a Catholic high school in Louisiana for two years after college. He then returned to Fenwick, as Director of Technology and a football and baseball coach, from the fall of 1999 through the spring of 2002. “Dr. [Jim] Quaid hired me,” Gibbs says with a smile, knowing that Quaid has come back to the Friars this academic year. “The tech department was fairly new back then, as was Fr. Winkels. We had help from Diana Caponigri. I also taught a computer applications course.” On the football field, he coached defensive backs with Coach Heldmann and then-Head Coach Paul Connor.
Fenwick holds a special place in Gibbs’ heart – and not only because he met his wife there. At the time, Kate Greco was Assistant Director of Admissions, working with Admissions Director Pat Van De Walle ’92. “She was teaching Spanish, too,” Gibbs remembers. “We literally met in the hallway and started dating around Christmastime,” he says of his future bride “Our first date may have been the Proviso West Holiday Basketball Tournament!”
It was in his third year of working and teaching at Fenwick that Gibbs began law school, at night, at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Kent College of Law, from where he earned his J.D. in 2004. Five years later the Law Bulletin Publishing Company named him to its list of “40 Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch.” Since then he has obtained record-setting and multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements on behalf of his clients. He, along with his partners Thomas Demetrio and Dan Kotin, obtained a $29.6 million verdict on behalf of a woman who was seriously injured in the derailment of a Metra train. The verdict is the largest in Illinois for an individual injured in a mass transit crash. In a Federal District Court case, Gibbs obtained a $6.6 million verdict for a family injured in an automobile collision. It was the largest verdict ever in that Court.
Gibbs is a member of numerous legal organizations including the American Association for Justice, Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, the Chicago Bar Association, the Notre Dame Law Association and the Fenwick Bar Association (Treasurer 2005-09). He also is active in many community organizations, including on the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation Advisory Board, and provides pro bono legal assistance to individuals who are unable to afford private counsel.
In recent years, his clientele at Corboy & Demetrio has included former professional football and hockey players dealing with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The firm represents some 40 retired NFL players, including former Chicago Bears’ players Mike Adamle, as well as the families of Doug Buffone and Dave Duerson, in concussion-related litigation against the NFL and helmet-maker Riddell Sports. Yet Gibbs still has faith in the game he loves. “Football today is certainly safer than it was 10 years ago,” he asserts. “These retired NFL players' advocacy has effectuated positive change in the game. More can and will be done.”
Looking forward to Homecoming and Reunion Weekend, he concludes: “As a student, I loved Fenwick, and I still do. In many ways, it defined me during college and my young professional life. I’m still very proud to say I’m a Friar.”
The late Coach Heldmann (center) addresses Gibbs (left), Madden (above) and the rest of the Friars' defense in a '92 game.
Friendships forged at Fenwick with classmates and teammates hold a strong grip on him. “To this day, guys like Matt Madden, John Hardy, Dan Moran, Mike Grant, Bill Neill and Mike Nowicki, who is a year younger, are my best friends in life,” he shares. “They were in my wedding [party].” Their stories will be flowing in a few weeks. Let the reunion begin!