TEMPE, Ariz. -- As he stood at the grill in the back of the McDonald's off Jefferson Road in South Charleston, West Virginia, Dennis Gardeck's mind would often wander as screens in front of him flashed with orders while timers controlled the cooking.
He'd imagine one day talking about his experiences as a part-time employee at McDonald's while playing linebacker at Division II's West Virginia State University.
That was four years ago, when playing in the NFL was a hope and a prayer for Gardeck, a 6-foot gym rat who has made an improbable journey to the league.
Standing at his locker before the season, Gardeck, a special-teams ace who was named a Pro Bowl alternate last week in his second season with the Arizona Cardinals, talked about how working fast food shaped him while he played at a pair of Division II colleges.
"It's kind of déjà vu-ish," Gardeck told ESPN. "It's wild to look back on."
Making Big Macs
Gardeck didn't need a job in college.
He was on a partial scholarship but didn't like taking money from his parents. Deep down, he felt obligated to find a way to make money, but knew it wasn't a necessity. When he heard one of his teammates had a job at a McDonald's, Gardeck thought he'd apply, too, after his freshman year.
"I believe if you don't put the pressure on yourself, life's gonna put the pressure on you," Gardeck said. "So, I'm always trying to find ways to push myself. That way it's on my terms. And if something bad does happen, where I need to adjust, at least I'm mentally in the space to handle that and not just kind of coasting through and then getting hit with something out of the blue, and then really being scrambled."
When he applied at Burger King and Arby's, neither of which he heard back from, Gardeck had yet to play a down for the Yellow Jackets. He redshirted his first year at West Virginia State while recovering from a knee injury suffered playing lacrosse during his senior year of high school. Gardeck felt like he had to earn his scholarship even though he was physically unable to take the field. So, Gardeck did whatever he could to help, which meant filming games and practices -- even after dropping a camera 50 feet off a lift during one practice -- setting up the field and being the snack guy. At halftime, he'd come down from the tower, get the granola bars and Gatorades from the van, and then pass them out in the locker room.
"He was the type of kid that wasn't satisfied just rehabbing," said Jon Anderson, Gardeck's college coach. "He wanted to do his part for the team, even early on, and he knew that that was something that helped us."
Gardeck applied to McDonald's, which interviewed him on the spot with one question: Could he start tomorrow?
He was usually on the "grill crew," but also worked the assembly table, fryers and anything else needed.
Gardeck's check from McDonald's was $450 every two weeks, $200 of which went to gas. Even though he spent his entire paycheck by the end of the two weeks, he knew where every penny went. And it helped that by eating at work, Gardeck was essentially bringing home more because he didn't have to pay for food.
"I mean, it just sums up Dennis," said Ian, Gardeck's older brother, who's a pitcher in the Oakland Athletics organization. "Dennis will do whatever it takes. He's not about what it looks like, what it entails, he just doesn't care. Like he wants to be the best, if that helps him have some extra money to be able to put on weight or get free food or whatever it took, that's what Dennis is going to do."
As a 195-pound freshman, eating as much McDonald's as he wanted helped add the calories Gardeck needed to pack on weight.
Working there also introduced Gardeck to parts of society that were new to him. Some of his co-workers were high schoolers who were helping support their families. Others were people who couldn't get jobs elsewhere. Gardeck drove one of his co-workers who had DUIs to work. He keeps in touch with some of them through Instagram.
"Great people," Gardeck said. "You get to know them. So, just knowing that I wasn't in a situation where I had to be working there definitely helped me apply the pressure in other aspects of my life and not take anything for granted."
And chow mein
On the inside of Gardeck's left bicep, among his many tattoos, reads one that says, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." It's the final two lines of the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. Gardeck got it his sophomore year of college, as a way to remind himself of what he wants to do in life.
"Once you take ownership of it, then it kind of empowers you because now it's up to you to change it," Gardeck said. "So, instead of being a victim of your circumstances, you're creating your own destiny."
It's a philosophy he's developed over time. Gardeck, whose nickname is "The Barbarian," has been watching motivational videos on YouTube since he was young and wanted to be a bodybuilder. His brother Ian contends the weight room is Gardeck's first love.
Creating his own destiny is exactly what Gardeck did when he decided to transfer after his redshirt junior season at West Virginia State. He didn't think the Yellow Jackets were progressing as a team.
Anderson, coincidentally, called a team meeting after Gardeck informed him he was transferring to tell the team he was leaving for a job at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. Anderson invited his players to stop by his office after the meeting to "wish me well or kick my ass." While he was still wiping tears away, Gardeck walked in and said he wanted to go to Sioux Falls, too.
Gardeck arrived on campus in the fall of 2017, and in his first game, he had five sacks against the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He was "a maniac all over the field," Anderson said, "and then from that point on everybody's like, they had to figure out who this guy was."
While in Sioux Falls, Gardeck began working at Panda Express, where he "made good money." He washed dishes, and made the chow mein and fried rice three times a shift, earning $11.50 an hour -- which included an extra 50 cents for being around hot flames and sharp objects. Working at Panda Express was a different experience for Gardeck. McDonald's was mindless work, he said, where he threw frozen patties onto a flat-top grill and a timer told him when they were done. Panda Express prepared its food fresh.
Gardeck's lone season at Sioux Falls, which ended with an early exit in the playoffs, saw him named an All-American by five different lists.
At the same time, down at Fischer Institute in Phoenix, his brother Ian was rehabbing his elbow after a second Tommy John surgery. Fischer Institute is a physical therapy and performance center owned by Brett Fischer, who is also a physical therapist consultant for the Arizona Cardinals. Every spring, Fischer runs a combine training program with a group of handpicked prospects.
Sitting on a training table inside Fischer's gym, Ian pitched Fischer the idea of training Gardeck. Ian exaggerated where needed, but there were facts and figures Ian knew he couldn't inflate, or so he thought: his brother played at Division II Sioux Falls, was 6 feet tall, weighed 240 pounds, was fast, could jump and was a raw athlete who lived in the weight room, Ian told Fischer. Ian remembered Fischer hemming and hawing at first. Ian promised to cover the cost.
"I was like, I'll put up the money, he can pay me back," Ian said. "If it doesn't work later on in life, whatever. I'm betting on this racehorse to win."
Applying his fast-food lessons
At Christmas in 2017, Ian and Dennis Gardeck reunited at their parents' home in Illinois. Dennis showed up at 210 pounds. Ian couldn't believe it. He was 30 pounds lighter than Ian had told Fischer.
They started eating together. A lot. It wasn't rare for them to have a small breakfast, then split a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and then go for a larger breakfast.
Dennis couldn't eat enough.
Ian gained 10 pounds.
Over the next few months, Ian didn't leave Dennis' side through the entire pre-draft process. He moved Dennis in with him. He was there when Dennis ran his first 40-yard dash in 4.89 seconds. Ian had told Fischer that Dennis ran in the 4.6s.
The next step in Dennis' journey to the NFL was finding an agent -- which Dennis didn't know was necessary at first.
Fischer introduced him to a good friend of his, Jonathan Feinsod, who has represented the likes of Terrell Davis, Darrelle Revis, Chance Warmack, Ike Hilliard and Vincent Jackson, among others. Dennis remembered Feinsod not sugarcoating anything in their first meeting: He was short, didn't play against great competition and was an unknown.
Dennis was mad.
"I went to my brother, I was like, 'F--- this guy,'" Dennis said.
Ian stopped him and explained Feinsod had done everything an agent should: He shot him straight and made him mad because he was honest, even if it was brutally honest.
"My brother goes, 'What do you think everybody else has said about you?'" Dennis remembered. "I was like, 'All right, he shot me straight.' So, I didn't fight him."
But Feinsod didn't sign Dennis, either. Feinsod was a bit baffled, actually. All of Dennis' numbers were combine worthy, yet with two months to go before the draft, no one had heard of Dennis Gardeck, who hadn't played football until high school.
Then Gardeck got into South Dakota State's pro day, which was going to feature Dallas Goedert, a future second-round pick. All 32 teams were there and Gardeck was the only linebacker.
And he showed out. He did everything the scouts asked of him: defensive back drills, defensive line drills, fullback drills, gave the offensive linemen looks and even ran routes. He hadn't played offense since high school, but when he made a catch he would then run a 15-yard burst, something he had seen other players do while watching past combines. He also bench pressed 225 pounds 31 times.
And his 40? Gardeck ran a 4.56, Anderson remembered, weighing 240 pounds. He ran it shirtless, his long hair flowing as he sprinted. When Gardeck crossed the finish line, Anderson saw all the scouts standing there look at their stopwatches and then look around.
"He totally blew the doors off of that workout," Anderson said.
Gardeck's pro day changed the trajectory of his career. His stock kept rising, to the point where Feinsod thought Gardeck would be a high-priority free agent.
"I didn't think he would get drafted," Feinsod said. "I couldn't even believe I was telling him that the fact that there was even a chance, 'but you definitely will have a home, you're going to an NFL training camp.'"
Instead of watching the last day of the draft, Gardeck worked out at Lifetime Fitness for four hours to burn as much nervous energy as he could. As soon as the draft ended, his phone started ringing. He picked the Cardinals, in part because of his relationship with Fischer. A few days later, Gardeck called Feinsod giddy because he was getting free gear from the Cardinals.
Gardeck signed a standard three-year deal for undrafted free agents that paid him $480,000 last season, $570,000 this season and will pay him $660,000 next season. Gardeck's game checks this season are $33,529.41 before taxes, a far cry from the $450 he took home from McDonald's.
His signing bonus was $6,000 and Feinsod refused to take the standard 3% commission -- or $180. But Feinsod made Gardeck promise he'd take Feinsod, Ian and Fischer out to dinner at a fancy Phoenix steakhouse if he made the 53-man roster, which he did. The cost of the dinner was more than the commission.
A week later, he was on the field in the 2018 Week 1 opener against the Washington Redskins, his brother in the stands with tears in his eyes and Feinsod in awe of how Gardeck got to that moment.
And while his days of working fast food are over, the lessons still prove useful
"Being able to stay calm in hectic situations because you're getting pulled in 20 different directions, being able to multitask, and then, you know, it's fast food so you're getting yelled at quite a bit, so just being able to stay level-headed in hectic situations," Gardeck said. "I think that's applied now because I get nervous out on the field still. Just being able to stay calm and again not be a victim of the circumstances."
Gardeck has found a niche for himself. He has yet to play a single defensive down in his nearly two full NFL seasons but has been a star on special teams.
Since Week 17 of 2018, he has three punt deflections, a fumble recovery and a touchdown.
"Certain guys, they just want it more than others," Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "And it doesn't matter where they come from or what they were given or what they weren't given. They just want it more than other guys and they refused to not get where they want to be. And he's one of those guys."
Gardeck's phone rang last Tuesday and a number from a Phoenix area code showed up.
On the other end was Cardinals chairman and president Michael Bidwill, calling to congratulate Gardeck on being named a special-teams alternate to the Pro Bowl in just his second season.
In two years, Gardeck went from unknown to a Pro Bowl alternate, taking a path that Feinsod, who has been an agent for 27 years, doesn't think we'll see again any time soon.
"They uncover everything," Feinsod said. "They missed on Gardeck. They missed terrible."