UL senior linebacker Ferrod Gardner has had so many conflicting thoughts running through his mind this past offseason, it’s a wonder his head isn’t still spinning.

First, there were normal football-type thoughts all dedicated team leaders entertain. More than ever, Gardner buried himself in the film room after the spring game to learn everything he could learn about his defense as well as opposing offenses.

“(UL) Coach (Billy) Napier really tried to preach to me about mental toughness,” said Gardner, whose 2-1 Cajuns play the Ohio Bobcats at 1 p.m. Saturday in Athens, Ohio. “I took that as a challenge, and I took it head on.”

Unfortunately, the Dayton, Ohio, native had no choice but to ponder several non-football issues … including some really sour ones.

They all came from the Dayton area where his mother’s family still lives.

On May 25, a Ku Klux Klan rally was held, resulting in violence and arrests.

Four days later, a tornado destroyed the nearby community of Trotwood — eight miles from Dayton — where he attended high school.

“Where I’m from is really in shambles right now,” Gardner said. “The city is really bad.”

Then, on Aug. 4, there was a mass shooting in Dayton’s Oregon district, killing nine and injuring 27.

For Gardner, the tragic news really hit home.

“I had a few friends in the Oregon district in the bar, and one of my friends ended up getting shot … he didn’t make it,” Gardner said.

So just as August camp was about to start and Gardner could start putting all of this new football knowledge to good use, his mind was suddenly confronted with these heart-breaking developments.

“At first, it was really tough,” Gardner said. “I just kind of talked to my mom about it. I just tried to keep a positive head about it. I prayed about it and just tried to push forward. Every time I talk to my friends back in Dayton, all they talk about is leaving Dayton. That’s all we talked about in high school, because there’s literally nothing there, other than trouble.”

As the 6-foot-2, 215-pound "Will" linebacker tries to move on with his much anticipated senior season far away from home, part of him is naturally still thinking of Dayton.

“I’m just trying to take it day by day and think positively on the situation, just try to keep my friends level-headed and try to help them as much as I can,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gardner’s mind is further clouded by the contrasts in life. You see, his father’s family is from Atlanta, where he lived with his grandparents.

Atlanta and Dayton are like night and day.

“Absolutely,” Gardner said. “Atlanta’s more of a modern city. They’re rebuilding everything. I live with my grandparents in downtown Atlanta in the heart of Atlanta. They’re remodeling everything downtown. Our next-door neighbor, they just remodeled their house and it’s a million-dollar house, as opposed if you go to Dayton, where we just had the KKK rally, we just had a mass shooting in the Oregon district and there was a massive (tornado) that destroyed the city of Trotwood.”

This week, however, Gardner and his family in Ohio aren’t thinking about the rough year 2019 has been for that area.

They’re focused on watching Ferrod's return home.

“It’s great,” Gardner said. “It’s a real blessing. My family has been really trying to get to see me play, because they can’t make it down to Louisiana. This is the closest game they get to come see me play.

“It’s been a long college journey for me play, and this is the first game they’ll ever get to see me play live. So I know for a lot of them it’s going to be big for them, but it’s really big for me.”

Gardner said his “Aunt Pam” saw him play a few high school games, but the rest of his family “has never seen me play. They’ve only heard and watched a few games that are on ESPN.”

That drought ends Saturday in Athens — about two and a half hours from Dayton.

“Everybody’s hitting me up trying to get on the ticket list,” Gardner laughed. “I’m messing with all the guys for their extra tickets, because they’re not having a whole lot of family go up to Ohio. So I’m just trying to get all the tickets I can and make sure I can get as many family members as I can to come to the game.”

He’s confident his mind can handle the tricky juggle between a long-awaited family reunion and preparing for a football game.

“I won’t be locked in on them at all once the game starts,” Gardner said. “I’ll be dialed in. I’ll be focused. Once the game usually starts, I’m usually in a zone, I like to say. I just want to go out there and play my game the best I can and do what I can for the team and be the best I can.”

The Cajuns hope all of his extra offseason work will pay off in this one.

“In this offseason, I really took it seriously,” he said. “I took it a lot more serious than I did in 2018. I just feel like I worked a lot harder this year in the film room and out on the field. I just really tried to build my mental up. I spent countless hours in the film room just trying to learn offenses, break down schemes and break down formations.

“And being able to have play recognition and being able to recognize the formation and analyze what plays they run out of that formation. And be able to attack and go faster.”

Even with all of the potentially crippling distractions, Napier has noticed Gardner’s improvement.

“Ferrod’s a good athlete,” Napier said. “He can run. He’s really taken a step forward in terms of his football IQ, his understanding of our defense and really having a language that he speaks about the other side of the ball — formations, running plays, pass patterns. I’ve really been pleased with his progress and certainly that started back in the offseason program. Bigger, stronger, faster.

“More than anything, it’s mental. He’s pulling the trigger, anticipation, just playing faster, because he’s a much better student of the game and he has more knowledge.”

Truly, Gardner’s transformation since arriving on UL’s campus two years ago boggles the mind.

In 2017, Gardner first suffered a foot injury that required surgery and then was booted off the team because of a felony theft charge that was later dropped.

Upon Napier’s arrival that December, it took two months before Gardner, with help from other holdovers from the previous staff, persuaded Napier to give him another chance.

Nobody regrets that decision now.

“We’ve been very impressed with Ferrod,” Napier said Wednesday.

“I feel like all the trials and tribulations I’ve been through over my college career have definitely made me into the man I am today,” Gardner said. “I definitely am blessed to me in the position I am for sure. I don’t take anything lightly.

“I just try to take everything day by day and try to move forward positively. And I try to leave an impact that will be looked at as a leader for everybody in this community and just be remembered by people in this community.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.