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Meet the Bears’ No. 1 draft pick, Gabe Carimi of Wisconsin

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Gabe Carimi could have been in New York, walking on red carpets, eating $50 steaks and glad-handing with other soon-to-be millionaires at the NFL draft in Radio City Music Hall.

But how Carimi spent his Thursday shows his uniqueness.

He started the morning on the second floor of the Engineering Hall at Wisconsin, in a large classroom, presenting his senior project to two professors and five judges. Then he finished his evening at his parents’ home, surrounded by family and friends, when the Bears selected him with the 29th overall pick.

“He clearly has the star status,” said Jeffrey Russell, a professor of civil engineering at Wisconsin. “But he does have this low-profile,
unassuming humbleness.

“He’s not one to be flashy and draw a lot of attention to himself.”

Carimi has no shortage of credentials: co-captain of the Big Ten champion Badgers, recipient of the Outland Trophy (nation’s best interior lineman) and winner of the Marty Glickman Outstanding Jewish Scholastic Athlete of the Year Award.

But in a household in which football was foreign, at least as a participatory sport, Carimi could keep any hardware except for being named Academic All-Big Ten.

“I kept those,” said his mother, Alayne.

For all of his athletic achievements, Alayne and Sanford Carimi proudly recount his early fascination with Legos.

“He would build cities,” Alayne said.

And as part of his bar mitzvah project, Gabe worked for months on a Habitat for Humanity home until they discovered the 6-foot 12-year-old didn’t meet the age requirement. They also recalled how Gabe built them a queen-sized bed in high school shop class.

“The photo won’t do it justice,” said Sanford, an internist and a board-certified lipidologist in Janesville, Wis. “You would go to a high-end furniture store and pay top dollar for [it]. It’s gorgeous.”

Different path

The main building for the engineering school is a Hail Mary from Camp Randall Stadium.

Other than the proximity, there wasn’t any other advantage for Carimi playing football and studying how to design and build structures, machines and processes.

First, the needling: His teammates called him the “King of the Engineering Campus” and made fun of his oversized textbooks.

‘‘We’d make fun of him,” Badgers center Peter Konz said. “Me and a defensive tackle saw this huge book in his locker that looked like the Bible, so we said, ‘Thou shalt not melt thy steel.’  ”

Second, the juggling: Carimi convinced fellow engineering students to meet in the evening — after he completed his football obligations — and earned one of the school’s most daunting degrees.

“He was .  .  . the consummate professional,” Russell said. “In the classroom, he never took any shortcuts.

“At the undergraduate level, engineering is a very demanding curriculum.”

But Carimi doesn’t shy away from challenges.

“He’s one of the most unbelievably competitive people I’ve ever met,” Konz said, recalling the endless debates they had just to see who could make better arguments. “It doesn’t matter what it is. Whatever it takes, however long it takes, he’s going to get the job done.”

Like his capstone project, which he spent a semester working on with classmates. They had to present a renovation of the Wendt Library on campus. Carimi was the environmental engineer. He had to explore ecofriendly green and white roof options, interview people, research costs and suppliers and investigate laws and regulations on completing the project. He also originated a way to retain water on site.

The hardest part for his team?

Relaying all that information in 20 minutes. Carimi said he applied the same mentality to the presentation that he does before a game.

“It’s better than game day,” he said. “What am I going to mess up here?”

Carimi’s group received high marks, and he will receive his diploma in a few weeks.

Hands-on experience

When she discovered something, Carimi’s older sister, Hannah, would pick it up, look at it, then put it down.

“He’d pick it up, shake it and lob it across the room and see what would happen,” Sanford said.

“He was all boy,” Alayne said.

When he was 3, Gabe’s parents learned of his fascination with building things. He’d spend hours playing with Legos, making planes, spaceships and houses.

“He couldn’t get enough,” Sanford said.

During his senior year in high school, Carimi built a bed for his parents. He spent two weeks researching the design, visiting furniture stores and exploring fastening systems.

About a year later, his parents were blown away by the finished product: an arched bed frame with three raised panels that cost $650.

“That was definitely my most proud [project],” Carimi said.

During college, spending 12 hours a day, Carimi built himself a king-sized bed made of cherry in a week.

“I wanted to make a bed that was made right, instead of from IKEA,” said Carimi, who is 6-7 and 314 pounds.

The boy who always liked to build is expected to be a key part of a renovation project at Halas Hall. Led by offensive line coach Mike Tice, the Bears hope Carimi can improve a unit that allowed a league-high 56 sacks last season and ranked 22nd running the ball.

“We’re very pleased to have Gabe and add him to our room,” Tice said. “He’ll bring everything that we’re looking to bring to the offensive line room: toughness, intelligence, size.”

Carimi couldn’t imagine a better fit. Although he grew up in Wisconsin, he was born in Lake Forest.

“I really feel like this was the best fit for me,” he said. “I’m incredibly pumped to be a Bear.”

With his degree completed, Sanford said Gabe can commit himself fully to football.

“He can put his full, undivided attention to being the best at the next level,” Sanford said. “He knows he still has a lot to learn.”

So far, that has never been a problem.

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