The kids are edgy already. All have been through trauma, whether abuse or neglect or abandonment. Then they enter the facility in Houston.
And they see him.
All 300 sculpted pounds of him.
"And they're like, 'Oh my gosh,' " Daryl Gardener says. "They think, 'This monster's going to do something to me!' "
The 36-year-old unleashes the same booming laugh that reverberated throughout the Dolphins' locker room from 1996 through 2001. Sometimes, you heard it after some WWE-style proclamation, such as when the self-proclaimed "Modern Day Gladiator" bet a Sun Sentinel columnist about the Dolphins' record (winning the right to write a column), or when he declared that the Dolphins would "lock the doors and throw away the key" against the Rams. (The Rams won.)
Six years after his NFL retirement, Gardener is focused on opening doors ... to children.
Yes, his body is hard as ever. That's part of his post-retirement story, and the pictures prove it. More on that later. But then there's the part that pleasantly surprises.
He has revealed a softer side than the public saw during his playing days, days that started when Jimmy Johnson picked the defensive tackle in the first round and ended after eight seasons and two back surgeries. While a Dolphin, Gardener worked as a guardian ad litem, speaking for abused kids in the court system. He also spoke frequently with teammate David Bowens, who bounced around in foster homes until being adopted and who became an inspiration for Gardener to get into a line of work he calls "harder than football."
That's working with kids in a residential treatment program called Gardener's Kids Centers. The center holds up to 16 residents ages 8 to 17. While the state provides funds, Gardener has started a nonprofit entity to make sure the kids' needs are met.
Gardener has also teamed with a respiratory therapist named Melanee Albright to work toward nationwide expansion (including Florida) of his program, so children and teens are not shuffled endlessly from one facility to another, each with little connection to the last. The goal is to never turn any kids away, and to keep them in Gardener's Kids facilities until college - protecting, nurturing, listening.
"I am with these kids until I die," Gardener says.
He says they are his focus now, since football is finished. His career? Marked by extremes. Few in NFL history had his physical gifts: 6 feet 7 inches, 315 pounds with single-digit body fat. At times, he could be dominant. Yet he also played hard off the field: "I lived a great lifestyle." That meant cars, clothes, clubs, late nights, big bills. Watching $10 million mature in the bank? No way.
"I was going to enjoy it," Gardener says.
At first, he expresses no regret, then relents: "I wish I would have done some things a little differently." He expresses gratitude to the Dolphins organization and for "having a chance to work with a legendary coach like Jimmy Johnson." Dave Wannstedt? No such love.
Wannstedt cut Gardener before the 2002 season, citing missed workouts and unreturned phone calls. After inviting reporters to his spacious house to give his side, Gardener signed with Washington. He was the Redskins' defensive MVP before one turbulent final NFL season in Denver.
Does he miss football?
"No, no, no," Gardener says.
Well, nothing other than being backed against his own end zone with Dolphins fans chanting, "Defense!"
"I did my damnedest to make sure they got their money's worth," he says, "and I think we did that most of the time."
His own money? He is careful with that now, vowing to direct it to the program rather than his wants. He watches his behavior too, sensing the kids holding him to a higher standard: "I am learning from these kids like they are learning from me."
He promises to base a major decision on them.
Gardener was always fanatical about training, so much so that John Gamble, then the Dolphins' strength coach, would pack a special "Daryl Gardener trunk" with dumbbells on road trips. During the week, Gardener would frequently come to the weight room before dawn, sometimes to avoid less savory alternatives, though sometimes to the chagrin of Dolphins officials.
"That's been his refuge his entire life," says Neil Schwartz, his longtime agent. "His home away from home."
On one Thanksgiving, Gardener was in Gamble's home. Gamble was a champion power lifter who competed in the World's Strongest Man event. Gardener saw Gamble's bronze sculptures, earned for squatting and dead-lifting victories.
"I looked at them like, 'Wow!' " Gardener says.
It stuck with him. After gaining a little weight in retirement, Gardener began training, for aesthetics as well as strength. His legs lagged, because of that bad back, but he learned to compensate. At 298 pounds, he won his first show last July, in the novice heavyweight division, then finished second in another one week later. Frustrated by the sport's politics, he stopped.
"The only thing that will change it is if the kids say, 'Mr. Gardener, why aren't you bodybuilding? I'll be your supporter,' " he says. "Then I will be right back in the gym."
Aiming to compete for Mr. Olympia 2013.
"I was excited when I saw he got into competing in bodybuilding, and I was so impressed with what I saw in the photos," says Gamble, now Dolphins director of player development. "He looks awesome. It's even more exciting, though, to see what he is doing with the kids."