Even though he is now a full-fledged member of the team, Garry Gilliam is still dressing in a makeshift area in the middle of the Seahawks’ spacious locker room.
He still has his small, black metal locker, the modest one all rookies get during training camp when roster numbers exceed the number of finely finished, wood locker spaces built into the room’s plush and accomplished perimeter.
“Yeah, you know, I don’t mind this,” the Seahawks’ newest offensive tackle said Sunday with a smile following practice for Thursday’s NFL opener against Green Bay at CenturyLink Field.
“It reminds me not to get comfortable. It reminds me I have to keep working.
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“If I was here all year I wouldn’t mind it, at all.”
No way. Gilliam would gladly dress in the middle of neighboring Interstate 405 right now if he had to. That’s how happy he is to have made the 53-man regular-season roster the Super Bowl champions announced on Saturday.
He’s happy not just because he was an undrafted rookie, a free agent from Penn State on whom the league’s 32 teams chose not to use any of 256 draft selections this May.
There are long, unlikely and difficult roads into the NFL.
Then there is Garry Gilliam’s.
“I mean, you could take it all the way back to when I was younger, at age seven, going to the private boarding school away from home,” the 23-year-old said with a chuckle.
“Then in my college career having five surgeries on my knee.
“Then switching positions (from tight end to tackle) in my last year.
“Declaring (for the draft) late.
“Not getting invited to the combine.
“I mean, it goes on and on,” he said. “Definitely, this is one of the hardest routes to get here. But, you know, I’m not a stranger to those hard routes. I think that definitely helps me out — as a person.”
So, no, a metal locker amid cushy, elegant wood ones isn’t going to bother Gilliam. He didn’t mention that among those five knee surgeries at Penn State was a complete reconstruction of one. That cost him all of the 2011 season.
He is the proud product of a mother, Thelma Shifflett, who raised him and his older brother by herself in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, two hours west of Philadelphia. When he was seven years old she sent Garry, alone, 90 minutes away from home to Milton Hershey School, a cost-free, prekindergarten to 12th grade home and school for children from families of low income. The 105-year-old establishment is named after the man who set aside a trust for its creation, the American chocolatier for whom the city where the school is located (Hershey, Pennsylvania) is named.
Gilliam lived year-round at Milton Hershey School from second grade through his high school graduation, in groups of three or four similarly aged children cared for by a hosting, married house-couple.
Through endowments, each student who successfully makes it through 12th grade at Milton Hershey get college scholarships; Gilliam is the first in his family to attend college. The Milton Hershey School has a student composition of 50 percent Pennsylvanians but also currently has children from 30 different states, including Washington.
After he was there some time, his mother moved within a half-hour of the school so Garry could see her on weekends. Other than that, he’s been on his own since second grade.
“It was definitely a strange place and strange people at seven years old,” he said, chuckling.
Now he’s in another strange place: Seattle, as an offensive tackle on the Super Bowl champions. In training camp he showed his athleticism and quickness as a former tight end. He has impressed coaches with how quickly he has picked up Seattle’s playbook. And he is coachable to the point of being a sponge for knowledge. He is constantly trying to learn a craft — blocking on the interior of the offensive line — he’s only done for one full year.
That’s why he’s become something of a shadow to starting left tackle Russell Okung.
“Every single drill I am watching everything he does, whether it’s a little step there or a punch here,” Gilliam said. “I have him talk me through plays when we both are out, ‘What are you seeing here?’ just to kind of get that mental aspect of the game, because that is half of it.”
Mom was, in Garry’s words, “hyperventilating” Saturday over the agonizing wait to see if her boy had made the Seahawks.
“It was funny, the day before I actually made the team I went and got an apartment,” near Renton, Gilliam said, laughing. “I thought, ‘At this point, there’s no more I could do.’ So I sent her pictures of my new place. She texted me back, ‘I am hyperventilating.’
“So I called my brother and said, ‘Hey, could you check on Mom. She is freaking out.’
“I’ve always been kind of in reach of her. Now I’m all the way on the other side of the country. She was just battling that, I guess.”
This week, he begins collecting the first of his weekly, regular-season wages of $24,706 — 1/17th of his $420,000 base pay. That’s far, far more than anything he, his brother or his mother had when she sent him to Milton Hershey 16 years ago.
Nothing, of course, is guaranteed for Gilliam beyond this week as the last and least-experienced of nine offensive linemen on the team.
Then again, nothing in his life ever has been.