What could end up being the biggest night of Garry Gilliam’s remarkable football life will happen a two-hour drive from his even more remarkable start.
Thelma Shifflett will be inside FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, Monday night when her son may adopt an increasing role in the offense for the Seahawks (2-1) at Washington (1-3). Seattle signed the undrafted Gilliam in May as an offensive tackle. But he’s been a tight end his entire football career — except for the past 18 months, when he switched to tackle before his final season at Penn State.
That makes Gilliam versatile, and suddenly valuable, for the Seahawks. Starting tight end Zach Miller is out a few weeks following ankle surgery. And part-time extra tight end Alvin Bailey will miss Monday’s game because of an oblique strain. So Seattle may be calling upon Gilliam to assume his familiar old tight end identity at Washington.
Mom would definitely approve.
Shifflett raised Gilliam and his special needs older brother Victor by herself in the crime-filled Hill neighborhood of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital city. To give Garry a future she didn’t think she could provide as a single mother in such a long-odds place, Shifflett sent Garry away from the Hill when he was 7 years old. Away and alone, 90 minutes from home, to Milton Hershey School. The cost-free, prekindergarten-through-12th grade home and school is 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.
For those children who make it through to graduation, Milton Hershey School guarantees college tuition.
Gilliam is only the second person to make it through both Milton Hershey and college to play in the NFL. Joe Senser graduated from Milton Hershey in 1974 and played tight end for the Minnesota Vikings.
Last week, during the Seahawks’ bye, Gilliam returned to Milton Hershey. He talked to its students. He visited his former coaches and mentors and attended the Friday night game of his former high school team.
That scared 7-year-old boy alone and far from home returned as a 23-year-old member of the Super Bowl champions.
“I’m proud of Garry, so proud of him,” said Jimmy Taylor, Gilliam’s assistant football coach and senior-division house parent at Milton Hershey.
Gilliam lived year-round at Milton Hershey, from second grade through his high school graduation. He and the 11 other classmates with whom he lived got up at 5:30 a.m. to do house chores: laundry and lawn care, cooking and cleaning.
“ Deep cleaning,” said Taylor, who along with his wife Danielle and their two kids hosted Gilliam on campus at Milton Hershey when Garry was in the ninth through 12th grade.
After predawn chores, Gilliam would go to school all day. Then he’d go to practice. He’d have chores in the evening, then had to set aside time to do his homework and do more chores.
“Garry’s personality was so unique,” Taylor said. “He was always willing to do anything that was asked, anything that was needed to help.
“I could tell when he was nine years old how successful he could be. All of a sudden as a young kid you have chores, people you don’t know telling you what to do — it can be a lot to take. But he handled it so well.”
On the outside, anyway.
When he first got to Milton Hershey, Gilliam felt abandoned. He wondered if his mother didn’t want him anymore. Why else would she send him 90 minutes from home, to a place to live and work and go to school with people he didn’t know?
He cried every night, missing his mother while clutching a picture of her.
“It definitely made me grow up faster,” Gilliam said Friday at his Seahawks locker in the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. “It helps you as a person, interacting with people from all types of backgrounds. It helps your tolerance of others.
“I mean, nothing’s easy there. Nothing’s given to you at that school. All the little things we had to do: cooking, laundry …”
As he grew emotionally and intellectually, he grew even more physically — into a force at tight end, a basketball player that once scored 42 points in a game, a track man-child, a wrestler and even a baseball player. Gilliam bulled through Eastern Pennsylvania high school teams like he bulled through living away from home at age seven.
Milton Hershey’s recently retired long-time football coach, Bob Guyer, began hosting recruiters from the University of Virginia, the University of Pittsburgh, Connecticut — and Joe Paterno from Penn State. They all wanted to sign Gilliam.
All the while, Gilliam got up before dawn, cooked breakfasts and dinners at Milton Hershey, landscaped and did laundry for himself and 11 other classmates/housemates — and maintained a GPA worthy of some of the better academic universities on the East Coast.
“Coach Paterno and then Coach (Bill) O’Brien (who succeeded the late Paterno at Penn State and is now the coach of the Houston Texans) just appreciated how Garry handled everything,” Guyer said. “His football and his academics.”
And his setbacks.
Gilliam has had not one, not two but five surgeries on his knee. He missed two years at Penn State after he got a staph infection following reconstructive knee surgery.
He switched positions before his final season in 2013, then declared late for this spring’s NFL draft. The league didn’t invite him to its combine for rookie draft prospects. No team took him in May.
But Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had done enough digging to know Gilliam wasn’t the average undrafted football player. Carroll and the Seahawks called Gilliam even before the draft was over, asking him to sign with them.
He did. That was about the time he was graduating from Penn State with degrees in business, advertising and psychology.
Those long odds of making the Super Bowl champions out of Seattle’s training camp this summer? Those were nothing compared to what Gilliam had overcome just to get to Renton.
“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.”
He was one of the surprise choices for the regular-season roster when the Seahawks announced their final cuts on Aug. 30. He is collecting weekly, regular-season wages of $24,706 — 1/17th of his $420,000 base pay as an NFL rookie.
The average family income for students attending Milton Hershey is about $14,000 — for an entire year.
That’s how far Gilliam and his mother have come to be at FedEx Field in Seahawks gear Monday night, with Garry primed to return to his tight end roots — a couple hours south of the true roots to his remarkable life.
“I mean, we are talking a whole ‘nother level now; the NFL. Wow!” Guyer said, laughing through the phone Friday while the current Milton Hershey School team ate a pregame meal. “The beauty of it is he is not stepping onto that field in a position that is new to him. He has done it and excelled at it.
“We’re just so thrilled here for him. We are surrounded by Eagles fans and Steelers fans and Redskins fans. But Seattle has gone to the top of our list here.
The Seahawks practiced Saturday afternoon then departed on their charter flight to Washington. Before they left, Carroll confirmed Bailey is out for Monday’s game. Rush end Bruce Irvin, who missed Seattle’s last game with an oblique injury, is probable. “He looks great,” Carroll said.