Overcoming the odds is something Browns seventh-round draft pick Garrett Gilkey, from Division II Chadron State, understands well.
As a freshman at Sandwich High School in the small Illinois town his family had just moved to, Gilkey also came to understand all too well the epidemic of bullying.
Back then, Gilkey was a shy, awkward kid with bright red hair and porcelain-white skin adorned with hundreds of freckles. He struggled immediately to fit in with his new peers, who peppered him with stinging insults and shoves as he passed them in the school’s hallways.
In a lengthy pre-draft story, Gilkey admitted the depth of his struggles with the merciless bullying.
“I was never suicidal, by any means,” the 22-year-old Gilkey told ESPN.com. “But there were a few times where I thought, ‘Man, would it be better if I just didn’t exist?’ ”
It didn’t help Gilkey’s growing reputation as “a nerd” when he found out he had a heart condition that required surgery. Of all things, the condition kept him from being able to play sports for a year — the one place where he hoped to fit in.
But Gilkey, his parents, Cary and Catherine, and three sisters, Hannah, Mallory and Hilary, were relieved to learn Garrett’s heart condition could be fixed. Thankfully, doctors told them that he ought to be able to return to playing the following year.
“I had a syndrome called WPW (Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare condition in which an extra pathway between the heart’s upper chambers causes a rapid heartbeat), which was easily fixed with a cardiac ablation,” Gilkey said. “Although it prevented me from participating in any athletic sports during my freshman year, it helped me excel academically.”
Yet, when Gilkey returned to the close-knit public school, he wasn’t greeted with compassion and get-well wishes. Even expanding his vocabulary and immersing himself in his favorite subject of science only seemed to work against the straight-A student as the bullying intensified.
The taunting increased to the point that Gilkey’s parents enrolled him in a private school the following school year.
“It was a tough year because I was bullied severely and I had a rough time,” the 6-foot-6, 318-pound Gilkey said. “My parents decided to move me to Aurora Christian, and that’s how I got there, which is how I got to Chadron.”
Switching high schools relieved the bullying. But a year later, another scary health issue surfaced when Gilkey’s appendix burst a couple hours before football powerhouse Aurora Christian (coached by former NFL receiver Don Beebe) had its first game against North Dakota.
“That was a big upset, and I walked into my junior year knowing that I had to go lights out and play very well,” Gilkey said. “It was hard to bounce back from that, especially because I was out the first two games. But I bounced back well and it’s just very exciting because I had a good senior year.”
As Gilkey’s body began to transform into that of an offensive lineman between his junior and senior seasons, he began to get excited about the possibility of playing at the next level. So Beebe reached out to his friend Bill O’Boyle, then the football coach at Chadron State, a tiny Division II school 14 hours away in Nebraska.
“He was really kind of a diamond in the rough,” O’Boyle told ESPN.com. “He was an unbelievable athlete for how big he was and what he could do. But his work ethic was lacking, so it took some time. You had to go through and peel back the layers to get him out.”
Chudzinski offers praise
Despite his former health scares and coming from a Division II school, the Browns didn’t hesitate to select Gilkey with one of their two seventh-round picks on the final day of last week’s NFL Draft.
“He’s a big guy with good size,” new Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “He has really good feet for a big man and can bend very well. He went into the Senior Bowl from Chadron State and played very well against those guys and competed. He has lined up against guys from Florida State, North Carolina and everywhere else and looked like he fit right in. It didn’t faze him one bit. He’s a tough guy and has the kind of attitude that we want.”
Some of the draft analysts weren’t as kind. Pro Football Weekly’s annual draft guide listed among his negatives: “Lacks ideal arm length and the foot quickness needed to stay outside. … Tends to overextend and spend more time on the ground than he should. … Soft playing temperament and marginal finisher. … Has faced inferior competition.”
Ready to compete
But it’s the kind of negative chatter Gilkey has learned to phase out.
“There’s been a knock on me for a long time because of my competition level,” Gilkey said. “I have a chip on my shoulder, and I’m as excited to be as successful as I can be and help get the Browns to a Super Bowl. It isn’t anything that I’m intimidated about. In fact, I’m very excited about it. There is a lot of great opportunity, and I’m ready to walk into camp and compete for a job.”
At Chadron, Gilkey played left tackle. But he switched to guard during the Senior Bowl, showcasing his potential versatility at the professional level.
“He has played some of both, so we’ll see when he gets in,” Chudzinski said. “He has played primarily on the left side and we’ll see if he can play on the right side.”
Where he plays on the line doesn’t matter much to Gilkey, who said he plans to visit Chicago and Cleveland-area schools to share his experience and speak out against bullying. What matters most is the opportunity to finally silence all those who once tormented him for simply being different.
“I’m ready to do either or both,” Gilkey said. “I’m ready to be versatile and realize my dream. … Being overshadowed and underappreciated helped develop me into what I am today. They are the driving forces in my life that tell me I’m going to make it.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.