When NFL offensive lineman Garrett Gilkey was a freshman in high school, he attended a school assembly where everyone booed him. After the bell rang, he went into the bathroom and cried.
Today, the 6-foot, 6–inch, long-haired Gilkey weighs 315 pounds, and it’s hard to imagine anyone taunting him. But the tough lessons the 25-year-old learned during his childhood paved his way to the NFL. And they may help him clear his next hurdle—a season-ending knee injury with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers requiring 10 months of physical therapy.
“I think suffering and hardship produces confidence and maturity,” says the red-head who often puts his hair in a bun and wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “God has a man bun.”
“But it’s difficult in many ways. I had trained really hard in the off-season. I was really focused on my diet, training— everything was dialed in when I walked on the field to start the season.”
In early September, Gilkey was playing left guard during the second quarter of a pre-season scrimmage against the Miami Dolphins. He was at the 15-yard line as the Buccaneers positioned themselves to score. As the play unfolded, Gilkey sustained a helmet to his knee, seriously damaging his ACL and MCL.
“As soon as I got hit, it was like a rubber band stretched and then a razor blade sliced through it. I can still hear it. It was like three pencils being broken at the edge of the table.”
His season ended before it began.
Instead of playing for the NFL, Gilkey is recovering from his injury at his off-season gym, Diesel Fitness, a true athlete’s state-of-the-art gym tucked in an industrial park a stone’s throw from University of Tampa.
“He’s very used to pain because he is an NFL player,” says Jamie Brunet, Diesel’s medical director. “The mental part is harder. His whole life and career depends on physical everything. For him, it’s harder to accept he can’t squat 1,000 pounds or do four hours of field work.”
But Gilkey is no stranger to challenges, mental or physical. His improbable route to the NFL began in Sandwich, Illinois, home to 7,421 residents and the high school auditorium where Gilkey was booed. Lured by apple trees, acreage and a 100-year-old home, his parents and their four children left the affluent Chicago suburb of Naperville — voted the second-best place to live in America in 2006 by Money magazine — and settled in the rural farming community of Sandwich. A throwback to earlier times, Sandwich hosts pie auctions and the state’s oldest continuing state fair, which features a carnival and tractor pull races.
The move proved difficult for 12-year-old Gilkey, a newcomer where “new” was not always welcome. It was especially difficult after eighth grade when he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a heart condition characterized by episodes of fast heartbeats. Forced to avoid physical activity, he became more of a target for bullies, finding his calculator smashed and urine in his baseball glove when he was finally cleared to play.
Despite this, he remained the kind, funny, and sarcastic kid he was. When he returned from a mission trip in Malawi, he donated his spending money to buy a cow for the village in which he stayed.
He also transferred high schools, grew from an undersized kid to a giant among his peers and was recruited to Chadron State College in Nebraska to play football. While Gilkey aspired to go the NFL, Chadron State was a Division Two school. And as Chadron State head coach Bill O’Boyle was quick to point out, many NFL teams won’t even look at a Division Two player. You have to dominate in practice and on the field, O’Boyle continually reminded him.
Catherine Gilkey —a high school dean with two master’s degrees — was her son’s enthusiastic cheerleader but also a voice of reason.
“I was really conflicted,” she says. “I’d worked at high schools for 30 years, and I’d never met anyone who had been drafted. I kept saying, ‘Honey, what is plan B?’”
Road to the NFL
Leaving after work on Fridays, she and her husband, Cary Gilkey, used to drive 14 hours to watch their son’s college games. Often, the football crowds at her high school games were larger than those at Chadron State.
After one of the games, head coach O’Boyle walked past the Gilkeys and mumbled, “If he plays his cards right, you’ll be watching him on Sundays.”
Catherine Gilkey turned to her husband and asked, “Does this mean what I think it does?” Then she reminded herself they were average people. Having a son in the NFL didn’t happen to average people.
But by Gilkey’s senior year, he was calling home, talking about the various teams scouting him. Every time he mentioned a team, Catherine Gilkey bought a mini pennant emblazoned with the team’s name and hung it in the kitchen. Before long, the family’s kitchen looked like a colorful pennant stand, filled with all but a handful of the NFL’s 32 teams. Gilkey, meanwhile, earned first-team All-America honors and played in the Senior Bowl in Alabama.
Plan B was looking more distant.
On the 2013 NFL draft day, about 20 friends and family members gathered at the Gilkey house. They squeezed onto the dark leather couch in the living room while others sat in chairs or stood around. As Catherine Gilkey recalls, “No one talked and no one breathed. Everyone just watched the TV.”
Minutes turned into hours. Gilkey kept getting up from the couch to take calls, but the callers were asking him to be a free agent if he didn’t get drafted. In the seventh round, Gilkey got the call from the Cleveland Browns.
“It was an exciting moment,” says Gilkey who played for the Browns for almost two years before being claimed by Tampa Bay in August 2014. “It was super affirming. Your childhood dream comes true. You work so hard toward something for so long, and it manifests itself.”
Better Every Day
Today, when Gilkey returns to Sandwich, he receives a different kind of welcome than he did when he was 12. Kids in elementary school ring his parents’ doorbell, hoping to meet their hometown hero. At Diesel Fitness in Tampa, he takes time to talk to the younger athletes in between his workouts. He also speaks in schools and with church groups about bullying and how to use social media responsibly.
In the arc of Gilkey’s life so far, there’s a lesson. Instead of letting adversity define him, Gilkey has defied it. In doing so, he’s created a world for himself where things get better every day, be it bullying or a knee injury.
“You start telling your story, and people ask you to speak at their youth group or classroom,” Gilkey says. “It just grows and grows. It was just all my experiences that led to something I like to do.”