At this time last year, Garry Gilliam was an undrafted rookie who was just hoping to make an NFL roster.
On Friday, however, Gilliam started at right tackle for the Seahawks in Kansas City and spent most of the first half keeping Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston—the owner of 22 sacks last season—away from Russell Wilson. And now, with two preseason games left to play, Gilliam is poised to hang onto that starting job if he can keep improving on an impressive outing in Seattle's second preseason game.
"The athleticism jumped out at me," offensive line coach Tom Cable said of Gilliam's performance. "He was physical, he had some really nice finishes in the run game. You see a guy who has grown a tremendous amount, and now his challenge is to do that again this week."
And if that's all you knew of Gilliam's story—former college tight end turned undrafted tackle turned potential NFL starter who was stonewalling an All-Pro pass-rusher Friday night—that would be plenty remarkable by itself. But there's so much more to Gilliam's story than that, so much more that helped make him the athlete and person he is today.
For Gilliam, the road from the rough Allison Hill neighborhood of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to the NFL included a detour to Hershey, Pennsylvania. When Gilliam was just 7 years old, his mother, Thelma Shifflett made the incredibly difficult decision to send her child away to a boarding school.
"It's a wonder I have any tears left still as much as I cried," Shifflett said in a phone interview.
Gilliam wasn't being shipped off because he was causing trouble, but because his mother recognized that her son was filled with potential and, she says, "I didn't want the streets to suck him in."
Teachers at Gilliam's elementary school told Shifflett, a single mother, that her son was one of the smartest kids in his class, and after she researched Milton Hershey School, she realized it was the best place for her son, no matter how difficult that would be for both of them. Milton Hershey, a cost-free, private school for low-income families, was a great opportunity for Gilliam, but it also meant him living away from home at a very young age.
"Even though I saw him every weekend and spoke to him every day, it was such a hard decision," Shifflett said. "But if I could turn back time, I would make the same decision. It was just the facts of where we lived, me being a single mother and him growing up in that neighborhood. You could see potential in him as a young child, so I didn't want him to waste away to nothing."
It was a big adjustment, but Gilliam eventually blossomed at Milton Hershey, both academically and in athletics, earning a scholarship to Penn State.
"I was there for a long time, so I had to grow up pretty quickly and kind of learn to fend for myself," he said. "Going to that school at such an early age made me into the person I am today. In the beginning, I was more confused than anything. It took about a year for me to realize that this was best for me and my family, so I embraced an opportunity to really dive into academics and athletics. Once I did that, I began to thrive."
At Penn State, Gilliam became a starting tight end, later moving to offensive tackle to increase his chances of playing in the NFL, while also earning three degrees. As hard as those early years were away from home, Gilliam credits his mom's decision for making him the man he is today.
"I fully respect the sacrifice she made to put me there," he said. "That's not an easy thing to do for your 7-year-old son. I talked to her years after, and she said after she dropped me off, she turned around three or four times to come back and pick me up. Even while I was there every weekend, she'd drop me off from visitation hours, she'd be crying, and I was too. It was a tough situation, but she understood that that was what was best to get me out of the environment I was in back at home. There were bad situations; she was trying to keep me off the streets and get me into a good academic area. I commend her for that and respect every decision she's ever made."
Now Gilliam tries to return to Hershey Milton whenever he can—including last winter not long after he became an unlikely hero of Seattle's NFC championship win with his touchdown catch on a fake field goal—to try to inspire kids who, like him, were once struggling to adjust to life away from home.
"When I do get a chance to get back there and talk to those kids, I do it every chance I get," he said. "That helps me keep myself grounded and realize where I came from and that at any given time it can be taken away. So every chance I get, I'm working on perfecting my craft so that I can help those kids realize they can do what they want too."
Gilliam's journey so far has made him into an NFL athlete on the verge of becoming a starter for one of the best teams in the league, but he never saw this as his end goal, nor does he now even as he is living out so many people's dream. Yes, Gilliam wants to have a long NFL career, but he also dreams of someday being the CEO of his own company, which is why he earned degrees in business, advertising and psychology, and why during the offseason he was one of several players taking part in a Starbucks job shadow program.
"Everyone always asks you, 'What's your backup plan if football doesn't work out?'" Gilliam said in June. "For me it was never a backup plan; it was concurrent. I did everything together with the hopes that I would be successful in everything."
For now at least, success is defined on the football field, and Gilliam is doing very well for himself. Nothing is set in stone yet, but both Cable and Pete Carroll said the current starting line could start Week 1 if it continues to show progress. Gilliam is critical of his performance, saying he needs to get lower and drive defenders better in the running game, but his coaches very much like what they saw out of a player who is only in his third season as an offensive lineman.
If Gilliam holds onto the starting job, it will be a pretty cool story, but winning that job will only be a small part of his remarkable journey from Harrisburg to the NFL.