This is a story about football, but not really. It’s actually about faith and believing in yourself.
When Garrett Gilkey was a freshman at Sandwich High School, he was much smaller and more demure than he is today. Now, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound 22-year-old literally towers over most people, something he definitely didn’t do when he was 14.
No, when he was 14, Garrett was a skinny teenager who had just undergone heart surgery, which prevented him from playing football. “I was like this really skinny, red-headed, freckly kid,” he told me not long ago. “I was bullied and ostracized my freshman year.”
The abuse got so bad that, not only was he booed at two different pep rallies recognizing students for academic excellence, someone actually urinated in his baseball glove before a team practice. “I went into the bathroom and cried,” he said. “It was horrible. I didn’t know who was going to pick on me or punch me.”
To escape the harsh treatment, his parents transferred him to Aurora Christian High School. It was there the transformation began. Playing for Don Beebe, the former Kaneland High School football star who played in a record six Super Bowls over nine NFL seasons, the young man began to grow and develop his skills on and off the field.
Gilkey got so good, he earned a scholarship to play offensive tackle for Chadron State in Nebraska. Besides all-conference honors his senior year, he earned a trip to this year’s Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.
But what makes this more than a football story is his attitude. Garrett has made it clear he isn’t going to be vengeful or vindictive.
With a conviction you can’t help but believe, he swears he isn’t going to hang his success on the gridiron over the heads of those who once made his life miserable.
“I wish I could say yes, but that would just allow me to have a selfish mindset,” he told me. “I have no bitterness or resentment toward anyone who bullied me or picked on me. ...What better way to show these guys who terrorized me my unconditional (Christian) love for them?”
It is his Christian faith, especially his ability to forgive, that makes Garrett an even bigger man than he is physically. “My faith is my driving force,” he said. “My faith in Christ has allowed me to be where I’m at.”
Where he’s at this week is in a pro football training camp. Last April, Garrett became the first Sandwich man ever selected in the NFL draft when the Cleveland Browns took him with their second pick of the seventh round, the 227th overall pick.
Another local player, Jason Schepler of Sycamore, also started camp this week, with the San Francisco 49ers. A tight end at Northern Illinois University, which he led in pancake blocks, Schepler is projected to play fullback, a position he played for Joe Ryan’s Spartans.
Jason’s story is also inspiring. Even though he wasn’t offered a college scholarship, Jason refused to quit. In fact, he worked so hard as a walk-on with the Huskies, he not only got his scholarship, he impressed the 49ers enough that they signed him to a three-year free-agent contract after he wasn’t drafted.
I wish them both the best of luck. Not that they need it.