Garry Gilliam was guaranteed a mere $12,000 when he entered the NFL. Such is the life of an undrafted rookie free agent with an uncertain, after unlikely, NFL career.
So when San Francisco offered the Seahawks’ restricted free agent and starting right tackle the last two seasons $2.2 million with $1.4 million guaranteed for 2017 on Monday, it was a no-brainer for Gilliam. The 26-year old lived at a boarding school starting at age seven through high school, to escape a dead-end upbringing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
It was also a no-brainer for Seattle.
Agent Mark Clouser, based in Gilliam’s native Pennsylvania, confirmed to me over the phone Tuesday the Seahawks declined to match the 49ers’ offer for Gilliam. So he went to the Bay Area to sign his contract that makes him San Francisco’s new right tackle, knowing he will still be an unrestricted free agent after the coming season -- but owning $1.4 million more guaranteed than he would have gotten from the Seahawks. That includes San Francisco’s six-figure signing bonus that will in his bank account by month’s end.
“Seattle doesn’t particularly re-up their offensive linemen on long-term deals,” Clouser said, accurately.
“He’s excited,” the agent said of Gilliam. “It’s a good opportunity. It’s a good fit.”
Last month the Seahawks gave Gilliam the lowest tender to keep him as a restricted free agent: a non-guaranteed, $1,797,000 salary for 2017, with no draft-pick compensation should he sign somewhere else. That was a tepid attempt at insurance, in case they needed him. Seattle’s quick decision not to match the 49ers’ offer -- they had five days to decide yet took just one -- cemented the Seahawks’ stated intent to move Germain Ifedi from their starting right guard in 2016 to right tackle this year. Seattle general manager John Schneider said at last month’s league meetings in Phoenix that was his team’s idea for Ifedi. That made Gilliam expendable.
Ifedi, Seattle’s first-round pick last year, played right tackle at Texas A&M before the Seahawks drafted him 31st overall.
Gilliam didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. He retweeted what will be the lasting memory of him for Seahawks fans: the former Penn State tight end’s catch of punter/holder Jon Ryan’s pass for a stunning touchdown that began Seattle’s comeback from 16-0 down to win the NFC championship game over Green Bay in January 2015.
Clouser said the 49ers offered his client a three-year, front-loaded deal last week after Gilliam visited with new coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. When Gilliam declined that, Clouser said, San Francisco countered with a two-year deal with even more money front loaded. Gilliam and Clouser didn’t want to give up any of the player’s years in unrestricted free agency, so they declined the two-year deal, as well. That’s when the 49ers persisted, countering again with a one-year deal guaranteeing him the $1.4 million. The total possible value is a raise of more than 300 percent from the $600,000 Gilliam made as Seattle’s starting tackle last season.
Gilliam lost his job for a few weeks in December because Seahawks line coach Tom Cable said he wasn’t being physical enough. He regained it when replacement Bradley Sowell wasn’t better. As a starter on a low-cost, inexperienced and often insufficient offensive line, Gilliam was often a target of criticism in and around Seattle.
He referred to that on his Twitter account Tuesday.
The story of how Gilliam got not only to the NFL but to Penn State is incredible. It’s why he was one of my favorite Seahawks to talk to.
His mother, Thelma “Vene” Shifflett, raised Garry 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 seven years old. Away and alone, 25 miles from home, to Milton Hershey School.
The 105-year-old establishment is free for students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade from families of low income and long odds. It 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.
Gilliam lived year-round at Milton Hershey School from second grade through his high school graduation. He lived in groups of three or four similarly aged children cared for by a hosting, married house-couple, doing household chores at or before dawn, before classes and sports practices.
Through endowments, each student who successfully makes it through 12th grade at Milton Hershey gets a college scholarship. Gilliam is the first in his family to attend college.
After he was there some time, his mother moved closer to the school so Garry could see her on weekends. Other than that, the 26-year old’s been on his own since second grade.
“It was definitely a strange place and strange people at seven years old,” Gilliam once told me, chuckling.
After he made the Seahawks and stuck for three years, the last two as a starter, Gilliam bought a house in Renton. On his own has a different meaning now.
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.
In the years since he became a surprise Seahawk, Gilliam has returned to Milton Hershey. He’s talked to its students. He’s visited his former coaches and mentors and attended a Friday night football game of his former high school team. They absoultely love him there.
Now he’s a millionaire. Guaranteed.
“I think he’s made more money than guys in that draft class that went in the second round,” Clouser said.
“It’s a miracle. And, yeah, it’s about time to give him some guaranteed money.
“He’s definitely a special kid.”