Garry Gilliam's been at it again this week: Giving back to the remarkable school that gave him the opportunities to earn a scholarship to Penn State and eventually an unlikely place on the Seahawks.
By now you likely know his story, which, honestly, I cannot write about enough: A single, tremendously hard-working and proud mother raising Garry and his special-needs older brother in a bad part of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital city. Thelma "Vene" Shifflett sending her younger son away at age seven, alone to Milton Hershey School, a residency school down the road in Hershey founded more than a century ago by the famous chocolatier. She giving him a chance to succeed in life that she wasn't seeing for him at their home.
He seized it.
Garry lived with host parents among other disadvantaged children at Milton Hershey. He woke before dawn to finish chores. He became an A-student during the day before practices for football and track after school. He bulled through all that then five knee surgeries, three different coaching staffs and playing two positions while at Penn State to become the second Milton Hershey graduate to reach the NFL. He surprisingly made the Seahawks last summer as an undrafted free-agent offensive tackle -- then caught a touchdown pass on the fake-field goal pass of Jon Ryan to spark Seattle's miraculous comeback past Green Bay in overtime of last month's NFC championship game. Without his fourth-down catch in the end zone for the team's first score of the game late in the third quarter, the Seahawks likely would not have rallied from 16-0 down over the final 20 minutes plus overtime to make a second consecutive Super Bowl.
All the while, he keeps going back to Milton Hershey, giving knowledge, experience and hope to the same tough-luck kids he was once. He was there again this week, in his Seahawks gear, visiting students and faculty and former host parents. He was brought to tears -- again. He's talking about starting a charity to help those afflicted with cerebral palsy.
Gilliam just keeps giving.
(Thanks to Mrs. Christine Halliday's second-grade class at Milton Hershey for posting this video on its cool Twitter page, @Mrs.HallidaysClass):
Photographer Jeremy Long of the Lebanon Daily News in Pennsylvania sent me this gallery of pictures from Gilliam's visit.
Milton Hershey has become something of a "12th Man Pennsylvania" outpost back east. Kids wear "79 Gilliam" Seahawks jerseys to school. School staff produced good-luck videos for Gilliam before this month's Super Bowl. The school rented its city's 10,000-seat hockey arena for a Garry Gilliam tailgate party and game viewing party the day of the Super Bowl. His mother and older brother flew to Arizona to attend the game, the once on-his-own 7-year old playing in the biggest game there is, in front of the largest television audience in U.S. history (114.4 million), plus 10 of millions more around the world.
Alas, the Seahawks left Gilliam inactive for the Super Bowl because it needed active players at other positions. But that doesn't change how much of a hero and example he is to a school of kids trying to follow him out of Milton Hershey into a greater life.
"Milton Hershey saved my life -- literally," Gilliam said. "I was dealt a bad hand. And my mom has the courage to put me in this school. And I chose to succeed."