Garry Gilliam tricked the Green Bay Packers, shocked the football world and jolted the Seahawks back into the NFC championship game with his stunning touchdown catch on a fake field goal.
It was as improbable as the route Seattle’s undrafted rookie tackle took to get to Sunday’s team arrival in Phoenix for the Super Bowl.
When Gilliam roared at the screaming fans in the south end zone after the greatest play of his remarkable life this past weekend, an entire community in Pennsylvania rocked like it was CenturyLink Field East.
“I knew he was lined up on the left side on their field-goal team, and I could see through the screen he was going out for a pass,” said Dennis Moore, Gilliam’s tight ends coach, javelin coach, anatomy and physiology teacher and still great friend from The Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
“I jumped off the couch. It was really fulfilling to see.”
Jared Ross at The Milton Hershey School loved Gilliam’s play, too.
Jared is a ninth grader at the cost-free, private residential school for underprivileged children. That’s where Gilliam literally lived and learned from when he was 7 years old through his high school graduation.
Jared is the school’s biggest Seahawks fan. He has a Seahawks pennant plus team gear all over his room inside his host family’s house on the campus. He was watching even more intently than most at the school when Seattle beat Green Bay to reach a second consecutive Super Bowl.
It makes sense he’s a huge Seahawks fan. Jared’s from Tacoma.
He enrolled last year and is believed to be the first child from Tacoma to attend the 106-year-old school named for the chocolatier. Mr. Hershey set aside a trust for the creation of the grade home and school for kids from families of low income in the city that also bears his name near the state capital of Harrisburg.
“Jared’s on the distinguished honor roll here,” said Todd Kramer, who with his wife Joan were Gilliam’s house parents during his middle school years at the school.
“He’s just like Garry was, working so hard and excelling in the classroom.
“This is just almost surreal,” Kramer said. “We’ve never had a student here from Tacoma.
“We’ve all adopted the Seahawks now — as much as I love my Eagles — but no one is a bigger Seahawks fan here than Jared.”
Though 2,700 miles from home, Jared is on the same track Gilliam used to go from a no-future neighborhood in Harrisburg as a second grader to earning two degrees from Penn State to playing in the Super Bowl.
It’s a glorious end to Gilliam’s first year in an NFL that began with no one bothering to draft him.
But, heck, Gilliam is used to overcoming odds longer than that.
VALUES OF HARD WORK
Thelma “Vene” Shifflett raised Gilliam and his now 28-year-old brother with special needs, Victor, by herself in the crime-filled Hill neighborhood of Pennsylvania’s capital city. Garry wanted to be an astronaut.
To give him a future she didn’t think she could provide as a single mother working what she described as a “below minimum-wage job”, Shifflett sent Garry away from the Hill when he was seven. Away and alone, to Milton Hershey School.
After she dropped him off for the first time at the school, she turned toward the school. Then she turned around again. And a third time.
“To do that, to let your child go off to live with people you don’t even know? It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I kept crying,” Shifflett said. “He was my co-pilot. He was everywhere with me.
“But I kept telling myself ‘I have to do this for him.’ I just didn’t want to see his life go down the drain.”
Gilliam lived year-round at Milton Hershey, where he and the 11 other classmates he lived with got up at 5:30 a.m. to do house chores: laundry and lawn care, cooking and cleaning.
“Deep cleaning,” said Jimmy Taylor, Gilliam’s assistant football coach and the head of house family with his wife Danielle and their two kids that hosted Gilliam through his high school years.
After pre-dawn chores, Gilliam went to school all day. Then he went to practice football and track. He’d have chores in the evening, then had to set aside time to do his homework and more chores.
When he first got to Milton Hershey, Gilliam felt abandoned. He wondered if his mother didn’t want him anymore. Why else would she send him away from home to a place to live and work and go to school with people he didn’t know?
He cried himself to sleep almost every night, missing his mother while clutching a picture of her and a box of her favorite perfume.
Yet his mother said Gilliam never showed that sadness and homesickness to her when she visited him at the school.
“If he had, I would have taken him back right then,” she said.
They are both now so happy he didn’t.
“It definitely made me grow up faster,” Gilliam said. “It helps you as a person, interacting with people from all types of backgrounds. It helps your tolerance of others.
“I mean, nothing’s easy there. Nothing’s given to you at that school. All the little things we had to do: cooking, laundry …
“It was definitely a strange place and strange people at seven years old,” he said, chuckling.
The Milton Hershey School has a student composition of 50 percent Pennsylvanians but also currently has children from 30 different states.
He was a tight end there and grew into a prodigious one — by eighth grade he was taller than 6 feet with size 15 shoes, far too big to be an astronaut. He eventually caught the attraction of Penn State and signed a football scholarship there, becoming the first in his family to attend college.
Then, just when it appeared Gilliam had made it, more hardship.
“Five surgeries on my knee; then switching positions (from tight end to tackle) in my last year; declaring (for the draft) late; not getting invited to the combine; then (went) undrafted,” he said. “I mean, it goes on and on. Definitely, this is one of the hardest routes to get here.
“But, you know, I’m not a stranger to those hard routes. I think that definitely helps me out — as a person.”
He didn’t mention that among those five knee surgeries at Penn State was a complete reconstruction. That cost him the 2011 season.
“I was there for all his surgeries,” his mom said. “The day after the reconstruction, the hospital staff was trying to get him to lift his leg and he had sweat running down his face and tears running down his face.
“He’s worked so hard. So hard.”
REAPING WHAT HE SOWED
Gilliam could have gone anywhere — another NFL team, Canada, back home to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where his mother now lives — after 256 players got drafted and he didn’t last May.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and his staff loved his athleticism and the fact he could play multiple positions. In training camp he showed his quickness as a former tight end. He impressed veteran line coach Tom Cable with how quickly he picked up Seattle’s playbook. And he is coachable to the point of being a sponge for knowledge. He is constantly trying to learn a craft — blocking on the interior of the offensive line — he’s only done for one full year.
After their final cuts, Carroll made Gilliam the most remarkable of the whopping 22 undrafted players that will be on the Seahawks’ 53-man active roster for the Super Bowl.
Was it fate that Gilliam ended up getting his shot with an NFL team?
He almost scoffed and said “fate is subjective.”
“You know, it just goes to show that when you truly believe that you can do something, have faith in God, have faith in those around you, it definitely pays off if you put your head down and grind and work,” Gilliam said. “You reap what you sow; that’s a real saying.
“It just goes to show here with the Seahawks the opportunities they give people — especially undrafted free agents. There are a lot of stories like that on the team. And for me to be one of them and for me to be able to make a play like that, I’m extremely thankful and honored to even be put in that position.”
PRIDE FROM HARD WORK
“We are on a high back here,” Keri Straub, senior media relations manager at The Milton Hershey School, said from Pennsylvania. “This is going to be a big, big week for us.”
When Shifflett returned to the school on Friday to talk to students there, she wore a Seahawks cap.
“I could hear all the kids in the school as I walked past saying, ‘That’s Garry’s mom!’ ” Shifflett said.
To the kids trying to overcome long odds at Milton Hershey, Gilliam is more than an NFL player they see on television going to the Super Bowl.
He is one of them.
“In the classroom I’ve been able to say, ‘Garry Gilliam in class was always attentive. He studied. He did the right things. Garry’s in the NFL with two college degrees because of his work habits,’” said Moore, the school’s science teacher and football coach.
“He’s a great example for them to see that they can succeed, too.”
Gilliam spent the Seahawks’ bye week at the end of September back at Milton Hershey. He held an all-school assembly and led students in what he described as “cognitive events, to get them thinking, and physical events.” He’s returning there in late February.
Just a hunch, but the events may be more for him this time.
Milton Hershey has rented the Giant Center, the city’s 10,500-seat arena, for next Sunday’s “Garry Gilliam Tailgate Party.”
How many undrafted NFL players that get a 10,000-seat arena rented in his honor for a Super Bowl viewing party?
“That’s a big deal!” his mother said. “I would love to be there, just to see all the kids who are there celebrating him.
“But I can’t be two places at once.”
No, she and Garry’s older brother are going to be inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale attending the Super Bowl.
Her son she sent away from home for a better life earned $420,000 in salary this season. He made $68,000 more playing in the divisional playoff and NFC Championship Game. If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl he gets another $97,000; if they lose he gets $49,000.
That’s about a half-million dollars more than anything he, his brother or his mother had when she sent him to Milton Hershey 16 years ago.
Mom will be feeling something far more genuine than money while she and her other son are there watching Gilliam play the Super Bowl.
“Pride. Pride,” Shifflett said. “Just pride of knowing how hard he worked to get here.
“I’ll be crying, of course. There aren’t too many words … I can’t actually explain how I will feel.”
We can only imagine.
“A lot times you hear these stories and it’s sugarcoated,” Kramer said. “Not this one.
“The truth is, Garry is the real deal.”