Seahawks Insider Blog

One Seahawk worth rooting for Monday night at Washington: The remarkable Garry Gilliam

En route to Washington, where the Seahawks were due to land late last night -- probably right around the 18th inning of that Nationals-Giants game down the road from where the Seahawks and Redskins will play Monday night.

I've got a guy who is worth rooting for in this game, and beyond: Garry Gilliam.

Saturday's news from coach Pete Carroll at team headquarters in Renton that backup tackle Alvin Bailey is out for Monday because of an oblique strain. That and starting tight end Zach Miller's ankle surgery last week could mean a larger role for Gilliam, the undrafted rookie tackle who has spent his entire football life outside the last 18 months as a tight end. Gilliam switched from tight end to tackle just before his final season of 2013 at Penn State.

Bailey has an extra tight end to block on short-yardage plays in each of the last two seasons for Seattle. His absence leaves Seattle with just two available players who have taken NFL regular-season snaps at tight end: new fill-in starter for the next few weeks, Luke Willson, and Cooper Helfet. And Helfet's NFL debut came in the Seahawks' last game two weeks ago, the overtime win against Denver.

Actually, Gilliam's high-school coach -- I use the term "high school" generically and inappropriately; more on that in a minute -- told me Friday that Gilliam was initially a defensive end at Penn State. The standout tight end at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa., spent his first year redshirting at Penn State while practicing on defense -- that is, until Gilliam wowed Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions' staff during practices in Orlando, Fla., for the Capital One Bowl at the end of that 2009 season as a tight end on the scout team running LSU's plays.

This week, Gilliam was back as a 306-pound tight end for some plays at Seahawks practice.

His mother Thelma Shifflett will be at FedEx Field tomorrow night in Landover, Md., about two hours south of where she sent Garry off, alone, at the age of seven to live, work and study at the unique Milton Hershey School. It was 90 minutes from where she raised Garry and his older brother Victor, who has special needs, by herself in the crime-filled neighborhood known as the Hill in Harrisburg, Pa.

Milton Hershey is a cost-free, prekindergarten-through-12th grade home and school is for children from families of low income. The average annual family income for students who attend Milton Hershey is $14,000. The 105-year-old establishment 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.

For those children who make it through to graduation, Milton Hershey School guarantees college tuition.

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 for the Minnesota Vikings.

Last week, during the Seahawks’ bye, Gilliam returned to Milton Hershey. He talked to its students. He visited his former coaches and mentors and attended the Friday night game of his former high school team.

That scared 7-year-old boy alone and far from home returned as a 23-year-old member of the Super Bowl champions.

“I’m proud of Garry, so proud of him,” said Jimmy Taylor, Gilliam’s assistant football coach and senior-division house parent at Milton Hershey.

Gilliam lived year-round at Milton Hershey, from second grade through his high school graduation. He and the 11 other classmates with whom he lived got up at 5:30 a.m. to do house chores: laundry and lawn care, cooking and cleaning.

Deep cleaning,” said Taylor, who along with his wife Danielle and their two kids hosted Gilliam on campus at Milton Hershey when Garry was in the ninth through 12th grade.

After predawn chores, Gilliam would go to school all day. Then he’d go to practice. He’d have chores in the evening, then had to set aside time to do his homework and do more chores.

“Garry’s personality was so unique,” Taylor said. “He was always willing to do anything that was asked, anything that was needed to help.

I could go on and on about Gilliam and his remarkable story of getting from Milton Hershey to the Seahawks. About his five knee surgeries, including a reconstruction then subsquent staph infection that cost him two years of playing at Penn State. About not only not getting drafted by not even getting invited to the NFL's combine last winter. Of making a Super Bowl-champion team this summer that no one except those who know him at Milton Hershey believed he could make.

“I mean, it goes on and on,” he said. “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.”

Feel free to read the rest of Gilliam's story here. It also appears in today's print editions of The News Tribune.