Gilkey gets his shot at the big league

At 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Garrett Gilkey is a big man physically with a potentially bright future in pro football. The 23-year-old Sandwich man has been invited to attend next month’s NFL Scouting Combine, which is one way pro scouts test prospective draft choices.

“The sky is the limit for Garrett,” said his college football coach Jay Long. “We are really looking for big things from him.”

But it’s his Christian faith, especially his ability to forgive, that makes Gilkey an even bigger man, and his story that much more impressive.

“My faith is my driving force,” he said. “My faith in Christ has allowed me to be where I’m at.”

You certainly couldn’t tell from looking at him now, but at one time Gilkey was the target of local bullies who made his life so miserable he had to switch schools.

As a freshman at Sandwich High School, Gilkey said he had heart surgery, which prevented him from playing football. For some reason this apparently “caused a lot of animosity” among his fellow students.

“I was like this really skinny, red-headed, freckly kid,” he said. “I was bullied and ostracized my freshman year.”

It got so bad, Gilkey said, not only was he booed at two different pep rallies when he was honored for his academic excellence, someone actually urinated in his baseball glove before a team practice.

“It kind of transformed me into who I am now,” he said of the demeaning experience. “I went into the bathroom and cried. It was horrible. I didn’t know who was going to pick on me or punch me.”

To get away from the harsh treatment, Gilkey transferred to Aurora Christian High School his sophomore year.

“That’s why I went,” he said. “I didn’t go there to play football.”

But play football he did. In three years on the varsity team, including the last two as a starter, Gilkey played well enough to earn a scholarship to Chadron State in Nebraska.

“It’s a very small school,” he said. “But it was No. 2 in the nation at the time. They were a powerhouse. I wanted to go somewhere with great competition.”

Another reason he went there was some advice he got from his AC coach and Chadron State alum Don Beebe, the former Kaneland High School star who went on to play in a record six Super Bowls in nine NFL seasons.

“He told me I wasn’t a D-1 athlete,” Gilkey said, adding that no Division-1 school recruited him. “I am actually very happy with where I went.”

Although he was still undersized by offensive linemen standards, he had begun to develop.

“My junior year in high school, I had a growth spurt,” he said. “I was tall, but not very athletic. I had no upper body strength. I was around 6-6 and 245 pounds. I’m now 320 pounds.”

Gilkey credits his physical development to hard work in the weight room and not from steroids, which he says he was offered as a sophomore in college, but turned down. According to his college profile, the redhead can bench press 225 pounds more than 30 times.

All this came despite a momentary setback he couldn’t avoid. Two hours before his first game as a junior, Gilkey was rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy.

“I was premed for the first two years of college, before switching to special education, so I  had a pretty good understanding of what the symptoms were,” he said. “I had this really horrible pain. It was unbelievable.”

Despite the advice of one coach, who wanted him to take some medicine and play anyway, Gilkey went to the hospital instead. Just nine days later, he was back on the practice field, missing only two games.

Last month, Gilkey – who made the All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference first team as a left tackle – was invited to attend the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis at the end of February. Only the top college players in the country who are expected to be selected in that year’s draft are invited to attend by a special committee.

“It wasn’t like a surprise,” Gilkey said of the invitation. “I had a pretty good idea.”

Besides being “really” confident about his ability, Gilkey has also had scouts from 27 NFL teams watch him practicing this past season, which – considering how difficult it is to reach his college – is a pretty good indication of his potential value.

For three days at the combine, future prospects will be weighed, poked, prodded, tested and interviewed by NFL coaches.

To prepare for the crucial test, Gilkey has been working out seven days a week at the IMG Academy in West Brayton, Fla. Billed as one of the best in the country, the academy offers rigorous sessions of running, weight lifting, body fat composition and even mental conditioning classes.There’s also massage therapy and personalized chefs.

“I’m very fortunate and happy to be here,” Gilkey said, noting that the daily sessions run from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. with classes following dinner. “They prepare us for every aspect at the combine. It’s amazing.”

Along with the combine, Gilkey is also on the bubble to play in this year’s Senior Bowl on Jan. 26, another important yardstick for measuring a player’s value. Although he said Seattle may take him as high as the third round in the NFL draft, Gilkey notes he’ll have a better idea of how he fits in after the combine and the Senior Bowl are over.

According to NFLDRAFT.com, Gilkey is rated as the 25th best offensive lineman in the 2013 draft, which will be conducted April 25-27.

Regardless of what happens, one thing is clear: Gilkey isn’t going to hang anything over the heads of those who once taunted him and made his life miserable.

“I wish I could say yes, but that would just allow me to have a selfish mindset,” he said. “I have no bitterness or resentment towards anyone who bulled me or picked on me. What better way to show these guys who terrorized me my unconditional (Christian) love for them?”

Gilkey, who said he would welcome any opportunity to speak in Sandwich or the rest of the area, said he really wants to use every platform he can to share his faith.

Which just makes a bigger man even bigger.

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