BEREA, Ohio -- When Garrett Gilkey places his hand in the dirt and gazes across the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t picture the faces of the tormentors who reduced him to tears during his freshman year in high school.
The Browns' seventh-round draft pick doesn’t conjure images of tumult -- the bullying, the taunts, the pranks he says he endured -- to motivate him at the snap of the ball. The offensive lineman concedes, however, the experiences in the school hallways and streets of a rural Illinois town nine years ago benefit him in one capacity when he buckles his chinstrap.
“The person across the line wants to put me on my back and I’m not going to let him do it,” Gilkey said in a post-draft phone interview. “I don’t bring back those old feelings from my freshman year when I’m in practice or in a game. It’s more of an overall mentality: I’m not going to let someone get the better of me; I’m not going to be beaten down and defeated and humiliated the way I was back then.”
Some anti-bullying experts say the shame lingers long after the harassment ends. The skinny freckle-faced underclassmen who grew into a 6-6, 318-pound NFL prospect is becoming an advocate for students who fear what the next school day might bring.
Gilkey does not repress his memories. He shares them, sometimes in startling detail. He speaks of being booed during a 2005 school assembly after his name was announced, a reaction that sent him running to the restroom, his eyes welling with tears.
At the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, the converted tackle from Division II Chadron State in Nebraska sat patiently and answered questions about the most traumatic time in his life. In recent weeks, the hulking man with the flowing red mane has addressed church groups and schools. He hopes to do the same in Cleveland.
“It’s about building relationships with people and tearing down barriers,” he said. “Whether it’s dealing with bullies or drug problems or problems in the home, it’s about having perseverance. Things will happen in our lives that will be really hard. What’s important is having faith and trying to persevere through them.”
Anti-bullying campaigns have gained momentum in the post-Columbine era. Paulie Velotta, a Mentor-based trainer for a national prevention program, said one in every six students report being bullied. She also cited a 2010 statistic that roughly 160,000 kids miss school each day over such concerns.
She said schools need to develop comprehensive programs, and that speakers like Gilkey offer an excellent supplement.
“Absolutely, kids look up to figures such as pro athletes, entertainers, politicians, anyone in the limelight,” said Velotta, a national trainer for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program who also works at Crossroads, a behavioral health agency. “They want someone who is a positive role model. He’s someone who can connect with kids because he shares their back story.”
A late-round pick coming from a small school faces long odds of making an NFL roster. But Gilkey’s shell has been hardened by adversity and detractors. He can’t wait for the start of Browns rookie minicamp on Friday.
Escaping the suburban sprawl of Chicago, Catherine and Cary Gilkey moved their four children a decade ago to Sandwich, a small town about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, where they bought a large home with swimming pool.
Their only son played middle school football for two years and seemed to be adjusting to new environs. But in the summer prior to his freshman year, Gilkey experienced a rapid heart beat, diagnosed as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. He underwent surgery and was instructed to take it easy through the fall.
Doctors orders came with unintended consequences, however. Players from the high school football team began to ostracize Gilkey, he said, because he hadn’t sacrificed alongside them during the grueling practices. He filled his free time with other extra-curricular activities, but soon found himself targeted in the halls and classrooms.
Catherine told her 5-7, 170-pound son to use his intellect and big vocabulary rather than his fists to resolve disputes. But a freshman talking back to upperclassmen did not endear him to his schoolmates. Unable to participate in gym class due to his heart condition, Gilkey worked as an office aide and became the first person a student encountered on his way to a meeting with a principal.
“I became the face of discipline,” Gilkey said. “You make enemies that way.”
Hilary Gilkey, 25, a junior during the 2004-05 school year, said she witnessed some of the harassment her brother endured. Sometimes, she intervened, telling the agitators to “cut it out, that’s my brother.” Mostly, she felt helpless.
“He came home from school hurt and that pain affected all of us,” Hilary said. “He became introverted and tried to brush it off.”
Gilkey said he never harbored thoughts of suicide or exacting violent revenge, but each day brought challenges. He recalls being punched and shoved into lockers. A fellow student urinated in his baseball glove. While his parents alerted administrators, some of the actions took place off school grounds.
Walking home from school one day a group of kids summoned Gilkey and asked to examine his dental work – a brace had been inserted into the roof of his mouth to expand its width. As he tilted his head, one boy inserted a condom, Gilkey said.
“There was an unbelievable amount of hatred that people had for him at the school,” former classmate Matt Cervantes told ESPN.com. “Sometimes, he would talk trash, and they would get on him so bad.”
Cervantes declined an interview with The Plain Dealer due to the backlash over his ESPN remarks. The superintendent for the Sandwich school district did not return a call from the newspaper. Neither did a middle school counselor who Gilkey said has supported him through the years.
In the ESPN article, which generated more than a 1,000 online responses, several anonymous commentors who said they attended Sandwich at the same time as Gilkey bashed him and claimed the story was one-sided.
“Really, I like to tell people that I was just the little redheaded, gingery, skinny-looking (kid),” Gilkey told reporters at the combine. “I was pear-shaped. I had these wide hips and this skinny-looking upper body. I was just a prime target for many of the cruel kids in Sandwich.”
The low points of the 2004-05 school year for Hilary were hearing her brother booed at two school assemblies.
“That’s something I will never forget,” said Hilary, now a teacher’s assistant at a school in Aurora, Ill. “It was horrible and it was hard seeing people you knew, people that were in your class, be among those who booed. It was a very strange situation. I don’t remember any staff members intervening or trying to step up.”
For the full story, go to: http://www.cleveland.com/browns/index.ssf/2013/05/once_bullied_cleveland_browns.html
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Posted By: COflows |
5/06/13 2:58 PM
At least he is doing more with his life than any of those haters ever will
Posted By: Bride2b |
5/07/13 11:38 AM
I would hate to be the guy he lines up with when he is thinking about all those bullies he hates. Hope to watch him play in the NFL