Garry Gilliam Still Growing

The offensive tackle learned about adjusting to challenging situations as a child and still carries those lessons with him today. Check out this sneak peek of FOS The Magazine.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following feature appears in the Spring 2013 edition of Fight On State The Magazine. annual subscribers receiver FOS The Mag free. Check out subscription options.

HEADLINE: Still Growing
SUBHEAD: Garry Gilliam learned about adjusting to challenging situations as a child and carries those lessons with him today
BYLINE: Gordon Jones

Imagine you're a kid, no more than 8, who is left behind. Left behind at a boarding school by your mom, who couldn't bear to say good-bye to her baby, to the younger of her two sons. Left behind on the playground outside your new home with a bunch of new friends while she, uh, well, went to do some paperwork.

Imagine the hole in your heart, the empty feeling in the pit of your stomach, when the other kids went in to shower and the supervisor -- the houseparent, as he was called -- said you should go in, too. Imagine your confusion as you wandered down the driveway toward the road, the one your mom had taken not that long ago. Didn't she say she was coming back? And then imagine hearing this houseparent guy telling you that no, she wasn't.

The thing is, she thought about returning to reclaim her son during the long, agonizing drive home. Thought hard about it. Even turned the car around once, twice, a third time. But each time she reconsidered and resumed her journey. No, she told herself, this is the best thing.

And it was. It wasn't immediately apparent; the kid missed his mom so much that for a while he cried himself to sleep, her picture clutched in his hands. But in time he came to realize that this new place wasn't all bad. It wasn't home, and indeed never could be. But he settled into his niche. He thrived.

It is now some 14 years later. Penn State's Garry Gilliam, Milton Hershey School Class of 2009, is fully grown in every way. Much has and will be made about his transition from the 262-pound tight end he had been to the 300-pound offensive tackle he now is. But if life is a series of hellos and good-byes, it is just the latest, and far from the most significant. It could never compare to starting over as a third-grader at Milton Hershey, a place he remained until his high school graduation. His years there shaped Gilliam, informed much of what he has become.

And that is quite a lot. He is a scholar pursuing multiple degrees, mulling several career options. A young man self-aware enough to know what the position switch might mean, for him and his team, and self-confident enough to approach his head coach about it. And, earlier in his PSU career, he was a broken-down athlete wise enough to know where he needed to turn for help.

Milton Hershey School, founded by the late chocolate magnate as a haven for orphan boys in 1909, has long since begun accepting girls, long since welcomed not only kids who lost a parent, but those from fractured families. It is an unusual place, and a tough place. If the author's own experience, some 30 years before Gilliam's, is any guide, it is not a perfect place. There were (and likely are) plenty of good, nurturing people there, but also some punching a clock, some on odd little power trips.

The trick is finding the right people. The bigger trick is wanting to find them. Gilliam obviously did. And in the process he found himself.

“While you're there,” he said, “you kind of feel like you're in prison. You want to go home. You feel like everyone's against you. I felt that way for a while.”

He got over it. He got involved. He made the most of his experience. And he now goes back every chance he gets, to talk to kids, athletes especially. And more than anything he tells them this: “If you want to be committed to something, be fully committed in all aspects, whether it's your student home life, your academics, your sport.”

So if he gained anything from his decade there -- and “definitely overall it was a positive experience,” he said -- it's because of what he gave. Isn't that the way it is with everything?

His mom, Vene Shifflett, knows that to be the case. Sometimes she thinks about how he might have turned out if he stayed in Harrisburg, where she lived when Garry was born, or Chambersburg, where she lived when he went off to Milton Hershey.

“Where would he be today?” she wondered.

Nowhere good, she fears.

“He became real respectful,” she said. “It's not like he was a bad kid anyway. He was never a bad kid. I think he looks at life a lot different.”

Vene and Garry's dad, Garry Sr., split up when Garry was 2. (Garry Jr. said he had some contact with his dad in his younger years, and a little more after arriving at Penn State. Then, he said, “The communication started to kind of dwindle. We don't really talk that often.”)

Vene called the decision to enroll Garry in Milton Hershey “the hardest thing (she's) ever done,” but thought the environment and education would be superior to that which he might otherwise be subject to. So when he was an unsuspecting third-grader she drove him there. And after telling him to go play on that playground with the other kids, she met with his houseparents, then went off to tend to other administrative matters.

Then, with the heaviest of hearts, she left.

As he put it, “I feel like my mom kind of tricked me in a way. I was upset about it, but after a while I got over it.”

“I dropped him off,” she said, “and that was hard for him at first, I guess, until he realized I was gone.”

It would be a while before he felt completely comfortable at the school. Maybe fifth grade, he figured. Todd Kramer, who with his wife Joan would serve as Gilliam's houseparents when he was in junior high, remembers that in his younger years Garry had some ragged edges.

“I wouldn't classify him as a bully,” Kramer said, “but he had the traits of that.”

Gilliam doesn't completely agree with that description, but understands why Kramer would classify him as such, seeing as they first crossed paths after Gilliam threw another kid off a bike. (“I can't tell you why I did it,” he said. “It just happened.”) Kramer reamed him out, and an image was set in the older man's mind.

“Maybe,” Gilliam admitted, “I was a little more rough, that it was considered being a bully. But I was just a rough kid. … I guess some kids couldn't handle it, but I was never taking people out (and saying), 'I'm going to give you a wedgie or give you a swirly' or something.”

In time he gravitated to sports -- soccer, baseball and wrestling in his younger years, football, basketball and track in high school. Bob Guyer, the Spartans' head coach then and an assistant now, said Gilliam was “a great teammate” who was “completely unselfish.” And Kramer was impressed at the way Garry came around off the field, too.

“Somewhere along the line, he totally changed,” Kramer said. “He became very mature, very focused. He was good. He was solid. He was one of the ones I could count on to be nice, gentle and good. He took on wanting to be a role model and an example.”

When he was a sophomore, Debbie Ainsworth, the school's coordinator of religious programs, spotted him interacting with the young children of his houseparents, and decided he would be an ideal junior chapel leader -- in effect, a Sunday school teacher. It is something he did for three years, for he loves kids, and it led to a burgeoning relationship with Debbie and her husband Cliff, Milton Hershey's athletic director.

Debbie describes Gilliam as “an old soul,” as a young man grounded enough to not only seek out his elders' advice but to listen to it and put it to use. He did that throughout high school, as his star ascended and he made the decision to follow fellow MHS graduate Abe Koroma to Penn State, having spurned such schools as Virginia, Connecticut and Pitt.

And he did that, most notably, on Thanksgiving Day 2010. Nearly two months earlier, he had suffered a severe injury to his left knee late in a game at Iowa; the ACL, MCL and lateral meniscus were all shredded. His season, the first he had played after redshirting in 2009, was over.

Then it was discovered in late November that the knee had become infected, and further surgery would be required. Overwhelmed, he called Ainsworth.

“As soon as I heard her voice,” he said, “I broke down and started crying.”

“I was kind of like a cheerleader,” Debbie said. “I said, 'You know what hard work is. You know what it took to get to Penn State. You have to do it again.' I believe it was always in there with Garry. He just needed a loving reminder.”

Still, his comeback wasn't easy. He underwent five surgical procedures on the knee in all, and missed the entire 2011 season. There were real questions, he said, about whether he would ever play football again.

When he was finally ready to give it another try, in early 2012, the program as a whole was starting over, under Bill O'Brien. It took time for Gilliam to get back up to speed, to fully trust the knee. But by the time last season started, he said, “I didn't even think about it.”

Employed as the blocking tight end in O'Brien's pass-oriented attack, he caught just seven balls all season. And soon after it ended, Gilliam began mulling the position change, knowing the Lions were stacked at tight end and lacking depth at tackle. He also understood he was, in his own estimation, an “average” tight end who lacked top-end speed -- that if he was going to realize his NFL dreams, it would almost certainly be as a lineman.

So Gilliam first approached strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald to ask whether it would be possible to add the necessary weight to his 6-foot-6 frame. Fitzgerald, never averse to a new challenge, assured him it wouldn't be a problem, so Gilliam went to O'Brien with his idea.

“He wasn't thinking about it at all until I went to him,” Gilliam said. “I laid it all out, let him know what I was thinking, not just for the team, but my future as a player, too.”

O'Brien gave the thumbs-up, and it wasn't too long before Gilliam started looking like a tackle -- and not a big, sloppy one, either. He said that in testing before the start of spring practice he proved to be swifter than he had been as a tight end, and that he also jumped farther and higher. Nor is he necessarily done growing; by the start of the season, he believes he might weigh as much as 310.

The only drawback is that he needed a whole new wardrobe, which Vene bought him for Christmas, then augmented in early spring. Otherwise, he said, “It was like my body is obviously supposed to be at this weight. It's more athletic, more versatile.”

It's unclear where he fits in the offensive line picture. Donovan Smith and Adam Gress appear set at tackle, and Gilliam's progress was slowed by a strained calf muscle this spring. But there is also time to sort things out -- if not this fall then in 2014, since the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility.

That also gives him more time for his academic pursuits. He hopes to earn degrees in business management and public relations/advertising in December, and another in psychology somewhere down the line.

He knows not where this will take him over time. Maybe he will get his MBA. Maybe he will go to law school. Further down the road -- either after the NFL or in lieu of it -- he figures he might run his own business, work for an advertising agency or do “kind of anything, really.”

No telling what opportunity might come along. And as he learned long ago, those things sometimes come in disguise, too. Always best to keep an open mind, and just make the best of things.

Gordon Jones is a 1976 graduate of Milton Hershey School.

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