It hasn't always been that way.
"I was undersized and I was actually bullied and ostracized by my entire school," Gilkey, who described himself as a "little redheaded, gingery, skinny-looking" kid as a freshman at Sandwich (Ill.) High School, said on Friday morning at the NFL Scouting Combine here in Indianapolis. "Going into my freshman year, I had a heart operation – very simple, but it prevented me from playing in any sports and doing anything. So, I excelled academically. With that, some of the guys – especially on the football team and the upper cliques – distanced themselves from me because I wasn't able to do the running in the summer and the workouts."
Gilkey recalls being booed during pep rallies in which he was honored for his academic achievement. One day, a student urinated in his baseball glove before a practice.
"I was constantly bullied, constantly picked on. It was a very hard year," Gilkey said.
To escape the nightmare, Gilkey transferred to Aurora (Ill.) Christian High School. It turned out to be one of the defining decisions of his life.
The school's football coach was Don Beebe, the former NFL star who played in six Super Bowls, including as part of the Green Bay Packers' championship team of 1996.
Gilkey grew taller and grew bigger. By the time he was a senior, he was 240 pounds. After a game during his senior season, Gilkey was pulled inside the football office by Beebe's brother, Dave, who uttered one sentence that blazed Gilkey's path to the Combine and, most likely, beyond.
"(He) looked at my film and said, ‘Your footwork is like that of an NFL lineman,'" Gilkey recalled. "That's when that spark came into my life. I remember thinking, ‘I'm 17 years old. How in the heck can you say my feet look like an NFL lineman's feet?' That's where it began."
Before Beebe embarked on a professional football career in which he hauled in 23 touchdown passes – and before he burst onto the scene with a startling display of speed at the 1989 Scouting Combine – he starred at Division II Chadron State in Chadron, Neb. Gilkey, without a Division I offer, would follow in Beebe's footsteps.
"We're very, very close," Gilkey said. "He's still a mentor to me. If I need to call him, if I need some advice, he's always there."
Gilkey was a three-year starter at left tackle for Chadron State. During the spring semester last year, Gilkey took online courses so he could return home to Illinois and work at Beebe's House of Speed. As a byproduct of that hard work, he was named an All-American this season. He became the first player in school history to play in the Senior Bowl – he was the only player from a Nebraska school to make the trek to Mobile, Ala., for the premier college all-star game -- and he followed Beebe as the second player from Chadron to be invited to the Scouting Combine. In a little more than two months, Gilkey figures to be the second player in school history to be drafted. Beebe, of course, was the first.
"If I'm going to be a free agent or a seventh-rounder, all of that is so irrelevant to me," Gilkey said. "Where I'm at and what I've accomplished has allowed me to affirm those desires, overcoming being bullied and undersized, overcoming not being recruited by any Division I schools, going to the Senior Bowl and having a successful week, being an invited to the NFL Combine and knowing in my heart and my mind that I'm going to have a successful career in the NFL."
Because of short arms, Gilkey projects to guard in the NFL. To further boost his stock, he's been working on his snapping so he can play center. He got off to a strong start at the Combine by putting up 29 reps in the 225-pound bench press on Friday.
In the span of eight years, Gilkey is a changed man. Not only is he a big guy, but he's a big man. Rather than being boastful toward his former bullies, Gilkey hopes to make a difference for other kids who are deemed too small, too smart, too this or too that by other students.
"I'm starting an anti-bullying campaign," he said. "I have such a great opportunity to be proactive and be encouraging and be a strong force within the community of the west suburbs of Chicago. I plan on being proactive with schools and junior highs and YMCAs, and talking about bullying. I think I have a great position, being my size, and standing up and talking about my experience being bullied, being ostracized and being made fun of. People see me now and think, ‘How could this person ever be bullied?' I have a great voice and great platform to share those experiences and share my faith, as well."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.