It is the word that most accurately describes the feelings Catherine and Cary Gilkey have when they watched their son, Garrett, compete in training-camp practice at the Cleveland Browns’ training facility.
They are proud not only because he has become an NFL player, but because they have seen him struggle and rise above challenges that might have broken a weaker individual. Instead, they fueled the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Gilkey on his personal journey to the NFL.
“It is the craziest, most awesome thing ever, and it’s hard to find words,” Catherine Gilkey said. “We were listening to people calling his name, and even that’s unreal. It’s really exciting. The whole community’s been friendly. We’ve stood by and watched him sign autographs, and everybody is saying, ‘Welcome to Cleveland. Good luck.’ It’s the craziest thing. People like him already.
“What’s so exciting is I don’t think he realizes how it’s really reached into the community where he lived, where he grew up, where he went to college. Everybody is so excited. It’s fun for people to watch him.”
During his freshman year at Sandwich (Ill.) High School, the energetic Gilkey was diagnosed with a heart ailment that required surgery. Because of the procedure, Gilkey was unable to participate in athletics, which often made him the target of bullying.
Despite temptation to retaliate, Gilkey rose above the bullying with his mother’s guidance.
“I always encouraged him not to ever retaliate, not to ever fight back, try and be the bigger kid, try to use his words, not his size,” Catherine said. “That was something he and I talked about all the time. As a high-school dean, I work with parents that think their kid is justified to punch back, and I wanted him to do the exact opposite.
“I really am proud of him,” Cary added. “He has four sisters, and it was tough to see any of your kids go through a tough time, whether it’s trouble with a teacher that didn’t like them or kids at school that bullied them. It was tough to see that for Garrett. It’s probably not one of the things he talked about a whole lot with dad because it’s a pride issue. There’s a lot of times he probably hid that in his room and dealt with it.”
Because of his experiences Gilkey used his downtime at Chadron State College to give back to children and mentor them through difficult times.
“When he was at Chadron in Nebraska, he spent a lot of time working with kids,” Cary recalled. “He worked with the Boys and Girls Club there, worked with youth in the church. With his size and his personality, he was able to relate to little kids and just give them a sense of belonging. I think that’s just one of the cool things he did, channeling it. He’s really been an advocate to kids just to let them know they’re important.”
FINDING A HOME
Following a transfer to Aurora Christian High School for his final two seasons, Gilkey pursued a college football career at Chadron State. During that time, he spent four seasons as the Eagles’ left tackle.
As a senior, Gilkey earned first-team All-America status from D2football.com, and earned an invitation to the 2013 Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine.
“It’s been a series of different events happening,” Cary said of Garrett’s journey. “Playing for Don Beebe, his high-school coach, when high-school football ended, we thought we’d miss that. Then, we went on to college football. Last year, we got to go to all of his college games, home or away. We did a lot of travelling, and then, there was the Senior Bowl and watching him at the Combine.
“His second year at college, we were at a game, and his college coach said, ‘You’re going to watch him on TV on Sundays some day.’ When the coach walked away, we looked at each other and went, ‘Really? You think that could really happen?’ As much as it is Garrett’s dream, it’s a dream that we’ve been experiencing along the way.”
A NEAR MISS
One of the most amazing things for the Gilkeys was Garrett’s journey to the Senior Bowl.
During their time in Mobile, and the rest of the pre-draft process, the Gilkeys heard that some scouts did not want Garrett invited to the Senior Bowl because they wanted him to fly low enough under the radar that they could sign him as a rookie free agent. However, Senior Bowl director, and former Browns executive, Phil Savage invited the Chadron State product to Mobile.
Gilkey was one of only three Division II players invited to the 2013 Senior Bowl.
“I’m glad that Phil stepped out, did some research and invited Garrett himself,” Cary said. “He was proactive in doing that, and I’m glad for that because for the family, it was a great experience, but for Garrett, it was a tremendous experience, and it gave him more exposure. That’s what we were hoping for, as much exposure because at Chadron, there’s not a lot of scouts that go there and spend a lot of time. That was just a great experience.”
ANOTHER “GREAT EXPERIENCE”
The Gilkeys have season tickets to the Chicago Bears, and it was during the opening game of the newly-renovated Soldier Field that Garrett set the goal to one day run out onto the field and play in an NFL game.
Because the Browns end the preseason at Soldier Field on Thursday night, Gilkey will accomplish that goal.
“I remember sitting there, and it was the first time he said, ‘Dad, I want to play on this field some day,’” Cary said, with a tear in his eye. “Truth be told, in the preseason game, he probably will run onto that field. That’s what gives me (goosebumps) because that was the first time he really expressed an interest in going forward and that being a part of his future.
“As a dad, you’re thinking, ‘Okay, yeah. What’s the chances of that? Yeah, that would be cool as part of his dream of seeing that.’ He’s worked real hard to get there, and that’s something that’s eventually going to happen.”