Seahawks rookie Garry Gilliam, mother took long route to Super Bowl
The offensive lineman is thankful that Thelma Shifflett chose to send him away to boarding school at age 7.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Garry Gilliam file
College: Penn State
Hometown: Carlisle, Pa.
Notable: Caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Jon Ryan in the NFC Championship Game to score Seattle’s first points against the Packers. ... Appeared in 14 games, starting one, during the regular season.
PHOENIX — Thelma Shifflett was headed to her job as a yogurt maker in Carlisle, Pa., last Tuesday when she suddenly burst out crying.
The tears were in part from joy that her son, Garry Gilliam, was headed to the Super Bowl as a member of the Seahawks.
But they also were tears of relief and continuing wonder at what her son has made of his life, a result that both of them credit to what Shifflett calls “the toughest decision’’ she ever faced.
“It finally sunk in after all this time,’’ she said.
When Garry Gilliam was 7, Shifflett decided to send her son to Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa., a private, philanthropic boarding school.
Shifflett’s older son has cerebral palsy, and she wasn’t sure she could provide for Gilliam in the manner that the bright, charismatic child deserved. And living at the time in a rough section of Harrisburg, Pa., she also worried that without proper direction, Gilliam might lose his way.
“That was my biggest fear, that he could get lost in the streets of the inner city,’’ she said. “I just didn’t want that for him. You could see that there was something in him.’’
It was a decision she said she wrestled with for two years. It didn’t make it any easier that her son didn’t really comprehend why he was being sent to a school 90 minutes away from home.
“When you are 7, 8 years old, you don’t really understand stuff like that,’’ Gilliam said.
Today, though, he says flatly that without that decision, he wouldn’t have been standing in the end zone at CenturyLink Field on Jan. 18, having made what is destined to live forever as one of the more-famous touchdown receptions in Seattle history, catching a pass from punter Jon Ryan off a fake field-goal attempt.
“I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am right now,’’ Gilliam said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I was locked up or dead. I have no idea. You can say it saved my life, honestly. It saves lots of peoples lives.’’
In fact, Gilliam now is one of the more vocal and increasingly famous supporters of the school, which was founded in 1909 by chocolate magnate Milton Hershey, originally designed for impoverished male orphans.
Today it has roughly 2,000 boys and girls of all backgrounds, emphasizing children in Pennsylvania, admitting students on criteria that include financial need and potential to learn.
Bob Guyer, who coached Gilliam on the football team from grades 9-12, said Gilliam “role-modeled’’ everything the school stands for.
“He was always a hard worker and unselfish,’’ Guyer said.
Gilliam blossomed as a football prospect there to earn a scholarship to Penn State. Initially slated to play defense, he later moved to tight end and then as a senior in 2013 to offensive tackle.
That move, though, came only after Gilliam tore his knee ligament early in the 2010 season, then suffered an infection that delayed surgery and cost him all of the 2011 season.
The tears Shifflett shed this week also were in remembering what her son had to overcome then, a time when there were no guarantees he’d be able to play football again.
“It was hard to go through that,’’ she said. “But the hardest thing for me was to watch him going through the recovery, the physical therapy. Just to see the pain he was going through.’’
Gilliam actually was granted a sixth year of eligibility and could have been playing this season at Penn State. But having earned degrees in business management, advertising and psychology, and turning 24 in November, Gilliam decided to head to the NFL, the ever-present threat of further injury also playing a role.
He wasn’t drafted but signed quickly with the Seahawks as a free agent. Seattle viewed the 6-foot-5, 306-pounder as an intriguing project at tackle.
He was one of two undrafted rookie free agents to make the team out of fall camp (linebacker Brock Coyle of Montana the other), giving the news to his mom by texting pictures of his apartment.
“I just lost it,’’ she recalled. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is for real.’ ”
Gilliam played in 14 games this season as a reserve at guard and tackle.
The week of the NFC title game against Green Bay, the Seahawks decided to draw on Gilliam’s past as a tight end, making him one of two possible targets on a fake field goal (the play also could have gone the other direction to Luke Willson).
As the play unfolded and Gilliam realized Ryan was looking his way, everything began to slow down.
“If it seemed like a long time to you, it seemed liked an eternity to me,’’ Gilliam later said of his catch, which cut Green Bay’s lead to 16-7 with 4:44 to play in the third quarter.
As Gilliam notes, a lot had to happen for his catch to take on the meaning that it now carries.
He said initially he wasn’t sure it was really that big of a deal until teammate Michael Bennett approached him later in the locker room.
“He was like, ‘Man, good catch. You know you are going to be part of Seahawks history now,’ ” Gilliam recalled. “That’s when it hit me like, ‘Wow, I guess so. Pretty cool.’ ”
Watching on TV back home in Carlisle, Shifflett said she “went crazy’’ when she saw her son make what was his first touchdown of any kind since high school.
“I expected them to kick a field goal, and then I see him go out to the side, and I lost my mind,’’ she said.
Thursday, she’ll arrive in Phoenix for the Super Bowl.
Guyer marvels at the route mother and son each took to get there.
“They made some pretty challenging decisions that have gotten him to this point,’’ Guyer said. “It’s just really exciting to see.’’