INDIANAPOLIS — To look at 6-foot-6, 315-pound offensive lineman Garrett Gilkey at the NFL Scouting Combine, it’s difficult to imagine him being bullied by anyone.
But not so long ago, as a freshman at Sandwich High School, bullying drove him to seek refuge at Aurora Christian High School.
Gilkey isn’t one of the bigger names at the combine, but he’s come as far as anyone. Once a skinny target for bullies, he grew into a 240-pound standout offensive lineman for Class 3A Aurora Christian. Even then he was still undersized — at least for a Division-I football program — and he didn’t receive any offers from big schools.
But his high school coach, former NFL wide receiver Don Beebe, recommended him at his alma mater, Division-II Chadron (Neb.) State. Now he’s on the verge of an NFL career.
It was several years and 150 pounds ago, but Gilkey hasn’t forgotten his troubled days at Sandwich High School.
“I was being constantly bullied, constantly picked on,” he said. “I was the little red-headed, gingery, skinny-looking kid. I was pear-shaped. I had these wide hips and this skinny, little upper body. I was just a prime target for many of the cruel kids.
“I was booed a few times in front of the entire school. I had had a heart operation — very simple, but I was prevented from playing sports. But I excelled academically. So, some of the guys, especially on the football team and the cliques, just kind of distanced themselves from me. I was bullied and ostracized by my entire school.”
While his body had yet to develop, Gilkey’s mind was ahead of the pack for his age — not the advantage it might seem.
“When I was younger, my intellect got me in a lot of trouble,” he said. “Intellectually, I don’t struggle with most things, so I would challenge my teachers from when I was very young.”
He would also challenge older, more physically mature classmates.
“Older guys would try to challenge me or try to degrade me,” he said. “But, with my intellect and my vocabulary, I would always respond. That, and having a heart operation, were some factors that led to being bullied.”
Gilkey plans to use that experience and his influence to start an anti-bullying campaign in the Western suburbs, working with high schools, middle schools and YMCAs.
“Now, people see me now and think, ‘How could this person ever be bullied?’” he said. “So I have a great voice and great platform.”
But first Gilkey will focus on winning a job in the NFL.
He’s already had discussions with the Bears, who desperately need O-line help. He’s a borderline draftable talent but will, at the very least, have an opportunity to make a roster this summer as a free agent. It might be a long shot, but Gilkey has beaten long odds and overcome adversity plenty of times before.
Last month he became the first player from Chadron State to play in the Senior Bowl, and he’s just the second player from that school to participate in the combine — Beebe was the first.
Gilkey is a longtime disciple of Beebe’s House of Speed, where he has worked on getting faster, quicker and more agile as he added 80 pounds in high school and another 60 or 70 in college.
“I’m very fortunate to have been able to work with him since a very young age,” Gilkey said of Beebe, who was known for his elite speed. “The time and the hard work that I put in with him definitely contributed to my overall athleticism. He’s been an integral part of the process.”
It was also Beebe’s brother Dave, an assistant at Aurora Christian, who motivated Gilkey to work toward a higher level of football.
“My senior year, he pulled me in the office after one of the games and put on the 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 the heck can you say that my (footwork) look like an NFL lineman’s?’ That’s where it began.”
Although he was a left tackle at Chadron State, Gilkey projects to guard at the NFL, where his shorter arms (31¾ inches) and lack of elite athleticism won’t be as much of a liability.
Like just about every other kid, Gilkey had no interest in playing O-line, but he’s come to embrace the position and the skill set required to succeed.
“I wanted to run the ball, and I wanted to be a linebacker,” he said. “But the way I see the game of football now, being an offensive lineman is my dream position. Outside of playing football I’m a different person, but when I put a helmet on, I’m that (other guy).”
The whole process seems to be working out for Gilkey, who says he just wants an opportunity to take his game to the highest level.
“Whether I’m the first pick of the draft or the last pick of the draft or a free agent, it’s really irrelevant to me,” he said. “I know the opportunities presented in the future are going to be substantial.”
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