Garry Gilliam sat in his empty on-campus apartment alone on his bed. His dresser stood laced with prescription drug bottles full of painkillers and antibiotics along with dozens of packets of Emergen-C Vitamin drink mix. On this brisk, Sunday evening in late fall of 2010, he sat in pain, wondering if he was ever going to be normal again. “Why does this have to happen to me?” he thought.
Struggling with his current situation, he began thinking about religion, possibly even questioning it. He picked up his cellphone and dialed a number.
“Hi, Mrs. Ainsworth. It’s Garry. How are you?”
“Garry! I’m good, how are you?”
At the sound of her voice, he immediately burst into tears. A young man often described by friends and family as a strong, positive individual, was unable to contain his emotions while speaking to Debbie Ainsworth, Gilliam’s former Elementary Division Religious Programs Coordinator at Milton Hershey School.
“As soon as she answered the phone I just broke down,“ he admitted.
Gilliam, then a redshirt freshman tight end for the Penn State Nittany Lions, was recovering from a severe injury that could have easily, and almost did, end his career as a college football player.
But that’s not what sparked Gilliam’s meltdown to Mrs. Ainsworth. His injury, while devastating, was just another obstacle for Gilliam, a 2009 graduate from Milton Hershey School in Hershey, PA. Compared to the challenges Gilliam faced growing up, making a comeback from his injury was one more opportunity to live by the words ‘perseverance through adversity.’
According to the school’s website, Milton Hershey School is a private, tuition-free school for children stemming from unfortunate family situations.
“Its a school that wanted to help financially needy families and kids who came from challenging neighborhoods, or just kids that if not put in school, weren’t very likely to succeed in the future,” explained Gilliam.
It wasn’t Gilliam’s choice to enroll in Milton Hershey; it was his mother’s.
“My choice for sending him there was because I was a single mother, living in the ghetto and didn’t want him to wind up in the wrong crowd,” said Vene Shifflett, Gilliam’s mother. “It was the hardest thing…it was very hard. We were never apart,” she said.
Shifflett remembers the day she brought her then 7-year-old son to Milton Hershey. “I remember dropping him off and thinking to myself I’d be turning around to pick him up,” she said. No matter how much Gilliam begged and pleaded to go back home to Carlisle, PA, his mother resisted. She knew the opportunities provided at Milton Hershey would help him succeed in the future and she refused to deprive her son of reaching his full academic potential.
“I wasn’t very pleased with her,” said Gilliam as he reminisced about the day he had to say goodbye to his mother. “I felt like she was shipping me away, like she hated me and didn’t want me around,” he said.
For several years, Gilliam cried himself to sleep every night, homesick and desperate to reunite with his mother.
“It was always a question of whether Garry should be here or not since he was so close with his mom,” said Todd Kramer, Gilliam’s housefather at Milton Hershey. “But she was working and he had a brother with special needs so she had to do what was best for him,” he said.
It wasn’t until Gilliam reached middle school that he realized his mother’s decision to send him to Hershey was an act of love. He learned to embrace his situation and understood that his mother was providing him with the ultimate second chance to thrive.
“He was mature enough to accept it, but no one ever accepts it 100%,” said Kramer. “You just can’t at that age because you’re being separated from your family and that’s all you have.”
One of the perks of attending Milton Hershey School is upon graduating, the school pays the tuition for the college of the student’s choice. No one on Shifflett’s side of the family ever attended college and his brother Victor was the first person to ever graduate high school.
“That was the main driving force; to kind of break the chain of being average and stuck in Harrisburg,” Gilliam said.
During his time at Milton Hershey, Gilliam was a star athlete, but he took his education very seriously and always put academics first. To students, he was a physical talent. He was an impressive wrestler, pitcher on the baseball team, played ice hockey, soccer, basketball, swimming and diving, and was even heavily involved in the visual and performing arts program, playing the role of Phantom in the school’s production of “Phantom of the Opera.” To his educators and family however, he was respected for his accomplishments and talents off the field.
Kramer was always astonished by Gilliam’s work ethic as a student. He fondly remembers when Gilliam was in eighth grade and a star wrestler. Even though the team participated in early morning workouts and had a demanding practice schedule, Kramer and the other house parents used to let Gilliam stay up past curfew to study and do homework. At the end of that semester, Gilliam received a 4.0 grade point average.
“That’s when I knew he was going to do well,” said Kramer. “Not too many kids had that level of maturity in 8th grade.”
By the time freshman year of high school rolled around, the athletic brainchild that Ainsworth described as tall, quiet and shy grew to a monstrous size of 6 feet, 4 inches tall weighing in at 200 pounds. It was then that Gilliam decided to join the football team.
This new endeavor surprised his mother. “I never thought of him as an athlete.,” she said. “Academics were always his major concern.”
But to Gilliam, this was just another opportunity to challenge adversity.
“It was always my dream to come out of Milton Hershey and go to a division-one program because not many people do from our school, its very small,” he said.
Gilliam wanted to play at the next level and represent his school, just like his idol Abe Koroma, a Milton Hershey graduate and former Penn State defensive lineman.
After an impressive sophomore season, varsity football coach Bob Guyer could see that Gilliam had the skills and technique to advance to the next level as a college athlete.
“I could tell by the way he was growing simply based on his stature and the athleticism he started to demonstrate that he could maybe play at a higher level,” Guyer said. “He just kept growing and growing and growing.”
Over the next couple of years, Guyer put together a few highlight tapes and submitted them to several colleges Gilliam indicated interest in. It wasn’t long before Gilliam was receiving offers from a variety of respected football programs.
“I always used to tell him, ‘football is great, but football is only short term, no matter how great you are,’” said Kramer. “Garry always felt that way and I think that’s why he chose Penn State.”
After redshirting his freshman year, Gilliam was given the opportunity to play starting tight end his sophomore year in the absence of senior TE Andrew Sczerba, who had endured a back injury making him medically ineligible for the 2010 season.
Unfortunately for Gilliam, his first season playing as a Nittany Lion would come to an early, unexpected end as well.
It was an away game against the Iowa Hawkeyes on October 2, 2010, and the Nittany Lions were desperate to put points on the scoreboard as they played under the lights. Iowa was celebrating their Homecoming game and the atmosphere in Kinnick Stadium was intense as students organized to create alternating sections of black and yellow throughout the seating of the stadium.
Penn State was down 0-17 with 1:10 left in the second half and the Lions were scrambling to make a play. Looking for a first down, true freshman quarterback Rob Bolden threw a 15-yard pass out to junior wide receiver Derek Moye. In an attempt to cover Moye, Gilliam sprinted towards him and was blocked by a Hawkeye linebacker. After an awkward twist and turn, Gilliam fell to the ground, immediately grabbed his left knee. Senior tight end Brett Brackett rushed over to help him up, but when Gilliam refused to get up, it was evident that something was wrong.
“You couldn’t hear from all the excitement on the field what had actually happened, but just from seeing their faces we knew it was really bad,” said Nate Cadogan, an offensive tackle and one of Gilliam’s current roommates. “They dragged him over and sat him down and the doctor’s face was just….” Cadogan paused and shook his head “you know that face a doctor makes when you know it’s not good? You can’t even explain it.”
Watching the game from home, Gilliam’s mother sensed that something was not right. “When it happened, they didn’t show that it was him.” Shifflett said. “All they showed were his legs, but a mother knows her kid’s legs.”
She immediately sent him a text message asking if he was the player injured, and when he didn’t answer she started calling the coaches. Gilliam finally replied, “Yea mom, it was me.”
The coaches announced the next day at practice to the team that Gilliam suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, and lateral meniscus along with several severe bone bruises to his left knee. What looked like a promising season for the starting tight end, ended abruptly.
Gilliam continued to stay positive, however. He never complained, never sulked, he just looked forward to getting better and kept the mindset that he would someday be able to run back onto the field.
Corey Dupree, Gilliam’s high school roommate and close friend never doubted that Gilliam would bounce back. “Garry was the high school hero. He didn’t need words of encouragement.” Said Dupree. “To me this was a just a bump in the road. He didn’t need motivation from me or from anyone.”
Everyone who came into contact with Gilliam said his positive outlook was inspiring. “He put on such a tough front but I know as time dragged on that he would definitely get down in dumps,” said Kramer.
Little did anyone know, Gilliam’s situation was only about to get worse. It was Thanksgiving Day and Gilliam was getting ready to head home to see his family when he received a phone call from Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, the team doctor. Earlier in the week, Gilliam had fluid building up in his knee and Sebastianelli, concerned, took a sample to send away for testing. When the results came back, Sebastianelli discovered that Gilliam had developed a sever case of staphylococcus aureus, a dangerous skin infection, and needed to get to Mount Nittany Medical Center for an emergency surgery.
Dr. Sebastianelli called Gilliam’s mom to inform her of his condition. In the middle of cooking Thanksgiving dinner, Shifflett stopped what she was doing to drive to State College, despite the sever snowstorm brewing outside.
“His mom called and she was just beside herself,” said Kramer. “We were all really scared because we didn’t know how bad it was and she was under the impression that this would end his career,” he said.
Gilliam stayed strong for his mom and tried to appear positive, but on the inside, Gilliam was scared and for the first time, nervous.
“Wow, this really could end my football career forever,” he thought.
A few days after his surgery when his mother finally left and drove back to Carlisle, he couldn’t suppress his emotions any longer and decided to call Mrs. Ainsworth.
“When I answered the phone he just started crying, he was so overwhelmed with everything,” said Ainsworth.
“She talked me through it and said that everything happens for a reason and that I’ll be fine, ‘just put your faith in God,’” Gilliam said. “I was pretty strong minded going through everything- the two hours of rehab a day, that stuff was crazy and I had so many setbacks,” he said. “As soon as I heard her voice, I just lost it.”
After speaking with Ainsworth, Gilliam regained his composure and once again, reminded himself of his motto: perseverance through adversity. He knew this was the ultimate challenge and because of the hardships he faced throughout his entire life, he knew he had the strength to overcome it.
Over the next 16 months, Gilliam attended rehab sessions and worked hard to get healthy again.
“He always worked hard but as soon as he saw the daylight and knew he could start lifting again and jogging again, that’s when his whole demeanor changed,” said Cadogan.
Finally, in May of 2012, after two missed seasons of football, Gilliam laced up his iconic black Nike cleats, put on his white helmet with the solid blue stripe and ran out to the practice field outside Lasch Football Building.
During drills, he moved with some hesitation, looking to rebuild his confidence, but by the time the offense started their installations, he was ready to pick up where he left off back in 2010.
“He made his presence in the huddle known, bringing a quite intensity with eyes wide and an eagerness to make a play,” said Cadogan.
Once the team got into formation and the ball was snapped, Gilliam was open. The ball came spiraling through the air and as Gilliam caught it and tucked it away to run, a smile peeked through the cage of his helmet.
Now a starting tight end for the Penn State Nittany Lions, according to latest depth chart released by coach Bill O’Brien, Gilliam doesn’t forget where he came from and the obstacles he had to endure to get to where he is today.
Gilliam makes a point to visit Milton Hershey several times a year to see his former mentors and encourage the students to do well and stay focused. He is aware that the kids look up to him and he feels that it is his obligation to be a positive presence in their lives.
“Our kids come from very challenging backgrounds and don’t always view themselves for having an opportunity for success,” Kramer explained. “So to know that Garry is one of theirs and to see that success is definitely uplifting.”
For his mother, seeing Gilliam persevere through the challenges he has faced in life has been rewarding. “It amazes me to look at him now knowing where he started at,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him and so happy. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen him out there. It’s good to see him catch again.”
As Gilliam enters the 2012 season fully recovered and hungry for success, his journey to get there has been the ultimate testament to perseverance through adversity.
Photo courtesy of Mike Pettigano, of Black Shoe Diaries.