Tough times can't keep Penn State's Gilliam down
But that's football. That's a game. The trials of Gilliam's path before this season were part of real life, struggles that defined the kind of man he has become.
One such ordeal came at age 8, when Gilliam's mother decided to get her son out of a tough neighborhood in Harrisburg and enroll him at the Milton Hershey School, a boarding facility for orphaned children or those from broken homes that runs from kindergarten through high school.
At the time, young Garry cried himself to sleep, but mentors and staff helped him get accustomed to school life. By high school, he had become a fine student, appeared in school plays, and competed in multiple sports, growing to 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds and attracting a scholarship offer from Penn State.
"It helped with relationships, networking. I interacted with a lot of different kinds of people and kind of learned to live in a world that wasn't perfect, if you will."
After sitting out his first year, Gilliam earned time in Joe Paterno's rotation as a tight end in 2010 before facing more adversity that threatened to end his career in sports.
As Gilliam tried to make a downfield block at Iowa, his left leg folded under him. The damage was severe - torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, torn meniscus, torn patella tendon. Nearly two months into his rehabilitation, doctors found a staph infection in the knee, requiring more surgery and jeopardizing his life.
The pain throughout rehab was brutal. Gilliam had to sit out all of 2011 as he recuperated from a total of five surgeries. But while he harbored doubts, he fought through any fears about his football career and came back the next season under new coach Bill O'Brien.
The experience taught Gilliam much about himself.
"If you go through anything, especially an injury like that, it's definitely going to make you a stronger person," he said. "It builds your character up a little bit more, makes you a little bit more resilient, which obviously helps a lot of aspects of life. . . .
"In terms of me as a man, it definitely helped build my character and enabled me to go up against any hardships that I have in life."
The most recent challenge for Gilliam couldn't compare with the hardships of being alone as a child or coming back from a severe knee injury, but he exhibited the same determination.
After his return, Gilliam saw that O'Brien had brought in a couple of freshmen at tight end and would add another one for the 2013 season. So he came up with an idea.
In his postseason exit interview, Gilliam had a long conversation with the coach about moving to offensive tackle. O'Brien discussed the move with his staff and gave the OK before the holidays, enabling Gilliam to bulk up on abundant holiday cooking.
"It was just eating more of what I was eating," he said.
The plan worked. Gilliam, now 6-6 and 305 pounds, has split time with senior Adam Gress at offensive right tackle. In the season opener against Syracuse, he made the play of the game with a touchdown-saving tackle on Brandon Reddish, who had scooped up a Penn State fumble and was heading to the end zone.
"The switch from tight end to tackle wasn't that hard," Gilliam said. "For the most part, football is blocking. The people are a little bigger, but I got a little bigger, too."
In a life laden with obstacles and potholes, this has been a smooth transition for Gilliam, who will turn 23 later this month and has a sixth year of eligibility for next season already approved by the NCAA.
Urschel's a winner. Penn State senior guard John Urschel has been named a National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame scholar-athlete, one of 16 football student-athletes chosen from across all NCAA and NAIA divisions.
Urschel, an academic all-American last year, receives an $18,000 scholarship for postgraduate studies with the award, and also is a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy presented to the nation's top college football scholar-athlete.