Who's laughing now? Garrett Gilkey

SANDWICH, Ill. -- The least popular kid at Sandwich High was booed at a school assembly, and he ran to the bathroom and cried. He had red hair and freckles, pasty-white skin and a pear-shaped body with roomy hips and an agonizingly skinny torso. Evidence of Garrett Gilkey's awkward attempts to fit in is well documented in the 2004-05 Sandwich High School yearbook, a book that Gilkey, to no one's surprise, did not bother purchasing. Who would sign his book at the end of the year, anyway?

In most of the yearbook pictures, taken his freshman year, Gilkey is wearing a blank stare, trapped in a sea of toothy grins. He's on the scholastic team, the math club, the science club, the book club and is in the very back row of a grainy photo of the football team.

He even tried baseball, although he was never very good at it. A teammate thought it would be funny to urinate in Gilkey's glove once, but young Garrett did not respond with his fists. No, that's not what his mother had taught him. She knew, judging by the size of his dad and his uncles, that someday Gilkey would tower over people. "You're going to be a great big man of God," Catherine Gilkey had told her boy when he was 3 or 4 years old. "You have to learn to respond with your words and never be mean."

He read books and developed an extensive vocabulary. But neither his eloquent words nor his vast knowledge of science could stop him from getting beaten up or shoved into lockers. When you're 14, tiny comments are monumental, and time moves excruciatingly slow. The walks through the narrow hallways in between class were the scariest parts of the day for Gilkey, so he moved quickly through the gantlet of punches, insults and swipes at his stack of books.

"It was very hard seeing past it, just seeing into the future," he said. "I felt like that was my life. When you're that little, it's all you experience, all you know, and it consumes your life with fear.

"I was never suicidal, by any means. But there were a few times where I thought, 'Man, would it be better if I just didn't exist?'"

He worked at a bagel shop when he was 15, and he danced on the corner in a bagel costume to help drum up business. By then, he didn't care whether the kids laughed at him. Most of his peers in Sandwich already had formed a strong opinion of who Garrett Gilkey was, and where he was going: nowhere.

He is a 22-year-old man now, and the Garrett Gilkey Homecoming Tour rolls down Main Street, because every small town has a Main Street. To say that Gilkey is riding in style would be a stretch; he is shoehorned into the passenger seat of a Nissan Altima, and his knees are scraping against the dashboard.

Sandwich, for the most part, looks the same when he comes home. But Gilkey has changed considerably. He is 6-foot-6 and 318 pounds with a badass goatee and hair that hangs to his collar. In late April, millions will watch the NFL draft. Sometime in the course of the three-day event in New York, chances are good that Gilkey will hear his name called by an NFL team.

There's a sign touting this accomplishment that hangs above the Gilkey house on North Latham Street in Sandwich. GARRETT GILKEY, NFL DRAFT. His sister Hilary made the sign, and it's about the only hint of chest-thumping you'll get. Gilkey knows the statistics, how rare it is for a kid who toiled at Division II Chadron State to get a chance to play in the NFL, how special it is that this same kid had to overcome so much before he could even play college football.

The people of Sandwich, a northern Illinois town of about 7,400, know where Gilkey is going now. Many of them are proud, and in a way, it's the affirmation Gilkey has been seeking for 10 years. Living well is the best revenge, right?

Maybe. The heat is cranked in the Altima on this chilly March morning, and Gilkey, who is craning his neck, insists he's not uncomfortable at all. You should see the car he drives. It's a 2001 Ford Focus. He'd sit in the four-cylinder compact for 14 hours for the drives to and from Chadron, Neb. Regardless of what happens in late April, Gilkey has no immediate plans to upgrade.

"Gets good gas mileage," he says.

"I'm just going to pay off my school loans. I'm in debt with school, so I have to pay off those."

He wants to stop at the Picket Fence Restaurant, which used to be Mainly Bagels, the place where Gilkey worked his first job. The owner of the Picket Fence, Sue Staton, recognizes Gilkey immediately and asks how things went last month at the NFL combine. Lots of interviews, he says, little sleep.

He eases into a table, and the waiter says he played high school football against him at a nearby town. The young man, a lineman himself, looks much smaller than Gilkey. He tells Gilkey he's going to college to be a coach. "That's cool, man," Gilkey says, and orders a glass of water with no ice.

Some folks from the bank tell Gilkey's family they're rooting for him, a buddy at his gym recorded five hours of the combine just to watch Gilkey run, and it's not strange at all.

The world is more peaceful from a 6-6 view.

They fell in love with the house in Sandwich -- the stained-glass windows, the pool in the back, the chance to breathe in wide-open spaces. They'd have a nice garden and a big house for their big family to entertain friends. Cary and Catherine Gilkey started their family in Naperville, an affluent suburb of Chicago, but, by 2002, they were ready for a change of pace.

Small towns are typically spun as close-knit, so the Gilkeys just assumed that their son and three daughters -- Hilary, Hannah and Mallory -- would get along fine. But soon, Garrett was coming home with stories of kids picking on him and wanting to fight him.

Catherine, who's now a dean of students at Waubonsie Valley High in Aurora, Ill., didn't want to be the parent who walked in, first week of school in a new town, and complained that her little boy was being picked on. But the bullying was getting worse. She refused to give her son permission to retaliate. "I said, 'Use your words. You've got a big vocabulary,'" she said, "'Everybody needs a friend, and we just moved here. You're not going to fight.'"

Problem is, using his words got him into deeper trouble. Matt Cervantes, a former classmate and friend at Sandwich, said Gilkey's smart-aleck replies just angered the bullies more.

"A lot of people didn't like him because he tried to defend himself," Cervantes said. "I was one of the more popular kids in school, I was also Garrett's friend, and Garrett didn't hang out with our group of guys. They kind of used to give me crap. They'd say, 'Why do you hang out with him?'

"There was an unbelievable amount of hatred that people had for him at the school. Sometimes, he would talk trash, and they would get on him so bad."

Gilkey was never one of them. He hadn't grown up in Sandwich and didn't sweat with them through freshman football practice. But these were things out of his control. The summer before his freshman year, Gilkey was at a football camp, working out shirtless, when his heart was beating so fast that it looked as if would jump out of his chest. He was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare condition in which an extra electrical pathway between the heart's upper chambers causes a rapid heartbeat.

He underwent surgery to correct it and was forced to rest that summer and fall. He couldn't play football, couldn't even participate in phys ed class. During that hour of P.E., he was assigned to be an office assistant, the person who told misbehaving kids when the secretaries would see them, and the job didn't exactly ingratiate him with his schoolmates.

They stole his prized calculator and heckled him constantly. One kid shoved a condom in his mouth. (Neither Gilkey nor Cervantes will give the names of any of the tormentors.) By that next summer, just before Garrett was to begin his sophomore year, Cary and Catherine had heard enough. They pulled him from Sandwich High and enrolled him at Aurora Christian.

Aurora Christian, coached by former NFL receiver Don Beebe, had a powerhouse football program. Located in a suburb of Chicago, the school had seen its share of transfer students, so being the new kid wasn't as big of a deal. But football was a faraway dream. Gilkey was still growing into his body and was manhandled by Aurora Christian's linemen. One kid was so physically overpowering in a drill that Gilkey's eyes started to tear up. The other kid was a freshman.

By midseason his sophomore year, Gilkey hated football. He had shin splints and was miserable and told his parents he wanted to quit. They told him to stick it out until the end of the season, and eventually, Gilkey was called up to varsity -- strictly for depth purposes -- as Aurora Christian began its postseason run. It was a fun time for Gilkey. And at the end of the year, assistant coach Dave Beebe, Don's brother, stopped him and said he had heard a rumor that Gilkey was quitting.

"We've got big plans for you next year," Dave Beebe told him.

Gilkey was stunned and inspired. Somebody wanted him.

Nature and genetics eventually took hold. Gilkey got bigger, and bigger, and spent that summer in the weight room with his teammates.

"I was beginning to build friends," Gilkey said, "beginning to think this is fun."

His senior year, he was 6-6 and 250 pounds and played left tackle. He did not get pushed around so much.

He approached Don Beebe, who was watering the field, and asked him whether he was good enough to play Division I football someday, and Beebe was honest. He told Gilkey he didn't think he was there yet. But he made a call to Bill O'Boyle, who was then the football coach at Chadron State, Beebe's old school.

O'Boyle, a large, intimidating man with a bald head and handlebar mustache, saw Gilkey's potential. And he rode him hard.

"He was really kind of a diamond in the rough," O'Boyle said. "He was an unbelievable athlete for how big he was and what he could do. But his work ethic was lacking, so it took some time. You had to go through and peel back the layers to get him out."

Their breaking point came at the start of Gilkey's junior year, just after two-a-days ended. Gilkey got in trouble and had to do extra running after practice. As he did up-downs, O'Boyle paced nearby and yelled at him, asking when he was going to grow up. At that point, Gilkey said, he lost it.

"Why the heck do you hate me so much?" he yelled back.

O'Boyle got in his face, and by this time was hot and angry.

"Don't ever say that I hate you," he told Gilkey. "I love you, and you're the best offensive lineman I've ever coached."

But the coach told him he needed to work harder to realize his potential, and the words finally resonated. By this time, Gilkey was living in his pastor's basement (Division II scholarship money is limited and often split between athletes, and Gilkey said he didn't have a full ride). One day, Gilkey sat with pastor Charlie Granade and mapped out his goals:

He wanted to bench-press 450 pounds.

He wanted to play in the NFL.

Gilkey considered taking steroids, went as far as to inquire about how to possibly obtain them, but said Granade steered him away from those thoughts. He used Bible passages to inspire him. Gilkey eventually bench-pressed 500 pounds.

But the other goal, the NFL, would be much harder. No matter how big or strong he got, he was still in the middle of nowhere. Chadron, a picturesque town located near the Pine Bluff Indian Reservation in northwest Nebraska, is one of the most remote places in the country for an NFL scout. It takes two connecting flights to get there by air from Chicago, and the last plane there will inevitably be a turbo-prop puddle jumper.

Six years ago, O'Boyle went on and on about a little running back he had there named Danny Woodhead. But nobody -- save for a scout for the Denver Broncos -- seemed to listen, and Woodhead didn't get invited to the NFL combine. A few years later, Woodhead was playing in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots.

Perhaps Woodhead's success helped pave the way for Gilkey, who had scouts from 27 NFL teams make the trek to Chadron to see him. He was invited to the Senior Bowl and held his own, then auditioned again at the combine.

When Gilkey's name flashed on TV, his family's hearts sank. An analyst waxed on about Gilkey's short arms and what he couldn't do. But Gilkey didn't give it much thought.

"Being overshadowed and underappreciated … all those things are what developed me into what I am," he said. "Those are the driving forces in my life that tell me I'm going to make it."

Gilkey, who played left tackle in college, probably will shift to guard in the NFL because of his arm length. He has impressed scouts with his quick feet and flexibility. He plays much lower than a 6-6 man should play and shows rare athleticism for his size. At the Senior Bowl, it was expected that he would be overwhelmed by the size and strength of his opponents. Gilkey showed right away that he belonged.

Gilkey is projected to be middle-to late-round draft pick.

"I have no doubt he will do well in the NFL," O'Boyle said. "I said that about Danny, too, and nobody listened to me."

Just before Gilkey inhales his breakfast sandwich, he clicks off the names of small-school players he thinks should be drafted. They're guys nobody has heard of. It's cliché, but Gilkey has a chip on his shoulder, just like Woodhead, just like any Division II player who has spent the past four years in outdated weight rooms and tiny stadiums.

The night before this, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's name was brought up in a conversation, and Gilkey didn't know who he was. That's how off the grid he has been. He will not go to New York and shake the commissioner's hand if his name is called; he'll be in Sandwich that weekend and won't entertain guests until the draft is over. The Gilkeys will have an open house, and all the people close to him are invited -- his pastor, Charlie; his girlfriend, Kara Hellige; his fitness trainers from Sandwich.

It is almost noon, and Gilkey wants to stop at the gym, Ultimate Health and Fitness, on his way home. He has known Doug and Julie Inman, who own the place, for five years. They're close. And they never knew he was bullied in Sandwich until recently, when they opened their hometown newspaper and saw an article about his adolescent angst.

They call Gilkey "Thor" here, and the gym has always been a peaceful place for him. It does not look like a training hot spot for future NFL players; it's a health club that has senior citizens and bodybuilders and others who wouldn't dare try on spandex. "This is a very family-friendly health club," Doug Inman says. "There is nobody better than anyone else here."

Turns out the current offensive line coach at Sandwich High, Bryan McMahan, works out here. He wasn't in Sandwich when Gilkey was around. But according to Inman, McMahan was wide-eyed and excited when he saw Gilkey for the first time. Last month, the coach tweeted a picture of himself with Gilkey. "Amazing person and grateful to cross paths with him!" McMahan wrote.

People who meet Gilkey today have a hard time wrapping their brains around his childhood. How could he be bullied?

"When you look at an NFL offensive lineman," Gilkey says, "that figure will always represent [someone] very masculine and tough. That's the last thing you're going to think from someone who blocks 350-pound linemen."

But his stories, he says, would surprise people. At some point when he was at Chadron State, he came home and a former classmate at Sandwich was at his door. The kid wanted to fight him, even though he was much smaller than Gilkey. "He was the size of my sister," Gilkey says.

He plans to talk to kids around Chicago and wherever he goes about bullying. He'll talk about the Bible scriptures he used to read to inspire him and the faith he always had that things eventually would get better. Gilkey believes he's here, on this stage, to help others who've never quite fit in. Who feel small.

In Sandwich, some of his tormentors have apologized. "A few people have been like, 'Man, I'm glad you're nice. Because I wouldn't want you to -- excuse my language -- beat the s--- out of me now,'" Gilkey says and laughs.

There are bars in town where his old classmates hang out at night, where he could walk in and exact some revenge. Cervantes has told his friend that if he ever needs help, he's got Gilkey's back. Gilkey has other things on his mind. He's going somewhere.