From rugby to punting: 'Scottish Hammer' booming as rookie with Browns

BEREA, Ohio -- Jamie Gillan was walking his dog with his dad around Cleveland when they stumbled upon a pub that not only welcomed canines but seemed like an opportune spot to kill time and ease nerves on this fraught-filled NFL cut day.

Despite being an undrafted punter out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the long-haired Gillan had already become a Dawg Pound fan favorite for his booming preseason punts and thick Scottish accent, as well as his apt nickname -- the "Scottish Hammer" -- connecting both traits. As a result, he was instantly recognized by the Flying Monkey patrons.

"If you want to find out you've made the Browns," said Gillan's father, Colin, "you might as well do it in a bar surrounded by Browns fans."

Before long, the Gillans made fast friends with the people sitting around them. And together, while watching an Ohio State football game, they anxiously waited for the call that would eventually come from Browns general manager John Dorsey, telling Gillan, 22, that he had beaten the odds to become Cleveland's starting punter.

"He wanted to take care of everyone's drinks for the whole night, pay everyone's tabs," said Browns fan Conor Hartnett, who captured Gillan talking to Dorsey on video. "And we were like, 'Hell no -- we're buying the rounds.' It was awesome, one of the coolest experiences."

Gillan, a former rugby standout who didn't start punting until his senior year of high school after moving to Maryland from Scotland, has been a special-teams revelation for the Browns since unseating Cleveland incumbent and 2018 Pro Bowl alternate Britton Colquitt, who is now punting for the Minnesota Vikings.

After his second-career game, the left-footed Gillan was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for landing five punts inside the 20-yard line in a win over the New York Jets. This week, he was also awarded AFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors, having tallied 11 punts inside the 20, which is second most in the NFL.

Thanks to his soaring hang times -- which continually threatened the team drone during training camp -- Gillan also leads the NFL with 10 fair catches forced.

"The safe bet would've been to go with Britton," Browns special teams coach Mike Priefer said. "But it would've been very difficult to let a guy like Jamie out of the building. He's so talented and has such a big leg swing. I think he's just scratching the surface on how good he can be."

Growing up in Scotland, Gillan's original hope was to become the best rugby player he could be. But after his father, a squadron leader for the Royal Air Force, was transferred to Maryland, Gillan moved with him.

Gillan knew little about American football, and he initially joined the Leonardtown (Maryland) High School soccer team. But one 2014 evening from the stands, he watched the Leonardtown football team struggle to convert an extra point attempt. Days later, he asked for permission to leave soccer practice and literally hopped a fence to the football field, where he successfully booted field goal after field goal in front of the Leonardtown coaches. On the spot, assistant coach Brian Woodburn awarded Gillan the starting kicking job, and in the same moment, gave him the "Scottish Hammer" nickname that has stuck to this day.

"He heard the ball come off Jamie's foot," Colin Gillan said, "and he said, 'Yeah, we're going to call you the 'Scottish Hammer' from now on.'"

Despite playing in only five games for Leonardtown, Gillan received a late scholarship offer to play for Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which desperately needed a kicker days before preseason camp in 2015. Gillan signed the letter of intent without ever having been to Arkansas.

"It was a culture shock," Gillan said. "I didn't know it was a historically black college until I got there. But I had friends the first day -- all my brothers out there. ... And now I've basically got a second family in Arkansas with UAPB."

Despite having an unorthodox form both kicking and punting, Gillan gradually improved. Then before his junior season, Pine Bluff hired a new special teams coach.

"I was a little hesitant to take the job. ... Then I saw the talent that Jamie had," said Thomas Sheffield, who was then a graduate assistant at North Texas. "That literally led me to take a job, because I thought he could be something special."

Upon arriving that spring, Sheffield was astonished to learn how Gillan would practice.

"This kid was walking around with one football, and he's just kicking it and going and chasing it, kicking it and going and chasing it," Sheffield said of a ball Gillan referred to as "The Pumpkin" because of its sturdiness and its shape. "I'm like, 'Dude, where's all your balls?' And he's like, 'This is it. This is what I got.' And so, we had to order him some footballs."

That led to another problem.

Gillan's leg was so powerful he kept putting holes in the balls Pine Bluff ordered for him.

"We probably went through 20 more footballs just because he'd punt them and after a couple of days, they'd go flat," Sheffield said. "He just kept blowing footballs out, and we had to keep getting him more."

When first-year head coach Cedric Thomas, who arrived before the 2018 season, initially met Gillan, who is 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, he didn't realize he was his kicker and punter.

"My first impression was, 'Man, he's going to be a pretty good linebacker,'" Thomas said of Gillan, who, channeling his rugby past, did deliver several big hits covering kicks throughout his career. "He'd be in the weight room doing 225 [pounds], you know, 18 times."

Under the new staff, Gillan became a first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference kicker and punter, leading the conference in both punting average and field goals made. He also broke multiple Pine Bluff punting and kicking records.

"Because of Jamie, I learned a whole new way of how to kick," said Sheffield, who notes all of the trick punts in Gillan's arsenal, which includes the banana punt, in which he can bounce the punt out of bounds to the left or right, as well as the cross-field punt, in which he rolls out one way, then punts back across the other direction to fool opposing returners.

"The scary part about Jamie is the dude's only been kicking for like seven years," Sheffield said. "The sky's the limit for him, because he's still figuring it out."

It didn't take long for NFL teams to figure out Gillan had pro potential, too.

NFL agent Bardia Ghahremani learned about Gillan through former Pine Bluff and NFL wide receiver Raymond Webber.

"Jamie had made like a 10-minute video of himself," Ghahremani said. "And he's literally kicking it from his own 5- or 10-yard line and it's going through the end zone. Like, what the hell?"

Ghahremani got Gillan a spot in Arkansas State's pro day, followed by private workouts with the Browns and San Francisco 49ers.

"He had other options," Ghahremani said, "but he felt comfortable in Cleveland."

Both on the field -- and since, off it.

"Being a military brat, you don't live anywhere for more than two years," Gillan said. "I moved houses so many times, the only place I can really call home is in Inverness [Scotland]. But now I've got a second home in Maryland and now my third home in Cleveland, so it's pretty cool."

He also has a home at the Flying Monkey, where he has returned a few times to, in his words, "chew the fat with some good mates." That includes Hartnett, among others. The pub even has a shot named after Gillan now -- "The Scottish Hammer," a blend of Jameson Irish Whisky and apple schnapps, with a splash of lemonade.

"Jamie is the nicest guy in the world," Hartnett said. "He loves Cleveland. ... And he's just an awesome dude."