UNIVERSITY PARK — Garry Gilliam was eight years old when he left his mother to enroll at a private boarding school in Hershey. He was 19 when a devastating knee injury nearly ended his football career.
Now at 21, Gilliam is a starting tight end in a new-look Penn State offense that figures to rely heavily on Gilliams blocking and pass-catching abilities.
Im very excited for it. Probably a little more anxious than anything, Gilliam said of his return to the football field. Its been a very, very, very long time.
When he runs out of the tunnel at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, exactly 706 days will have passed since Gilliam was injured applying a downfield block in a game against Temple. He felt his left knee give out and went down. His medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee were torn. His football future was put on hold.
It was the first major injury Ive gone through, but Ive had to face a few things as I grew up, Gilliam said. You never really know exactly how strong or how much will you have until you put it into a situation. I was banking on what I had gone through as a younger kid to get me through what I had gone through.
After surgery was performed to repair his MCL, an infection set in at the incision point in November. His rehab process slowed to a crawl as pain and swelling made basic exercises either intolerable or harmful. Doctors put him on a regimen of antibiotics to curb the infection. It took time for the infection to subside and in turn, caused doctors to delay Gilliams ACL surgery until May 2011.
With his rehab schedule pushed back, the chance that Gilliam could miss parts of a second consecutive season became a reality. Winter months stretched on and spring rolled in.
That was probably the lowest point I was at, just trying to cope with it when it was going on and wondering if Id be able to get back in time to play football, or even play football again at all, Gilliam said.
But Gilliam was more prepared to deal with football adversity than he originally thought.
In those months following his surgeries, Gilliam found himself looking back on his childhood, one where he depended on himself to not only excel in school but also on the football field where he earned a scholarship to Penn State.
A son to a single mother, Gilliam said he never really had much of a father figure who factored into his daily routines back home in Carlisle. He enrolled at the Milton Hershey School as an elementary aged kid where he lived in a dormitory with other students away from his mother on a regular basis.
Gilliam spent 10 years at the school.
When I went to Milton Hershey, Its not an easy school to go to with the rules and regulations, Gilliam said. You live on campus, obviously not with your parents. In my case, I wasnt with my mom and it was a hard thing to do.
Having to watch his teammates on the field, rather than suit up in the 22 games they played without him was a comparable hurt for Gilliam. Now, however, the 6-foot-6, 262-pound junior is ready to re-join them.
His role has been heavily expanded.
He's got the biggest foot I have ever seen, linebacker Mike Mauti said. He has a (size) 16 shoe or something like that. This is a very talented athlete and I think you are going to see a lot from him.
Gilliam, who confirmed he wears the biggest cleats on the team, plans to use them primarily as a blocking Y tight end in Bill OBriens offense.
Ive been really impressed with the way that hes been moving and catching and his intelligence also, knowing his responsibilities and pass routes and his blocking assignments, senior center Matt Stankiewitch said of Gilliam. Ive been very impressed with Garry and Im glad hes back on the team with us.
OBriens opinion of the tight end positions importance to an offense is well known. Last season in New England, Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined to catch 24 of quarterback Tom Bradys 39 touchdown passes. They were targeted a combined 237 times.
Gilliam could be in line to catch a few scoring throws, as his responsibilities wont end at blocking.
As a Y youll see me as more of a blocker, Gilliam said. Ill get out on routes, more of the short routes, crossing patterns within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. Ill probably block and run routes, probably a 60-40 (split), 60 blocking and 40 on routes.
Just a year ago, however, Gilliam wasnt thinking in these terms. He was just trying to get back on the field. For him, its a win before the coin is even flipped.
I consider it a major victory, Gilliam said. Not only in football but in life because you go through things and come out the other side, its going to make you stronger. Whether you think it or not. In the beginning you may not realize that but Im definitely seeing that benefit now.
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @traviswjohnson_