Blake Gillikin grew up taking snaps from his brother. Now they’re playing against each other at the collegiate level.
Walt Gillikin grabbed a burger to go with his bottle of Coca-Cola during a Penn State football parents’ tailgate last Saturday, as his weekly multitasking adventure was already underway.
It was a little after noon, still more than three hours until the start of the Nittany Lions’ game against Indiana, and he wore his custom blue No. 93 Penn State jersey to support his son and starting punter, Blake Gillikin. But he also closely monitored the Northwestern-Wisconsin matchup being played more than 700 miles away in Madison, Wis., where Tyler Gillikin, Blake’s twin brother, started at long snapper and helped the Wildcats take an early 3-0 lead.
“Snap was good I guess,” he said with a laugh, showing the score on his phone.
While Walt enjoyed the tailgate at Penn State, his wife, Taryn, and her parents watched Northwestern battle the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. It marked the first week of the season that Walt and Taryn traveled to different games to ensure both sons had family in attendance — but they won’t have to make a similar decision this week with the Nittany Lions set to take on Northwestern on Saturday in Evanston, Ill.
The twin brothers will be on opposite sidelines for the first and likely only time in their college careers, as the Nittany Lions and Wildcats won’t meet again until 2020 — the year after Blake graduates from Penn State.
“I’m looking forward to playing against him,” Blake said. “I think it’s the first time I’ve ever played against him in an organized sport. So that’ll be fun.”
The anticipation for this weekend started to build when Blake and Tyler committed to their respective programs in high school and they looked at future Big Ten schedules. Their mother discussed plans during Penn State’s trip to the Rose Bowl to create special split jerseys to support both sons, and she received the finished product in the mail this week. Their grandparents will make their latest stop on their RV tour across the country to see Blake and Tyler play, and their parents will both be in the stands at Ryan Field as soon as the gates open.
“I just can’t believe it’s this weekend,” Taryn said. “I still can’t believe that it’s already here. It will definitely be a special moment. I don’t know where I’m going to sit. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to clap or cheer or just sit there and just soak it all in. I don’t know how I’m going to react.”
This Saturday isn’t the first time family bragging rights have been on the line — Blake and Tyler had both committed to their respective schools ahead of the Penn State-Northwestern matchup in 2015.
They watched from different rooms — Tyler in the family room upstairs and Blake in the basement — as Northwestern edged the Nittany Lions 23-21 on a late field goal.
“Already then we were looking at in two years we might be able to play against each other,” Tyler told the Centre Daily Times.
The matchup became a possibility when college coaches noticed Tyler’s ability as a long snapper while recruiting Blake as a punter. Tyler first learned the skill from his father, who was a long snapper in high school, and started to play the position in middle school. He snapped to help his brother practice, but he didn’t immediately take much pride in it — and didn’t think about playing the position in college until coaches watched film and asked Blake about his long snapper at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Ga.
That’s when they learned about Tyler, a tight end and defensive end who fired snaps to his brother in the basement, leading to scuffs on the ceiling from Blake’s punts. The same scratches still cover the ceiling near the front door of their house, too, as Blake said he hasn’t gotten around to painting over them for his parents yet.
“The problem is when I go home, I sometimes do it,” Blake said. “It’s kind of a habit.”
In a meeting during Tyler’s visit to Evanston, head coach Pat Fitzgerald told him he’d redshirt his first year as a preferred walk-on and have an opportunity to compete for the job going into 2017.
That’s exactly how it played out for Tyler, who rushed home from Wildcats games last year to see his brother punt for Penn State on television. And he stayed motivated to earn the starting long-snapper job as a redshirt freshman with this week’s game against the Nittany Lions in mind. Tyler didn’t want to stand on the sideline as a member of the Wildcats’ roster and Blake’s twin brother; he wanted to be on the field playing against Penn State.
He called his parents and grandparents after he learned he won the starting job.
“I don’t think I called Blake, but he did send me a text saying, ‘Thanks for telling me,’ ” Tyler said. “He congratulated me, and I think he’s been looking forward to this game a lot more since I’ve started.”
Since the Gillikins’ grandparents left Florida on Aug. 13, they’ve logged just under 4,000 miles while traveling through 13 states in their 43-foot long Winnebago Grand Tour RV through five games this season.
Coby and Barbara Gaulien purchased the black and gold “mobile apartment” at the end of last season to drive across the country for both of their grandsons’ games in 2017. They attended Northwestern’s season opener for Tyler’s debut, spent the next two weeks at Penn State, drove to Iowa to see the Nittany Lions again and made the trip to Wisconsin to support the Wildcats last week.
They’ve had a blast at the games and on the road — especially driving through the farmland of the Midwest — but the highlight has been spending quality time with their grandsons.
“We really feel like we’ve gotten a lot closer to them,” Coby said.
They’ve gone out to lunch with Blake and dinner with Tyler, and Blake has driven to Bellefonte to hang out for a few hours in the RV with the “Punt Squad” Florida license plate. They named the RV “Miss Kitty” for a variety of reasons — they’re traveling with their shorthaired Persian cats, Sabi and Oreo, they have leopard-themed chairs, and their grandsons play for the Wildcats and Nittany Lions.
“We got kitties all over the place,” Coby said.
Growing up, Blake and Tyler often visited their grandparents in Florida, where they went fishing on the Manatee River on a boat eventually named “Nice Kitty” featuring the growling high school logo of the Westminster Wildcats. They also went water skiing and sometimes made the trip alone for a few days of one-on-one time with their grandparents. Between their time spent in Florida and their grandparents’ visits to Atlanta, Blake and Tyler usually saw them once a month. Now in college, they’ve maintained that strong bond with their grandparents this season, talking with them about how they balance academics and football.
Tyler said he tries to call his grandparents once or twice a week to talk and added he appreciates being able to see his loved ones in the stands. And Coby and Barbara have cherished Blake’s visits to the RV, where they often chat while ESPN or the Big Ten Network plays in the background.
“It’s been really great because we really feel close to him when he does that,” Barbara said. “He gets away from everything and all the noise and everything that’s going on, so that’s really neat.”
Coby and Barbara will head to Maryland for Northwestern’s game next week before attending Penn State’s games against Michigan and Ohio State. They hope to finish their travels this season with Northwestern’s game at Nebraska on Nov. 4, with plans to watch the remainder of the games on television.
“They’ve always been more supportive than I could even imagine having grandparents be,” Tyler said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing that I’ll always thank them for.”
When the Penn State football players arrived at Beaver Stadium last Saturday, Walt Gillikin peered over other fans and smiled when he saw his son.
He embraced Blake for a moment and patted him on the back as he continued his walk through the crowd of Nittany Lions fans. Walt flew into Harrisburg on Thursday night, met Blake for lunch at Moe’s Southwest Grill on Friday afternoon and caught up with him later for an hour at the Penn Stater Hotel — and Blake and his brother don’t take any of it for granted.
“I really appreciate what they do,” Blake said of his parents. “They both work, so they take time out of their schedules to make that effort. It’s really meaningful to me, and I know it’s meaningful to my brother as well.”
Inside Beaver Stadium last Saturday, as Blake and his teammates warmed up ahead of the Indiana game, the Northwestern-Wisconsin game played on the scoreboard. The Wildcats led 10-7 at the time, but ultimately fell 33-24 in the fourth game of Tyler’s career. Tyler made his first college start at home against Nevada in front of his grandparents and father, while his mother recovered from knee surgery and watched on television at home.
The family experienced similar feelings in 2016 when Blake made his debut for the Nittany Lions.
“Total nerves. My wife and I were basket cases,” Coby said. “I remember last year my heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest when we saw Blake go out on the field for his first punt. Same thing with Tyler.”
Tyler leaned on his brother for advice ahead of his first game, calling him from the team hotel. The conversation with his best friend helped ease his nerves as Blake told him what to expect based on his experience.
“After the game,” Taryn said, “Tyler said it was just the most exciting day of his entire life to be out there starting for the Wildcats.”
His mother saw him play in the loss to the Badgers last Saturday and made it back to the RV to watch the end of the Penn State game against Indiana. She and her husband will usually watch the replay of the game they didn’t attend on Sunday, and within 48 hours, they’ll have watched both games to make sure they saw everything.
They want to soak in every experience during their sons’ college careers, so they don’t mind the hours spent on the road or in airports to reach their games each week.
“That’s not so bad,” Walt said. “Because in four years, it’ll all be over, and if we don’t do it now, we’ll look back then and go, ‘Why didn’t we do it?’ ”
The parents and grandparents will all be wearing split jerseys for Saturday’s game, with one side in white with Blake’s number and the Nittany Lion logo and the other in purple with Tyler’s number and the Northwestern “N.”
Taryn worked with Maureen McGovern, offensive lineman Connor McGovern’s mother, to create them, so the family could represent both twins on Saturday.
“How can you not do something to say I’m proud of both boys?” their father said.
Blake and Tyler take pride in each other’s accomplishments on the field and in the classroom — Blake earned a 4.0 grade-point average as a freshman, while Tyler had a 3.9. Blake said they’ve talked more often this week in anticipation of Saturday’s game, and the entire family is excited after a few years of waiting. Their father is hoping to snap some photos of them on the field during warmups and after the game to remember when the Gillikins spent a Saturday together during their college football careers.
“It’s a blessing that we get to be there,” Taryn said with a laugh, “and not feel guilty that we’re not at another game.”