INDIANAPOLIS -- For Garrett Gilkey, just being at the NFL Scouting Combine is a dream come true and an accomplishment. But he says it's only the beginning of what he expects to be a long ride in the NFL.
Gilkey played at Chadron State College as a 6-foot-6, 318-pound tackle, and is projected as a guard by NFLDraftScout.com with a fifth- or sixth-round grade. He did 28 reps in the bench press at the combine Saturday.
That he has made it this far is a testimony to perseverance and guts. It all traces back to being an undersized freshman at Sandwich (Ill.) High School and being the brunt of bullies.
"I was undersized and I was actually bullied and ostracized by my entire school and I was booed a few times in front of the entire school. Going into my freshman year, I had a heart operation -- very simple, but it prevented me from playing in any sports and doing anything," Gilkey said. "So, I excelled academically. With that, some of the guys -- especially on the football team and the upper cliques -- distanced [themselves] from me because I wasn't able to do the running in the summer and the workouts. I was booed twice in school. I was constantly bullied, constantly picked on. It was a very hard year.
"Really, I like to tell people that I was just the little redheaded, gingery, skinny-looking [kid]. I was pear-shaped. I had these wide hips and this skinny-looking upper body. I was just a prime target for many of the cruel kids in Sandwich."
The break came when his parents helped him transfer to Aurora (Ill.) Christian, a team coached by former NFL player Don Beebe, who also attended Chadron.
Gilkey's weight increased to about 240 as a senior. Beebe's brother, Dave, an assistant at Aurora Christian, "pulled me in the office after one of my games and looked at my film and said, 'Your footwork is like that of an NFL lineman.' That's when that spark came into my life. I remember thinking, 'I'm 17 years old. How in the heck can you say my feet look like an NFL lineman's feet?' That's where it began."
Gilkey is proud of having gone to a small school, and readily notes he is only the second player from Chadron (Beebe is the first) to have been invited to the combine.
"I absolutely do. I own that. I own being from a small school," Gilkey said. "I embrace it. I love representing Chadron. I was the one player from the state of Nebraska to be invited to the Senior Bowl. That, to me, is an honor. I just have great opportunities to represent what you can do coming from what everyone tells you you can't do."
His confidence overflows when asked where he might go in the draft.
"Looking at where you're going to go, if I'm going to be a free agent or a seventh-rounder, all of that is so irrelevant to me," he said. "Where I'm at and what I've accomplished has allowed me to affirm those desires, overcoming being bullied and undersized, overcoming not being recruited by any Division I schools, going to the Senior Bowl and having a successful week, being invited to the NFL Combine and knowing in my heart and my mind that I'm going to have a successful career in the NFL."
Gilkey said he has also improved by playing in the Senior Bowl and working out at the IMG Academy with Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel.
"You know, it [Senior Bowl] was good for me to acclimate myself to the NFL speed of things," he said. "I definitely have things I need to work on, but it allowed me to gain that confidence and assure to scouts, the coaches, the GMs and showing them that I'm not a developmental player, that I'm a guy that can come into a training camp and can compete for a job right off the bat.
"Whether I'm the first pick of the draft or the last pick of the draft or a free agent, it's really irrelevant to me because I know those opportunities presented in the future are going to be substantial and great."
One of those opportunities will be working closely off the field to shed more light on the bullying issue.
Gilkey said, "I'm starting an anti-bullying campaign. I have such a great opportunity to be proactive and be encouraging and be a strong force within the community of the west suburbs of Chicago. I plan on being proactive with schools and junior highs and YMCAs, and talking about bullying.
"I think I have a great position, being my size, and standing up and talking about my experience being bullied, being ostracized and being made fun of. People see me now and think, 'How could this person ever be bullied?' I have a great voice and great platform to share those experiences and share my faith, as well."