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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Offensive Lineman Discusses Bullying

Center Garrett Gilkey sits down with Casey Phillips.

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  • By Casey Phillips*

At 6'6" 320lbs with hair to his shoulders, a beard, and tribal tattoos down one arm, Garrett Gilkey knows it might be hard to believe he was bullied. "It definitely makes my story better," says Gilkey, an offensive lineman entering his second season with the Buccaneers.

That story begins freshman year. Gilkey called himself an "undersized gingery kid." But he thought the start of high school and the start of football would bring the injection of social status and clout that typically includes. Instead Gilkey was diagnosed with Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome. WPW causes an extra electrical pathway between the heart's upper and lower chambers to produce a rapid heartbeat and requires surgery to alleviate the problem.

Unfortunately, one of the most dangerous things to be in high school is different. After the surgery, Gilkey had to sit out of P.E. and all other physical activity.

"It prevented me from interacting with most of the kids. So going into freshman class in a brand new school I was automatically targeted and pointed out as the one kid that didn't have to run or do anything," said Gilkey. "So I was ostracized from the beginning and hated by all these football players."

To make matters worse, while his classmates were in gym, Gilkey worked in the office checking in students when they were in trouble and sent to the principal.

"So here I am, small little gingery freckle-faced kid, and the biggest meanest kids in the school would come in … associating me with getting in trouble," said Gilkey.

And that was when the bullying started.

Gilkey tells stories of being booed by the entire school when he was recognized as part of the math, science and scholastic teams at a pep rally, having his books knocked out of his hands, things stolen and being hit and spit on. He tried out for the baseball team after being cleared to play sports. One day in the locker room he picked up his batting glove and it was wet. He couldn't find any leak or anything wet in his locker to explain why. But then he smelled it and realized someone urinated on his glove.

"It was challenging for a while," said Gilkey. "Feeling isolated, alone, not feeling like I had anyone to protect me, feeling scared and threatened for my safety going from my house to the bus and from class to class. There was that uncertainty of who's going to try to beat me up today. It was just constant fear."

At the end of freshman year, Gilkey's father was driving him to the airport for a mission trip and informed his son he would be transferring schools the next year. Gilkey said life was much better at a new school. He started putting on the size and putting in the work that would eventually result in an ability to bench 500 pounds in college.

If this were a Hollywood script, this is the part of the story where Gilkey would return to that hometown and high school and teach the bullies a lesson. The audience would probably cheer and say the kids deserved it. And the thought did cross Gilkey's mind.

But instead he said his heart softened toward his former tormenters. Now, he uses his story and spot on an NFL roster as a platform to speak to schools, youth groups and camps about bullying.

"People always want to attack these bullies and label them bullies, said Gilkey. "There's reasons that kids act out in the way they do … It's because there's hurting inside."

When he was a child, Gilkey had his mother's guidance to thank for that ability to turn the other cheek.

"My mom said, 'You're going to be a great big man someday. You need to learn to be gentle."

Now Gilkey walks the fine line between a gentle giant off the field, and needing ferocity and aggressiveness on it.

"More than anything I think that was a big transition for me learning how to use my size for my advantage, unlike using my size to be gentle. We're humans too, people too. We have a past. Everyone has hardship and a background and experiences."

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