Maybe he could have gotten onto the field as a freshman, like they did. Certainly, if life played out free of complication, the ligaments in his knee wouldn't have been torn apart that night in Iowa in 2010, staph bacteria wouldn't have infected his battered knee and he wouldn't have gone nearly two years between football games.
But if the world were just a little darker, maybe Gilliam would be like the many directionless acquaintances from his neighborhood instead of Penn State football's freest spirit. He might not have had a single mother with the foresight to send her talented child to a boarding school to be raised by people she had never met.
Certainly, if people were less likely to devote their time to others, those strangers wouldn't have cared for him, and Gilliam wouldn't live his life remembering what everyone did for him and seeking to return the favor.
- Game: Penn State (7-4, 5-2 Big Ten) vs. Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3), University Park, Pa.
- When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday.
- TV: ESPN2.
- The Skinny: seniors will play their final game for Penn State.
"He's loyal to the people who loved him," said Debbie Ainsworth, one of his mentors. "Not wanting to ever let us down."
Gilliam's grandmother would tell everyone that her little grandson must have been reincarnated. He was young but so smart, so cognizant of others -- an old soul in a boy's body.
To his mother, Thelma Shifflett, Gilliam was "her little co-pilot." They'd travel, they'd go to movies, to nearby Hershey Park. They lived in the Hill neighborhood of Harrisburg, an area known for its crime rate.
Nothing bad was happening to Gilliam, yet. He was 8, far from the age at which the wrong kind of temptations arise but a reality that Shifflett knew too well. She grew up as the youngest of nine children in the same area. Free spirits like Gilliam could lose their way in a harsh environment. The inner city could trap and smother individuality. Thinking of his future, she enrolled him at Milton Hershey School. The private boarding school in Hershey for low income or socially disadvantaged students promises college tuition for its qualified graduates.
After dropping him off, she exited the highway three different times and considered driving back to pick him up before she could finally return home without her son.
Milton Hershey serves as a home and school for nearly 2,000 children from age kindergarten through high school. Gilliam became one of them. He cried every night that first year, missing his mother. They could see each other on weekends, but that was never enough.
During the next several years, people like Todd and Joan Kramer, Jimmy and Danielle Taylor, Rita and Rick Snyder, his football coach Bob Guyer and Ainsworth, his religious coordinator, would wake him up in the mornings, take him on camping trips, let him play with their kids and listen every day.
Under their guidance, he thrived. He excelled academically, dreaming of becoming an astronaut for years. He appeared in school plays such as "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Sound of Music." He performed tap, jazz and ballet dance.
In middle school, he could have left, but he wanted to do something for his mother despite how the pain of missing her continued to hurt. Gilliam had to stay. He had to finish.
Shifflett could hardly believe the changes he would undergo. He was always big for his age, but Gilliam was expanding into a man-child. Each year his foot would grow to match is age, up until he was 18. By then he had turned into a top football recruit, a basketball player who once scored 42 points in a game and a track athlete.
For Guyer, he played football and taught the middle school team. For the Kramers, he had buckled down academically and would graduate near the top of his class. For Ainsworth, he assisted with Sunday school, arriving 30 minutes early to spend extra time with her. For Jimmy Taylor, he devoted himself to become a competitor.
Gilliam is quick to thank them. The mentors say he didn't require much prodding. Without any of their help, he had a personality that allowed him to goof off, inspire the younger kids at school, hold doors open for the adults and be a leader at the same time.
On YouTube, Gilliam is known as GarreWeezy, a hybrid nickname his high school friends came up with because they thought he looked like the rap artist Lil' Bow Wow. He lip-syncs to hip-hop and R&B songs, often behind a pair of sunglasses, and once while wearing a sparkling pink top hat. His video for Usher's "Paper" has received more than 70,000 views.
He does this for fun when he has spare time after practicing and working toward the degrees in business management and advertising that he's on pace to complete by next summer. He also likes to watch the History or Discovery Channel.
His activities have always skewed from the realm of standard college athlete. When Gilliam started getting recruited he couldn't name all the schools of the Big Ten. When he committed to Penn State, he didn't know who then-players Sean Lee or Darryl Clark were.
Guyer calls Gilliam a "unique cat." Everything special about Gilliam's personality made it safely away from the path his mother feared so long ago.
"Going through the public schools in the inner city like that, he would never be him," Shifflett said. "Milton Hershey has a whole lot to do with where he is today."
That sentiment extends to football. An infection turned his torn ACL into an ordeal that caused him to miss most of the 2010 and all of the '11 season. When the worst happened, Gilliam thought back to the way he pushed through Milton Hershey.
"There were a few times that I really challenged myself, 'Is this what you want to do?' " he said. "I determined that was what I wanted to do. I consider it a major victory not only in football but in life."
He has become Penn State's workmanlike tight end this season. He blocks and runs routes and is a receiving threat in certain formations. When Gilliam gets receptions (he has six for 60 yards), he's liable to knock down or drag a defender along for the ride.
"He's a tough kid," coach Bill O'Brien said.
During the Friday night of Penn State's off week, Gilliam sat next to his mother and Ainsworth before the Milton Hershey football game. He asked Ainsworth if she thought it would be OK for him to move down to the sideline, with the current team.
He doesn't like to make a big deal when he comes back, but he does often. Not wanting to let the people from his past down has extended to helping others up.
Last winter break, he was in the weight room working out and assisting the high school kids. This summer, he showed the tight ends some of the drills he had learned from O'Brien. He tells them to message him on Facebook with any questions they have.
He has counseled Khaliq Coleman, a Milton Hershey graduate who now plays for IUP. Another Milton Hershey kid named Ibn Short plays football because of Gilliam.
A talented high-jumper and basketball player, no one could convince him to play football even though they knew playing would increase his exposure and overall athleticism at the other sports. Gilliam took the lead in talking with him. This fall, Short played football, and he excelled.
Somebody is always out there like Short or Coleman, like Gilliam once was, a kid precocious and talented but still in need. You just have to hope that somebody will have learned enough from the world he has known to try to improve it for somebody else.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @mdent05. First Published November 21, 2012 5:00 AM