BEREA — Browns rookie offensive lineman Garrett Gilkey believes his calling in life is to help prevent bullying while supporting other victims. He shares his story at schools, churches and youth groups to spread the message of perseverance and protection.
“I was booed in front of the entire school during the recognition of being on the scholastic team,” he said Tuesday. “I had my baseball glove peed in. I was pinned down once and a soiled bodily device was thrown in my mouth.”
Gilkey’s personal hell came as a teenager in Illinois and led him to switch high schools. He grew stronger and fulfilled his NFL dream, but doesn’t want others to go through what he did and believes bystanders should intervene to stop what they know is wrong behavior.
His experience has increased relevance in the wake of the apparent bullying situation in Miami. Second-year offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the Dolphins last week because of emotional issues, and veteran lineman Richie Incognito was suspended indefinitely Sunday.
The league is investigating the alleged harassment by Incognito that reportedly included threatening text messages with racial epithets and profane language.
“I can’t imagine what he has gone through the past year and a half,” Gilkey said of Martin. “I don’t care if you’re a 24-year-old NFL lineman, bullying is the same as if you were a 9-year-old girl.
“I know that struggle and I can’t imagine that in such a high-stress job, being on your own essentially and having to constantly be scared of however you’re going to be hazed or ridiculed or made fun of. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how big you are, no one should have to go through that.”
Gilkey said he was bullied late in junior high and at the start of high school. He was about 5-foot-10, 160 pounds — a stark contrast from his current 6-6, 320-pound frame.
“I was a little gingery, skinny, freckle-faced kid,” Gilkey said in the spring. “That’s outside the norm. Kids see other kids that have differences and they like to point them out. It’s a way of self-affirmation.”
The behavior doesn’t stop when adolescence ends. Martin is biracial and Stanford-educated and apparently provided a target for Incognito.
“Just in general, it’s pretty tragic,” said Gilkey, a seventh-round pick who hasn’t played an offensive snap. “I think sometimes people forget that this is a work-place environment. People are like a sponge, so with a sponge you can only add so much water and then eventually that sponge has to release that water.”
Receiver Davone Bess spent five years in Miami before being traded to the Browns during the draft and was a member of the leadership group.
“I’m with the Cleveland Browns right now,” he said. “I don’t have no opinion on that. I don’t want no part of that.”
When pressed, Bess said he never saw hazing go too far and that Martin never approached the leadership group with a problem. He’s sad about the situation.
“I know both of them and Richie’s never disrespected me, and Jon Martin, he’s a good kid. He was a good dude,” Bess said.
Rookie coach Rob Chudzinski wouldn’t comment specifically on the Miami situation but said he “feels good” about his locker room.
“I’m very fortunate that we have in Cleveland a great locker room and a great bunch of guys here,” Gilkey said. “It’s been a very healthy environment. I feel like they are big brothers I never had. It’s very encouraging.”
“We just try to make sure we do everything we can to bring guys along and support them, especially younger guys,” 31-year-old quarterback Jason Campbell said.
One of the myriad issues involved in the Dolphins case is the jump from hazing to bullying. Many teams, including the Browns, believe rookie hazing is acceptable at certain levels.
Examples are carrying veterans’ shoulder pads off the practice field and bringing food to meetings. The Browns also shaved the heads of select rookies at the end of training camp.
“I don’t see those things as hazing,” Chudzinski said. “I think the key is it being voluntary participation and being positive in that way. Those are the things that are part of our locker room, any NFL locker room.”
Gilkey said the extent of his initiation was singing a country song.
“Nothing that’s detrimental,” he said. “I feel very fortunate. Not only is there a great group of leaders on the offensive line with Joe (Thomas), Alex (Mack) and John Greco, but they are a great group of guys.”
Linebacker and captain D’Qwell Jackson is the undisputed leader of the defense in his eighth season. He was stunned by the stories coming out of Miami, and said it’s easy to recognize the difference between a good-natured prank and hateful bullying.
“When a guy feels like he’s being singled out, that’s not acceptable at all,” he said. “We wouldn’t cut off Garrett Gilkey’s hair because he has long hair. You wouldn’t do that to a guy.
“It should be about welcoming guys into the league. It should be all about fun and being able to tell your kids’ kids about me filling up Ted Washington’s refrigerator with Red Bull. That’s something I had to do as a rookie.”
Jackson had plenty of stories to tell from his rookie season spent with veterans like Willie McGinest, Andra Davis and Washington.
“I remember Andra called me over to his house one day and was like, ‘Hey, I want you to come over and hang out,’” Jackson said. “He and his wife were going out to dinner (and) I had to watch the kids, so they call me Uncle D’Qwell.”
Jackson also recalled a hazing incident that didn’t go over well. Former cornerback Coye Francies became irate in 2009 when the veterans tried to put him in the ice tub, stormed into the locker room with a bucket of ice and threw at least one errant punch.
“He didn’t like it, and that was the end of it,” Jackson said.
The macho, sometimes primitive culture of the NFL likely played a role in Miami. People have suggested Martin deserves some of the blame for not confronting Incognito and for leaving the team.
“I don’t fault the guy,” Jackson said. “If he felt he was being singled out, you do what you feel is best for you to do. Obviously, in my opinion, he felt frightened.
“A lot of guys would say you fight the guy or you do this. That doesn’t solve anything. You have to be respectful to your teammates. That’s what it comes down to.”
Jackson felt less confident when asked if Martin would be accepted back in an NFL locker room.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said.
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.