Tennessee Football: OL Jacob Gilliam Is College Football's Ultimate Warrior

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 29, 2014

Credit: 247Sports

The story of Tennessee offensive lineman Jacob Gilliam could best be described as one of improbability. But after everything he's endured, that word isn't in his vocabulary.

A collegiate career that began as a 250-pound invited walk-on, featured playing for three offensive line coaches (as well as two head coaches) and culminated with him earning a starting left tackle spot as a fifth-year senior on scholarship leaves little room for incredulity.

But playing on a torn anterior cruciate ligament just 49 days after suffering the injury pushes the boundaries of belief.

Yet, that's just what Gilliam did on Oct. 18 at No. 3 Ole Miss. Then in last week's game against UT's biggest rival, Alabama, Gilliam started, anchoring his 6'4", 297-pound body on that detached knee ligament, play after play.

"He's a warrior," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, according to Knoxville's WVLT.com.

Strengthened by faith and insistent that he's shielded by a higher power, Gilliam is not just playing pain-free on an injury that routinely keeps players out more than a year.

He's thriving.

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"That's one of the things that's really been a blessing to me, I haven't felt any pain," Gilliam said. "Obviously, I got to play the whole game against Alabama, and the only thing I kind of felt was a little weakness here and there, but that went away really quick, and it really didn't last more than a play or two.

"I've been blessed with a lot of strength and stability in my knee."

Remarkable, yes. Unexpected? Not for somebody who has battled seemingly every second since taking his first breath.

"Jacob was born premature, five-and-a-half weeks early," said his father, David, from the family's Farragut home outside Knoxville.

When his mother, Michelle, went in for a routine checkup, the doctor realized there was something wrong. An emergency delivery revealed Jacob's umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. He spent his first two days in this world hooked up to a ventilator. 

"He's been a fighter ever since," David Gilliam said.

A Humble Start

Credit: 247Sports

Undersized offensive linemen don't get football scholarships to Tennessee.

So a dream that began when seven-year-old Jacob stood among Neyland Stadium's sea of orange and watched the Vols play the Houston Cougars looked as if it would fall by the wayside.

After a senior year at Farragut High School, Gilliam was all set to head to UT Chattanooga or perhaps Middle Tennessee State to play college ball. Then a phone call at an all-star game changed everything.

Then-UT coach Lane Kiffin's offensive line coach James Cregg was on the other end, asking Gilliam if he wanted to be a preferred walk-on for the Vols. A visit and some quick mulling-over later led to an easy choice.

"It was one of those things where I had to make a decision whether I wanted to play in a small pond or a big pond, is how my dad phrased it to me," Gilliam said. "It was a good time for me to go to UT. They were missing some linemen, and it would be a good chance for me to play at the highest level."

Competitive by nature, Gilliam had few doubts and high aspirations. Little did he know he was going to be blindsided by the fallout from a football program in shambles to go along with the thankless task of being a no-name scout-teamer.

A few weeks after Gilliam chose UT, Cregg left with Kiffin for USC. When Derek Dooley took over, new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand honored Gilliam's preferred walk-on status.

Gilliam's reward was day after day of getting battered and bruised by players like NFL defensive tackle Montori Hughes and former 5-star Chris Walker.

"That first summer," David Gilliam recalled of his son, "he'd leave the house at 5:10 every morning, go down there basically to get killed."

After thoughts of quitting and more pancakes than a Sunday morning at IHOP, Gilliam grew. By the season opener against UT-Martin, Gilliam dressed. Then, he did again against Oregon and for most of UT's home games during his freshman year.

Hiestand (now Notre Dame's offensive line coach) liked Gilliam's work ethic, and he was going to eventually get his chance.

"Being 250, 260, you really had to have good technique," he said. "I really credit being undersized as reasons why my feet and hands really improved. If I didn't have that, I'd have been thrown around like a rag doll. I was forced by survival into being technically sound."

But all Gilliam's hard work was about to become a casualty of the cruel world of college football.

Under fire from a rash of losing and poor line play, Dooley let Hiestand go and hired Sam Pittman. Gilliam had to start fresh.

Then Dooley and Pittman were fired the very next year in favor of Jones and Don Mahoney. Again, Gilliam was forced to prove himself all over again. He was forgotten, appearing in just three games in his first three seasons.

As Tennessee's offensive line blossomed into a talent-rich unit that featured three current NFL rookie starters, Gilliam settled into the shadows.

A Dark Hour and Ray of Light

Credit: 247Sports

Tennessee may have forgotten about Gilliam, but he never went away.

When UT lost its entire line to graduation or the NFL after last season, opportunity abounded. Every spot was up for grabs.

Even though recruitniks and experts alike anointed 4-star junior college lineman Dontavius Blair as UT's savior at left tackle, Gilliam battled. Coaches opened spring practice with Blair as the starter, but it didn't take long for Gilliam to beat him out and secure the spot.

Not long after spring drills were over, he was awarded a scholarship for his final season, an achievement Gilliam did not take lightly.

"It was really satisfying," he said. "When I got that scholarship, it meant a lot to me, but it also meant a lot to a lot of other guys I was representing who I had walked on with and who had been there with me the whole time.

"So, every time I play this year, I've got those guys in the back of my mind thinking what I do is not only for me, for my family and for this university, it's also for all those guys I bled and sweat with all those years who didn't get any recognition."

That humility remained through fall drills when he held off a much-improved Blair to keep the job. And when he started that season opener against Utah State and was playing extremely well, the potential for a storybook senior season loomed.

But football, like life, is rarely fair. 

As Gilliam set to push the Aggies defensive end to the outside of quarterback Justin Worley on a third-quarter play, UT left guard Marcus Jackson threw his man into the back of Gilliam's knee. It caved, and though he was in pain and hobbled off, he thought it was just hyperextended.

An MRI the following Sunday revealed the bad news.

"Obviously, it was heartbreaking," David Gilliam recalled. "He called me crying and said, 'My career is over.' I said, 'No, it's not, son. We're going to come down there and pray and ask God to heal you.'"

So, off they went—David, Michelle and brothers, Nathan and Alex—driving 25 minutes to be by Jacob's side, lay their hands on his knee and pray for a miracle.

After "about an hour" of woe-is-me, according to Jacob, he moved on. There was a slim hope he could play, and he wanted to exercise his options. Once he found that out, he immediately began rehabilitation.

It's not unprecedented to play on torn ACLs, though it's rare. New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins played the entire 2011 season at a high level on a torn ACL that had gone undiagnosed.

The feat is impressive, but Dr. Ron Noy, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Prestige Sports Medicine, told Deadspin.com's Samer Kalaf: "[Playing with a torn ACL] does put him at a higher risk of further injury." 

Gilliam knows the ramifications, but he said his faith played a key role in his ultimate decision to play.

"The doctors told me, 'Here's what could happen,'" Gilliam said. "I weighed it all and talked to my parents and brothers, but I believe I'm protected. That really made my decision for me. I thought, 'Hey, I'm protected. Nothing's going to happen to me, and that's what I'm relying on."

Weeks of exercising, building up his hamstrings and quads to help keep the knee in place, followed the injury. He eschewed surgery and wound up playing without pain less than a month and a half later.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that in Gilliam's return to the starting lineup, a UT offensive line that had allowed 30 sacks through its first seven games held an excellent Alabama defense to two.

The Vols also ran for 181 yards against the nation's second-ranked rush defense.

There were several factors, but Gilliam was certainly one. He has the type of leadership mentality that permeates his play, and it stems from always setting goals, no matter who was watching.

"He's been an underdog since he got over there," father David Gilliam said. "It's definitely provided extra motivation."

A Fighter's Chance

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 11:  Head coach Butch Jones of the Tennessee Volunteers watches the action during a game against the Chattanooga Mocs at Neyland Stadium on October 11, 2014 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

When the topic turns to leaving a legacy, Gilliam gets quiet. The prevailing feeling is anything remotely self-serving is alien to him, and he's reluctant to say anything that sounds like pride.

Sure, he's proud of how far he's come, how he endured through frustrating, bowl-less seasons, how he impressed multiple coaches, earned a scholarship, earned a starting role and is playing despite what should be a career-ending injury. 

But beyond giving God the glory and his team praise, he won't budge on anything else.

"There’s an element of pride, but I know where I come from and I know what's really happening," he said. "I try to off-put that as much as possible."

Perpetuating the ultimate warrior propaganda is for his brothers, who look up to him and help him realize that what he has accomplished at UT is incredible and what he's doing now is not normal.

It's special to his little brother, Nathan, a 3-star 6'5", 270-pound class of 2015 offensive tackle who's currently committed to Wake Forest, to be able to witness what Jacob has done and to be bend his ear for tips and advice.

"I've grown really close to him through this past experience that happened to him and how far he's come," Nathan said. "It woke me up some, and I learned not to take this game for granted.

"One word you can use to describe him is a fighter. Since day one he has been on campus, he's always tried to prove he's better than the guy in front of him. When I get that opportunity next year, I'm going to try to do the same thing as Jacob and prove that the Gilliam family is a bunch of fighters."

There's one more fight to finish that Jacob discusses fervently. For a young man who bled orange, battled through impossible odds to reach the field and is making considerable sacrifices to stay on it, having a part in the program's resurrection would be extremely meaningful.

Gilliam has unfinished business, and it's what he's trotting out on a bum knee to attain.

"I'm not too big on personal achievements," he said. "I want everybody to remember this team as the one that changed the culture here at Tennessee and got us back to what we were.

"I think going to a bowl game, that's what’s going to put that mark on it. We're all fighting to go 4-0 here."

Like it has been the case throughout his entire career, nobody is fighting harder than Gilliam.

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. All stats and information taken from UTSports.com, and all recruiting information gathered from 247Sports.com.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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