The Cleveland Browns have one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NFL. But in their disappointing season-opening loss to the Tennessee Titans, an undrafted rookie from Scotland was arguably their best player.
You might have never heard of Jamie Gillan, Cleveland's new punter, or you might only know him as The Scottish Hammer. That's the nickname his high school coach, Brian Woodburn, gave the former rugby player, who picked up football as a senior at Leonardtown High School in southern Maryland and started, well, hammering field goals, kickoffs and punts.
Who is The Scottish Hammer, and how did he supplant nine-year veteran Britton Colquitt to become an NFL punter? It's complicated, and it required the alignment of several stars. After all, this is a dude who spent most of his life in the Scottish Highlands. Rugby was his game, and American football was, to him, a bore.
"I didn't even think about the NFL or football or anything," he recalls of his childhood. "I was a rugby guy. I liked to hit people."
Understandably so—the sculpted 6'1", 207-pounder has some Thor in him. Even after his father, Colin, a navigator in the Scottish Royal Air Force, relocated the family to Maryland because of a transfer, Jamie focused on rugby.
In his first summer in the United States, a 16-year-old Gillan represented Maryland's Pax River Rugby Club on a USA Rugby Stars and Stripes U19 all-star team. He was a flyhalf, a role he likened to a football quarterback.
"I was the Baker [Mayfield] of the team," he said.
But rugby dreams have their limits on this side of the pond. Knowing he hadn't lived in the U.S. long enough to be eligible for its national rugby union team, he punted on rugby.
The first two stars aligned to give Gillan an opportunity to use his booming left leg in football. He had relocated to the U.S. just in time to make an eleventh-hour impact, and Leonardtown suddenly needed a kicker midway through his senior year.
Gillan stood out enough in only four games to earn a spot at Division II Bowie State. But the third star aligned just a few weeks before the start of his college career. That August, Division I Arkansas-Pine Bluff published a Facebook post that said it was looking for a kicker after a recruit decommitted. One of Gillan's pals saw the post, sent the Golden Lions Gillan's highlights via a link to his Hudl profile, and within hours, The Scottish Hammer had accepted a full-ride D-I scholarship.
"Funny story," he said. "I actually had a pretty fun night with the boys, accepted the scholarship and woke up in the morning and forgot I did."
But there was no hangover regret, even though he felt badly about backing out of his commitment to Bowie State.
"I heard that they were pretty pissed off," he said, "but come on now—it's pretty hard to pass up a full scholarship to a Division I college."
Gillan had never heard of the state of Arkansas, let alone the 2,800-student university located in the center of said state. He was on a flight to Little Rock before having a chance to Google his new school, and he was surprised to learn upon his arrival that he was now enrolled at a historically black college.
None of that mattered to him. He met some of his best friends at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and he spent the next four years punting, kicking and occasionally holding and tackling. In conversation, he frequently pointed out another key aspect of the experience: It was free!
"For a D-I program it was a little rough at times," he said, noting the school's budget meant players had to get through several seasons with one T-shirt and a pair of shorts and that he sometimes found himself "borrowing" balls from opposing teams to practice. "But I got free food, had a free weight room to use to get stronger. I did at least have a couple footballs to kick. So I used those four years to become the best kicker I can be."
At the conclusion of that tenure, Gillan wasn't well-positioned for an NFL future. His decent 2017 punting average of 43.4 yards dropped to 42.5 in his senior season. He did famously fire off an 80-yard punt against Florida International in 2018, but he missed four extra points. And he made fewer than 70 percent of his field-goal attempts in each of his campaigns.
The numbers didn't align with his raw talent, and it didn't help that Arkansas-Pine Bluff was one of the worst teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, winning just seven games over The Scottish Hammer's four seasons.
But more stars aligned in the four-month lead-up to the 2019 draft—like when the San Francisco 49ers came to the rescue.
The Niners were showing a particular interest in Gillan early in the predraft process. Around that time, the 22-year-old borrowed $400 from his dad so he could buy four regulation NFL footballs in order to practice. But it didn't take long for him to pop three of those while hammering away in the cold Arkansas winter air.
"I was like, man, Wilson, you owe me footballs," he recalled. But around that same time, San Francisco sent Gillan a care package with several balls, and he was able to prepare for renowned kicking expert Gary Zauner's offseason kicking combine. He killed it at that event, and Zauner put his name forward.
"After that, I got a hundred phone calls," Gillan said.
More specifically, 22 NFL teams reached out to The Scottish Hammer. He and Arkansas-Pine Bluff special teams coach Thomas Sheffield tracked all of the calls on a whiteboard in Sheffield's office, and they fielded most of them because Gillan didn't have an agent until about two months before the draft. He was wary of that process until former Arkansas–Pine Bluff wide receiver Raymond Webber connected him with his own agent, Bardia Ghahremani.
When Webber sent Gillan's tape to Ghahremani several weeks before the draft, the agent was immediately taken aback. First, because he received footage of a player from historically black Arkansas-Pine Bluff, "and all of a sudden, you see this long-haired, pony-tailed Scottish guy. I'm like: 'What? What am I missing here?'"
But he was also blown away by the film, which he says included a touchback from Gillan's own 10-yard line. He had only watched about a minute before he picked up the phone.
Gillan was bathing in Epsom salts when he received a call from an unknown number. He answered.
"How the f--k don't you have an agent yet?" Ghahremani shouted on the other end. "That's some of the most impressive punting film I've ever seen."
You could count that as another alignment of stars, but it's not as though Gillan got lucky. Evaluators are always intrigued by great athletes, regardless of position. And his lack of experience might have meant he had extra room to grow. Hell, Gillan had never had a punting coach until Ghahremani connected him to Aaron Perez from the California-based Punt Factory in the spring.
"Bro," Ghahremani remembers Perez telling him after his first session with Gillan, "I've never seen someone just unleash a 5.7-[second] hang-time punt at will."
Ghahremani took a few clips featuring his new client to this year's Senior Bowl. He showed Browns assistant general manager Eliot Wolf.
"Damn," Wolf said. "Who is this? Send me that."
"I think I showed it to all 32 teams," Ghahremani recalls. "And everybody was like, 'Send that to me, send that to me.'"
Gillan also didn't hold back during the evaluation process, and it appeared to pay off. He was invited to Arkansas State's pro day, which he says was fortunate "because no one would have showed up to our pro day." And there, he was able to demonstrate to scouts that he's the complete package.
"Some people have said, 'If you go to the pro day, don't do this, that and that,'" he said. "I had a different mindset. I went there, and I did whatever those scouts asked me to do. I don't care what it was. They want me to do two backflips before I kick a field goal? I'll probably break my neck, but I'm gonna try."
He visited the Browns in April and met general manager John Dorsey. There was enough momentum to indicate Gillan had a chance to be drafted. But only two punters went off the board, and Gillan's name wasn't called.
Still, Cleveland got hold of him during Round 6 and said it wanted to bring him in as an undrafted free agent. He says four or five other teams also made contact, but he favored teaming up with Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
"Prief," he said on the phone that day, "I want to work with you, man."
He was gambling that he could steal a job from the big-legged Colquitt, who ranked sixth in the league with 32 punts inside the 20-yard line and was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2018.
"I knew I'd have a really tough time against Colquitt," he said, "but I knew I was going to learn a lot from it whatever happened. So I stuck with my guns and went to Cleveland."
Four months later—after he had unleashed a 74-yard punt in a preseason victory over the Indianapolis Colts and then pinned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside the 20-yard line three times the following week—The Scottish Hammer walked into a corner pub in Cleveland's popular Tremont neighborhood. He was joined by his father, and he was a tad restless. It was cutdown day, and beers were in order.
"Me and my dad hang out a lot," he said. "He's one of my best friends. So we chatted about everything and watched the Ohio State game while having a couple pints."
Other patrons started to recognize Gillan. They offered words of support. And then his phone rang. He answered and listened while pops and strangers-turned-friends watched for a reaction.
"Holy crap," Gillan announced. "I'm playing Tennessee next week."
In order to celebrate, he tried to buy everybody a round of drinks. "But they were like: 'Sit your ass down. We're getting you drinks!' And they were just firing drinks at me," he said. "I kept trying to buy for them, but they insisted."
Maybe it's because he's a few years older or maybe it's because he knew he had work to do, but Gillan insists he woke up the next morning without forgetting that development.
The work continues. And though he's now officially a professional at what is essentially a non-contact football position—he says he wouldn't dare hit a rugby pitch while under contract with the Browns—The Scottish Hammer continues to train like a rugby player.
And that's smart, because as an undrafted rookie, only $10,000 of his three-year, $1.77 million contract is guaranteed. The cruel reality is it sometimes only takes a bad day to lose a football career.
"If or when this ends, or whatever happens, I can still go back to playing rugby and still be fit," he said. "I'll always have a backup plan because you gotta be realistic. I miss rugby a lot. Now I've kind of taken a step back. I don't have a problem with that, but I've always had a bit of fire in my belly when it comes to playing rugby."
Does he miss the physicality? Certainly, and you can see that hunger on tape.
"His mindset is the rugby mindset," Ghahremani said. "In his third preseason game, you see him tracking the returner. It's straight out of rugby. I'm tracking you, and I'm going to tackle you. He's a punter with rugby instincts, and he's built like a linebacker."
Of course, Gillan would rather not make any tackles because that usually indicates something went wrong.
"When I make a tackle, I don't celebrate," he said, "because I'm just doing my job after either my crappy punt or broken coverage."
"Sometimes I do miss the contact," he added, "but I'm in the right place at the right time in my life, and I'm soaking up every minute of this opportunity that I've been given."
It's quite the opportunity and quite the transformation. Raised within the shadow of a Scottish castle well over 1,000 years old, Gillan now finds himself in one of this country's most star-studded locker rooms. Barely half a decade ago, he was drinking Irn-Bru while engulfed in Highland rugby, and American football was thousands of kilometers from his radar. Earlier this year, he had to break the news to Odell Beckham Jr. that the kilt the superstar receiver wore to the Met Gala was on backward. True story.
"Yup, he wore that the wrong way," chuckled Gillan, who has a Browns kilt in his locker already.
The environment has to feel surreal, but The Scottish Hammer is trying to remain focused on making this a career. In a quest to improve on a strong debut in which he ranked fifth in the league with a net average of 46.6 while making no glaring mistakes as a holder, he's working on technique with Priefer and catching 100 balls per day off the Jugs machine.
The Browns will need better play from their central figures in order to rebound and meet the colossal expectations they faced entering the 2019 season. It helps, though, that with the stars aligned for Gillan, they might have something special on the side.
"He's not normal," Ghahremani said of The Scottish Hammer. "And he's only scratched the surface."
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.