Former NFL Star Garry Gilliam: “Why growth comes from vulnerability”

Sometimes people have brilliant ideas, but they are never told to the world simply because the person may have a fear of public speaking and couldn’t imagine getting up in a room full of high level people and speaking in front of them. If they were able to put themselves in vulnerable positions, maybe attend […]

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Sometimes people have brilliant ideas, but they are never told to the world simply because the person may have a fear of public speaking and couldn’t imagine getting up in a room full of high level people and speaking in front of them. If they were able to put themselves in vulnerable positions, maybe attend a networking event or take a public speaking course, they would be able to overcome that fear, because in an entrepreneurial world you have to be able to communicate your message to people.

As a part of our series about the work ethic lessons we can learn from professional athletes, I had the pleasure of interviewing Garry Gilliam. 

Garry Gilliam, former NFL athlete and founder of The Bridge hails from Harrisburg, PA., and attended the Milton Hershey School and Penn State University. Garry prides himself in his hunger for knowledge and love for giving back to his community. Having graduated from Penn State with multiple degrees (Business Development, Advertising and Psychology) he has always shared a love for bettering our society as a whole. His five seasons spent playing in the National Football League allowed him to build strong connections both on and off the field.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Garry! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I definitely did not grow up with a typical childhood. From the age of eight I attended Milton Hershey School, a private boarding school in Hershey, PA, for ten years. MHS is not your typical boarding school, it’s actually quite the opposite. The school was originally founded by Milton Hershey, the founder of Hershey’s Chocolate, and his wife for young white orphan boys, as they could not have children. That was what the school was like back in 1909 when it first opened, but through time their mission changed and they started to admit black males through the 60’s and black females through the 70’s and 80’s. By the time I started in the late 90’s, the school was not just for orphans anymore but your family actually does have to be below the poverty line to qualify to attend.

It’s a completely cost free school- they pay for your food, your shelter, your medical needs, sports and activities, your clothing, you live on campus but the best part is if you graduate from the school they provide you with a college scholarship. I did not use my scholarship from the school because I earned a full- ride athletic scholarship to Penn State to play football, however the money was used for another student’s scholarship. The school curriculum is definitely different from your average boarding school as well as we have classes that are similar to college majors. In order to graduate from MHS, you have to be nationally certified in your concentration- I was certified in graphic design which I continued to hone my skills in at Penn State. Milton Hershey School provides an opportunity for kids from bad situations and I am fortunate I was able to attend, but it does make you grow up fast.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete?

My head coach from high school, Robert Guyer. During my sophomore year in high school, Coach Guyer came up to me after the football season was over and said “Hey Garry, you know you have some good size and you have some good talent, I think you might be able to compete at the next level in college.” At that point I had never really thought about pursuing football at that level, I didn’t know anything about college football, conferences, teams- any of that. He inspired me to pursue my career as a high level athlete since he was the one who first saw my talent and ability at a young age.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

The person who gave me the most help and encouragement along the way was definitely my mom. I have always been a big kid- I was born massive and I’ve always been above the 99th percentile for height and weight and fairly athletic, so my mom always knew being an athlete was in my cards. But she also knew and expected that my success wouldn’t solely be based on my athleticism so she made sure I knew it was important to focus on my academics as well. She put a very heavy emphasis on school, and to her me getting A’s made her more proud than my performance in my sports.

Being a young kid, you always strive to make your parents proud and she definitely instilled the importance of academic success in my life. Society always praises the athlete and you get praise from your teachers, your peers, but to get constant praise on the academic side from my mom laid the foundation for me to realize that it’s ok to be good in sports AND academics.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

The most interesting mistake that occurred to me in the course of my sports career happened during practice the week before the 2014 NFC Seahawks vs. Packers Championship game. I was playing with the Seahaws at the time and if you have ever watched that game, you may remember the fake field goal pass to the offensive lineman that scored a touchdown…. Well that offensive lineman was me! During practice leading up to that game, we were practicing some type of fake, as we had done every week, just in case a situation came up. Some weeks the play was called to me and some weeks it wasn’t, that particular week it was an option of which side the fake went to and it was also a run or pass. Since they had never thrown to me all season, I thought they wouldn’t throw to me that day in practice, so I wasn’t really fully locked into the play and by muscle memory I ran the wrong route and ended up dropping the pass. My teammate, Earl Thomas came up to me after and said “You need to be locked in, this is extremely important and you never know when your number is going to get called.” Since I was a rookie at the time and he had just been to the superbowl with the Seahawks, I knew I had to listen to what he was saying and keep extreme focus to not make that mistake in the upcoming game.

During the third quarter of the NFC Championship game, we were down 16–0 and decided to do the play we had practiced and that I messed up in the previous week. Based off the way the defender played me, I was thrown the ball from John Ryan, and I caught it for the touchdown, ultimately turning the game around and winning 28–22 in overtime. The mistake in practice was important to realize how locked in and focused I needed to be for the rest of the week in practice leading up to the game.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?

My transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person is still credited to my mom. She continued to be involved with my academics at Penn State when I triple majored in Business Development, Advertising and Psychology. Because my mom continued to stress the importance of academics, I never really took a break from learning, even in the NFL. I was always learning new things, writing business plans, and observing society and looking for points of pain to resolve. I had a few business plans, including plans for The Bridge, that I had written and developed while playing in the league while I had free time in the off season, but it was still in planning mode. The turning point that made me act on and actually carry out The Bridge’s plans was the day Nipsey Hussle was killed in 2019. What Nipsey did for his community really inspired me and I knew I wanted to give back to my community like he had done for his. I literally locked myself in my office for about a month to fine tune the business plan for The Bridge and trying to learn about all of the different aspects of what I was trying to pitch to people to make this plan a reality. I was watching videos on aeroponics and aquaponics and learning about coworking spaces and reading to educate myself on all of the different aspects of what I wanted The Bridge to be and what I knew I had to bring back to my community.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects new you are working on now?

As previously mentioned, the most exciting project I’m working on is The Bridge. Along with my team, Chief Operating Officer, Corey Dupree, Chief Community Officer, Jordan Hill and countless others, we have been putting an incredible amount of time and effort into this project of ours that is designed to revitalize inner cities. Inspired by my time at Milton Hershey School and Nipsey Hussle’s revitalization of his community, The Bridge is a completely sustainable mixed-use “Eco-Village” with housing, retail, co-

working, urban agriculture, education center and entertainment. The Bridge develops sustainable communities that revitalize inner cities, starting in my hometown of Harrisburg, PA with an aggressive national expansion plan to cities such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit and Seattle. We will be celebrating The Bridge Harrisburg’s grand opening this summer.

In addition to The Bridge, I also have worked with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation directly and participated in a campaign called “Just Say Hi” inspired by my brother. My brother has Cerebral Palsy and walks with a bit of a limp and it can affect his speech, so oftentimes he experiences people staring or whispering about his condition. The “Just Say Hi” campaign was created to urge people to do just that- just say hi, don’t stare, don’t judge- cerebral palsy sufferers are normal people just like us.

Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about what you mean?

Most of my skills from being a professional athlete have definitely played into me becoming a successful entrepreneur. The main one is being able to deflect criticism into something you can learn from or use to improve. For example, if I missed a block in practice or a game, coaches and teammates would call me out and if you let that get to you it can mess with your psyche. As an athlete if your mental psyche is not where it should be, your physical game isn’t either. Another example of this is criticism on social media athletes can receive. Taking those harsh comments and not reading too deeply into them, or letting them take up too much space in your psyche, but stepping back and finding the value in what they are saying and why they may be criticizing you and what you need to do moving forward to improve.

As an entrepreneur I have gone through the same process, heading into investor or pitch meetings to meet with CEOs and some of them looking at me like what I’m trying to accomplish is crazy. Using my past experience as an athlete, I don’t mind the criticism and I let it fuel me to become a better businessman. If you’re trying to lead a movement, there’s always going to be people who have a different viewpoint or do not agree with you but if you let them get to you it can hinder your chance of success, whether being on a football field or in a board room.

Ok. Here is the main question of our interview. Entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a common “hustle culture”. Can you share your “5 Work Ethic Lessons That Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Athletes”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Commit the Time for Yourself to Develop. If you really want to succeed in something, you need to invest and commit the time for yourself to develop and learn. Success does not happen overnight. In today’s world , anything you want to learn is out there, it’s just a matter if you want to commit the time to learning it.
  2. Learn to Change Your Perspective. My favorite analogy that explains this is a rose bush. With roses, some people only see the thorns from the rose as a nuisance- what they don’t see is the beauty that thorn bushes grow roses. There were times when I was playing in the NFL that I would get beat down by what other people said- coaches, teammates, even people on social media. I used to let Twitter comments really get to me but I realized you could either get bent out of shape about what these comments said or you can take it all in, see the value in what they are saying and use that to improve. I would say to myself well let me look at some film of that play and watch it from the fan’s perspective and see why they are saying those things to me. At the end of the day if they were saying nasty things why I missed a block, that’s on me to improve upon on how I won’t let that happen again.
  3. One play at a time. In the NFL, your main goal is to win the Superbowl. During my time with The Seahawks, one of the main things we always talked about was winning the NFC West, because by winning that, we would get to the playoffs, and get to the Superbowl. By winning the NFC West, we had to win every week, winning every week meant winning every game, which meant winning each quarter, which finally comes down to winning each play, When executing each play, don’t focus on what everyone else is doing- focus only on yourself and your role as one of 11 on the field. As long as everyone on the team plays with that mentality, you will find success. This can also be explained how my highschool coach, Coach Guyer broke it down to our team- take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves, which definitely applies in the business world. You hear people all the time say how they want to be a millionaire, by doing that, you have to take a step back and determine the smaller steps that can lead to success in the bigger picture. What are your main goals for the day? What are you going to get accomplished for that day to lead to your overall goal? Those small steps all add up to a greater picture of success.
  4. From vulnerability comes growth. I was always putting myself in vulnerable positions as an athlete to become the best athlete I could be. From when I was younger and joined the swim team in middle school, to when I was in college and switched football positions, I was always challenging myself to be vulnerable because that is when the greatest amount of growth occurs. In order for you to push yourself further and become the best version of yourself, you have to be wrong sometimes, you have to do things you have never done before, you have to be uncomfortable, whether it’s staying after practice or school to ask someone for help in an area you are struggling with or completely changing your position on the field. This applies extremely well in the business world as well. Sometimes people have brilliant ideas, but they are never told to the world simply because the person may have a fear of public speaking and couldn’t imagine getting up in a room full of high level people and speaking in front of them. If they were able to put themselves in vulnerable positions, maybe attend a networking event or take a public speaking course, they would be able to overcome that fear, because in an entrepreneurial world you have to be able to communicate your message to people.
  5. Hard work always beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I learned this when I was younger in middle school wrestling. As I said before, I was a big kid and definitely bigger than most kids so I was talented when it came to sports. Because of that, sometimes I would not work as hard as the other kids on the team. No matter how talented you are, if you are not putting in the work, you will get surpassed by the person who works hard and has a passion to succeed.

What would you advise to a young person who aspires to follow your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?

Expect it to be hard. Expect that there will be obstacles- but don’t look at them as obstacles, you have to change your perspective on these hardships and look at them like stepping stones. Know that these obstacles will happen and expect them to happen and when they do happen, grow from them. If an obstacle knocks you down, come back twice as hard, that shows more about your character rather than your physical ability.

You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It is definitely an ongoing process. The Bridge is the best of myself and what I am contributing back to the world. Being an NFL player was awesome but beyond that, who I am as a man, what I’m interested in and the projects I am bringing into this world are what I consider to be the goodness I plan on sharing with the world.

One of the main missions of The Bridge is to set people up for success who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity simply because they didn’t have the basic means to get there- nutritious food, a safe home, a useful education, love and support, everything a person needs to be set up for a successful life can be found at The Bridge. I want to reach a point in society where everyone reaches self actualization, that’s where everyone gets to the point where they want to give back to the world. By setting people up with their basic needs, it allows them to focus on becoming the best version of themselves, developing and learning, not if they will have food on the table for dinner or if they can afford rent. I’m hoping that bringing The Bridge into the world, I can bring more successful people into the world as well.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The Bridge! The Bridge is not only a completely new business model and way of living, but if everyone tapped into the mindset of loving yourself enough to commit time to learn. Develop and grow — I’d love to see where society could get with that mindset.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

You’ve heard this quote before, but I like to expand on to it as the expanded version really resonates with me and my mission in this life. Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man a fish, feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man how to open a fishing company, he can feed the world. This quote really resonated with me as it has a focus on entrepreneurship. At the end of the day, everyone is an entrepreneur. Everyone is good at something, and if you don’t feel that way- I challenge you to find what you’re good at, or have passion for and realize you can monetize that. If you have the right mission behind your hobby or passion, you can change the world.

If you look around you, every single thing you see started in the mind of someone else as an idea and they simply executed it.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Jeff Bezos. He recently announced his earth fund, $10 Billion dedicated toward nonprofit missions of helping the Earth. He has seen the value in protecting our planet and fighting climate change which The Bridge is aiming towards as well, especially with how sustainable we want everything to be including solar panels, water collection, bio waste food digesters, growing food through aquaponics, etc. We would love for him to be involved with The Bridge as an advisor as we share similar missions.

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