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Browns rookie Garrett Gilkey, a victim of bullying as a kid, empathizes with Jonathan Martin

Nov 06, 2013 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi |



The Morning Kickoff …

Empathy personified: As a teenager in Sandwich, IL, Browns rookie guard Garrett Gilkey suffered the humiliation and degradation of being bullied.

He has been outspoken in sharing his experiences to save others from falling into the despair of loneliness and hopelessness when victimized.

“I was booed in front of my entire school during the recognition of being on the scholastic team,” Gilkey said. “Then I had my baseball glove peed in.”

A third experience involved Gilkey getting pinned to the ground. The rest was too graphic to describe.

So when Gilkey reads and hears about the ugly reports of Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito bullying teammate Jonathan Martin, he has empathy for the victim.

“People are like a sponge,” Gilkey said. “You can only add so much water to a sponge, and then the sponge has to release that water. You look at the overwhelming detrimental effects caused by this bullying. It’s really sad.

“It’s Martin’s Year 2 in the NFL and you just look at the problems obviously that have been persisting a very long time. Knowing the mental toll that bullying in general takes on a person, I can’t imagine what he’s gone through the past year and a half.

“I don’t care if you’re a 24-year-old NFL lineman. Bullying is the same if you’re a 24-year-old NFL lineman or a 9-year-old girl.”

Drawing the line: The culture of a football locker room involves “initiating” rookie players into “the fraternity.”

“Every guy in this room has a story about how they were initiated,” said linebacker and defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson.

Every team has its own rituals. They are conducted mostly in fun. Every summer, the HBO “Hard Knocks” series captures them on film.

Rookies are instructed to stand up and sing their alma mater or something else at a moment’s notice. They have to carry the shoulder pads of veteran teammates after practice. They are left with enormous restaurant bills at team nights out. They are strapped in a chair and given unflattering buzz haircuts. They are taped to goalposts or tossed into the cold tub.

Gilkey understands that part of the football culture. The reports of Incognito sending racially charged text messages to Martin step over that line.

“It’s pretty tragic,” Gilkey said. “Something people sometimes forget is that this is a workplace environment, not just a football locker room. Even if you take the bullying aspect out of it, it’s tragic that stress has to be induced and added in the locker room when we already have such a high-stress job.”

Gilkey said that the difference between rookie hazing and bullying is the relationship between the individuals.

“When there’s no relationship, within the interaction, that’s going to create bullying,” he said. “There’s a difference between being heckled by older teammates or being joked around with when there’s a relationship there. When you’re able to talk to those guys, it’s different. It’s like having a younger brother. You’re going to pick on your younger brother like you do. When there’s no relationship in the context it creates bullying.”

Jackson said, “If someone feels offended, then you’ve taken it too far.”

Spreading the word: Gilkey said he recently spoke at a middle school in Peninsula about his experiences of being bullied. His message to kids was “the importance of community and leaning on each other.”

“I think that’s such a vital thing for kids to understand,” he said. “One of the key messages I gave was essentially a school’s like a team. You have to lean on each other to function the way it’s supposed to. I just can’t help but have empathy for Martin. Those feelings of separation can be very damaging. Evidently it’s just a matter of time before that sponge has to release.”

Despite his experiences, Gilkey said he had no trepidation about joining the high-charged, macho culture of a professional locker room.

“No, because I think that I developed a level of mental toughness,” he said. “I see past of any of the superficial stuff. I think my self-esteem and my confidence is greater than anything that could be thrown at me. I look at my faith as the driving force in my life. I realize that things are momentary.

“Whether it was the fear of a new locker room or the fear of what’s going to happen after football, my confidence is in my faith. I wasn’t worried about being hazed or anything.”

The worst thing done to Gilkey by the Browns?

He had to stand up and sing a song. He doesn’t even remember what he sang.


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




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