“I’ve got a full scholarship offer on the phone. Should I take it?” he asked them.
They asked what level.
“Division I,” he said, and they erupted in excitement and told him to accept. Gillan returned to the phone and told the coach he didn’t need any more information about the school and that he would be there in a couple of days. He hung up. The party raged that night.
“I woke up in the morning, and I had frickin’ forgot I had accepted that scholarship,” Gillan said, tracing his hazy origin story back to before this past month, this time sitting in a Cleveland bar, Flying Monkey, waiting nervously to hear whether he had made the Browns roster. But this time he would remember everything: the voice of General Manager John Dorsey telling him he had earned a roster spot, the twinkle of pride in his father’s eye, the countless bar patrons who approached to congratulate him. He offered to buy the entire place a round. They rejected and kept pushing drink after drink Gillan’s way.
It was a fitting scene for a blue-collar kid who grew up in Scotland, relocated to Maryland with his military family and earned an unlikely scholarship to a place he had never heard of. Gillan, 22, has always been an adventurer, and the man known as “The Scottish Hammer” is already lighting the NFL up with his free spirited identity — complete with shoulder length blonde hair and Sean Connery brogue — not to mention his towering, artful punts, which earned him AFC special teams player of the week after the Browns’ win over the New York Jets last Monday night.
“I have to go out there and do my job,” he said this week as he prepared for Cleveland’s Sunday Night Football game against the Los Angeles Rams, “and I love doing it.”
Gillan pinned the Jets inside the 20-yard line five times that night — he leads the NFL in that category with eight this season — and has been one of the most consistent players on Cleveland’s hyped roster in 2019. He had already become a fan favorite in August, using his powerful leg to beat out Pro Bowl selection Britton Colquitt. He tied for the team lead in special teams tackles during the preseason, and when that wasn’t enough, he took hundreds of snaps a day on a JUGS machine to become the team’s kicking holder.
“I don’t think anyone really took him serious, except for the personnel department. The coaches probably didn’t at first,” said Bardia Ghahremani, Gillan’s agent. “He has a rugby mentality, where nothing is that bad.”
The rugby mentality came from Gillan’s upbringing in Scotland, where he grew up in the country’s highlands and near a castle that was built in 1057. He believed American football was a bore. When Gillan’s father, a member of the Royal Air Force, was relocated to Maryland for work, Gillan followed for high school and eventually enrolled at Leonardtown High in southern Maryland. He attended a few football games as a fan and knew he could outplay the team’s kicker. When he showed up for a practice soon after, the special teams coach, Brian Woodburn, stood next to the starting kicker and watched Gillan audition.
“You’re fired,” Woodburn told the kicker after watching the thundering kicks, one after another. Woodburn would later call Gillan not only the purest ball-striker he had ever met but also “The Scottish Hammer.” Gillan hated the name at first, Woodburn said, yet it stuck as his new pupil committed to play football at nearby Bowie State, a Division II school.
But Gillan never signed a letter-of-intent, and as training camp approached, a friend saw that Arkansas Pine Bluff had placed an ad on Facebook looking for a kicker. That friend copied Gillan’s highlight tape into the post. Within a few hours, as the group of friends knocked back drinks at a house, one of the team’s coaches called, offered a scholarship in a thick southern accent and netted a commitment from Gillan.
And even though he didn’t remember it the next hung over morning, Gillan was going to honor that commitment. He had no idea where Arkansas was, let alone the school. He packed a couple of bags, told his parents he was going to give it a shot and delivered a bottle of scotch to Woodburn, who wrote on the box that he would open it when Gillan made the NFL.
As he boarded his flight, Gillan whipped out his phone and did some Googling on his new home. He thought the word HBCU was “maybe a sponsorship or something.”
“When I showed up, one of the guys said, ‘You know this is a historical black school?’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘You’re going to very much be a minority here.’ I said, ‘Okay, cool,’ ” Gillan said. “I started to find out what HBCU meant. It didn’t bother me. I had a full scholarship. I wasn’t treated any differently being white, because I didn’t act any different, because I’m me. What you see is what you get with me.”
Gillan had little money and was introduced to the difficulties of playing at the Football Championship Subdivision level — he had to buy his own cleats and owned just one ball — but he made an immediate impression on the team with his work ethic and athleticism.
“We were doing the conditioning test my freshman year, and Jamie was almost beside me, running. I was like, what?” said KeShawn Williams, a running back who was Gillan’s roommate. “I said, ‘How are you fast?’ He said he played rugby.”
Gillan often endeared himself on campus by rocking a kilt, and he became a community staple. “Go to Walmart, all the kids knew him. All the churchgoing folks knew him. Everybody knows Jamie around here,” said Arkansas Pine Bluff Coach Cedric Thomas, who also relied heavily on Gillan to use his athletic talents and rugby background to handle the team’s kicking duties.
But after Gillan’s senior year in 2018, he was not on the NFL radar. By January, he still didn’t have an agent, and was wary of hiring one. He finally asked a former Arkansas Pine Bluff wide receiver, Raymond Webber, for advice. Webber directed him to his agent, Ghahremani, who doesn’t take on many clients every year but agreed to watch a highlight film of Gillan. He couldn’t believe the kicks he was watching, the power and hang time of each.
Ghahremani called Webber. “‘Who the f--- is this?’ He’s like, ‘Dude, that’s our punter at Pine Bluff,’ ” Ghahremani said. “I’m like: ‘Pine Bluff? Pine Bluff is an all-black school. It’s an HBCU school. What the f--- is this long-haired blond kid doing there?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, man. He moved here from Scotland.’ ”
Soon after Ghahremani was trumpeting his new client to all 32 teams at the Senior Bowl, showing the highlights to whoever would watch. Nobody knew who Gillan was. Browns assistant general manager Eliot Wolf was among those impressed. The secret was out: At 6-foot-2 and a chiseled 207 pounds, Gillan wasn’t just a typical punter, but an intriguing athlete with a rugby background who could immediately help any special teams unit at the next level.
Gillan went undrafted, but signed with Cleveland and faced off against Colquitt in the preseason. Colquitt, now with the Vikings, was from kicking royalty in the NFL and had been a mainstay in the league for a decade. Gillan didn’t care. He delivered booming punt after booming punt throughout training camp and preseason, including a 74-yarder against Indianapolis, until he had won the job.
He has had some fun on one of the league’s most entertaining teams, too. He thinks Baker Mayfield is “a really nice guy,” and he has informed wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. that he was wearing his kilt backward at a MET Gala event in New York City this summer. He has watched his nickname get trademarked and stamped onto T-shirts. He drank pints with his father and the rest of Cleveland as he learned he made the team, and Woodburn brought that box of scotch out to Ohio and cracked it with Gillan to make good on the deal they made before he left for Pine Bluff.
“It’s definitely not been crazy,” Gillan said, “because it’s been fun.”
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