Florida Bird tests his wings in Duck country
Oregon cornerback Ryan Gilliam looks forward to competition
EUGENE Ñ They call him 'Bird,' but he doesn't chirp at opponents. Ryan Gilliam does fly, in sports parlance, but he earned the nickname many years ago for his bony 'bird chest.'
Even Oregon coach Mike Bellotti took to calling him 'Bird' in his recruiting phone calls.
'He kept saying, 'The Bird flies West. The Bird flies West,' ' Gilliam says.
Corny, but it worked.
They call Gilliam 'Li'l Pete' back in his hometown of Tallahassee, Fla., because of the similarity between he and former Florida State receiver Peter Warrick. Gilliam doesn't promise to bring Warrick-type talent to Eugene, but the cornerback/punt returner vows to make a good impression and show why Bellotti and his assistants tapped the Florida prep football hotbed.
'It's time to show the West Coast folks how a Florida boy can do it,' the charismatic Gilliam says.
The 5-9, 162-pound Gilliam expects to compete for playing time right away; both cornerback positions are basically open.
He goes into the start of camp Aug. 6 with credentials and plenty of confidence, but can he play?
Well, Florida State wanted him, which says something. He verbally committed to the Seminoles, then backed out Feb. 3, two days before signing with the Ducks. Gilliam claims that Florida, Miami, Ohio State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Tennessee and about 45 other schools offered him scholarships, but how many truly wanted him remains up for debate.
A school might recruit one player to get one or two others Ñ in addition to Gilliam, Florida State also courted touted Lincoln High teammates Ernie Sims and Antonio Cromartie.
But the Ducks pushed hard on Gilliam, who visited Oregon on Dec. 13 and then paid his own way to Eugene for another visit Jan. 24. 'Spent all my Christmas money,' he says.
The Ducks' family atmosphere impressed him Ñ 'good, honest people, and I respect that,' he says.
Bellotti and four assistants made home visits to Tallahassee. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti did not go east, but he called every day, Gilliam says.
Decision hits home, hard
Gilliam reconsidered his college choice but kept quiet for fear of public outcry.
'I was the leader and if I de-committed É it would upset Ernie and Antonio,' he says. 'But they had already made their decisions; they were going to Florida State.'
Gilliam says he 'got bashed really bad' by FSU supporters and media when word leaked out. Critics accused his mother of steering him away from the hometown school.
'If you're from Tallahassee, you don't say no to Bobby Bowden,' Gilliam says of the FSU coach. 'But I would have been so babied and taken care of there, it was ridiculous.
'It truly didn't have anything to do with football. I wanted to do something different, take a risk and grow up. I didn't know if I had the kahunas to do it.'
Gilliam has prepared for homesickness and academics Ñ two things that can befall recruits.
A trip home during UO's bye week Oct. 16 will help him with the homesickness.
'Dad was 17 and he went into the Marines, and lived in Korea and Germany,' Gilliam says. 'He says homesickness is a part of life. You have to experience it. It's not going to kill you.'
Gilliam says he has qualified academically to enroll at Oregon, and he plans to take 15 credit hours during fall quarter. With ample tutoring help and study hall, 'if you're not successful in school,' he says, 'you're trying not to be.'
Sports run in the family
During summer workouts, Gilliam drew some attention by aggressively playing Samie Parker in 7-on-7 drills. Gilliam doesn't lack confidence, 'but at the same time, he's humble,' says quarterback Johnny DuRocher, a friend and fellow freshman. 'He doesn't talk trash.'
Gilliam worked out for two years with former and current FSU receivers such as Warrick, Anquan Boldin, Ron Dugans and Snoop Minnis. Pretty good mentoring.
If he can play, Gilliam will surely entertain Duck fans. Likable and quotable, he comes from good lineage. Gilliam's mother, Bernice Young, produces football broadcasts for Florida A&M University and also works in journalism. His father, Gary, works in real estate and studies martial arts. His brother, Mike, recently switched from running back to cornerback at Georgia.
'Wanted to be a corner like his little brother,' jokes Gilliam, a three-time Florida state champion at Lincoln High.
Gilliam says friends kid him that 'I came out here to start and star right away,' not redshirt.
But he adds, 'I'm not afraid of waiting my turn,' especially with Steven Moore, Aaron Gipson, Marques Binns and Charles Favroth experienced in the system, and junior college corners Rodney Woods and Marc Walker coming in.
After all, Bird says, 'I'm just wingin' it out here from Florida.'