Garrett Gilkey relishes the opportunity to blaze a unique trail to the NFL: from Sandwich High School to Aurora Christian to Chadron State.
But the 6-6, 314-pound offensive tackle comes from a football background that was even more humble and challenging than it appears on paper.
''I was undersized. I was bullied and ostracized by my entire school [at Sandwich High School],'' Gilkey said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. ''Going into my freshman year, I had a heart operation -- very simple. But I was prevented fom playing sports. So I excelled academically.
''With that, some of the guys, especially on the football team and the cliques just kind of distanced themselves from me because I wasn't doing the running in the summer or the workouts. I was booed a few times in front of the entire school, constantly bullied, constantly picked on. I had a very hard year my freshman year at Sandwich.''
It was bad enough that Gilkey transferred to Aurora Christian, where he still was undersized but no longer tormented by classmates. But he grew into his position and flourished under coach Don Beebe, who took a similar path to the NFL -- from Sugar Grove to Kaneland High School to Western Illinois to Chadron State to the Buffalo Bills and the Super Bowl.
As a senior at Aurora Christian, Gilkey started to realize he could be better than he ever thought.
''After one of the games, Dave Beebe -- Don Beebe's brother -- pulled me in the office and looked at the film and said, 'Your footwork is like that of an NFL lineman.' And that's when that spark came into my life,'' Gilkey said. ''I remember thinking, 'I'm 17 years old. How the heck can you say that my feet look like an NFL lineman's feet?' So that's I think where it began.''
Gilkey still was overlooked by major college programs. But Don Beebe used his connections to get Gilkey to Chadron State, a Division II school in Chadron, Neb. that produced not only Beebe, but New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead.
Gilkey, who said he was 6-4, 240 pounds as a senior in high school, grew to 6-6, 280 by his freshman season at Chadron. He attracted attention from NFL scouts as a junior and senior when he was an all-Rocky Mountain West left tackle.
He was invited to the Senior Bowl, where he was switched to guard and picked it up quickly enough to start for the winning South team. He works out with Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel and other top prospects at IMG Academy in West Bradenton, Fla.
Joeckel might be the No. 1 overall pick in the April 25 draft. Gilkey currently is projected as a fifth-round pick. He could be higher or lower or not drafted at all. But from where he's come, where he's drafted -- or if he's drafted -- is not a concern.
''If I'm going to be a free agent, or a second, first to seventh-rounder -- all of that is so irrelevant to me,'' he said, ''because where I'm at and what I've accomplished has allowed me to affirm those desires.
''Overcoming being bullied and undersized. Overcoming not being recruited by any Division I schools. Going to the Senior Bowl and having a successful week. Being invited to the NFL Combine. And knowing in my heart and my mind to myself that I'm going to have a successful career in the NFL. I know the opportunities presented in the future are going to be substantial.''
Gilkey said he talked to Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and ''it was very encouraging.'' He also talked to a Bears scout at the Senior Bowl.
Whether he's drafted or not, he'll be in an NFL camp this summer. Just to have that opportunity is a testament to along journey from a humble background -- for which he has a fine appreciation.
''I absolutely do,'' Gilkey said. ''I own being from a small school. I embrace it. I love representing Chadron. I was the [only] player from the state of Nebraska to go to the Senior Bowl -- that to me is an honor. I just have great opportunities to represent what you can do coming from what everyone tells you you can't do.''