by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ergio Gilliam is just a few credits shy of a sport management degree at Clemson University, but he has come to a conclusion: He was a dummy in college. Gilliam, like so many college players with visions of NFL glory, had no intention of playing arena football.
Nineteen games and 20 interceptions into his rookie season in arenafootball2, Gilliam has experienced a change of heart.
"I love playing arena football," the Spokane Shock defensive back says. "I totally owe myself a slap in the face for saying I'd never play arena football."
Gilliam describes his decision to come to Spokane as "probably one of the greatest decisions I've made." Who could have guessed that signing Gilliam would turn out to be one of the Shock's greatest decisions?
Rivals find this difficult to believe, but Gilliam had just one interception in four seasons at Clemson. After making his only nine college starts as a junior in 2005, Gilliam saw little action as a senior.
Uh, what happened, Sergio? "That's been a question I've never been able to answer," Gilliam says.
Mind you, Gilliam makes that remark in the same calm, reasoned manner in which he usually speaks. Gilliam points no fingers, makes no accusations, rips no one.
"I kept a level head," Gilliam says. "I didn't really just go crazy. I didn't flip out or cause any controversy, because that won't help the situation."
Besides, Gilliam explains, "It's still a team thing." That helps explain why Gilliam seems every bit as excited about Spokane's 18-1 record as the league-record 16 interceptions he picked off during the regular season.
"To have a 'No. 1' beside your name; that's a whole lot more than I've had in previous years," Gilliam says.
Gilliam still winces at the memory of his high school career in Greer, S.C. Gilliam was a standout in football, basketball and track, but his football team lost to Union in the state semifinals all four years.
"I remember every score like it was yesterday," Gilliam mumbles.
Most of Gilliam's memories from back home are happy ones. Raised as an only child by his mother ("I met my dad a couple times"), Gilliam is not shy about expressing his love and admiration for his mother, Vickie.
"We're real close, the best bond ever," he says. "I know with guys it's usually kind of hard for a male to bond with his mother. They want a father figure around, and need it.
"I consider my mother to be the father figure and the mother figure."
Until this year, Gilliam says his mother had missed only one of his football games since he was 6 years old ("A friend was getting married"). Vickie is set to fly to Spokane for the second time this season so she can watch her son play Monday night in the af2 title game at the Spokane Arena.
Count Rebecca Bailey among the many Shock followers who would like to thank Vickie for a job well done. Bailey employed Gilliam most of the season as a groundskeeper and handyman at the Spokane Valley apartments where Gilliam and most of his teammates live during the season.
"He's very respectful," Bailey says. "You know he was raised right. We really enjoyed having him around."
The same can be said for the Shock, but Gilliam seems destined to spend just the one season in Spokane. He hasn't ruled out an NFL career -- he was invited to the Minnesota Vikings rookie camp last year as an undrafted free agent after playing in the Hula Bowl college all-star game -- but he figures a more realistic goal for 2009 is the Arena Football League.
Gilliam wasted no time attracting the attention of AFL teams, since he had three interceptions in each of Spokane's first two games. His strong play continued all season, earning him af2 Rookie of the Year and All-National Conference honors.
Not bad for a guy who was warming the bench in college two years ago. Tempting though it may be, Gilliam won't take a shot at Clemson coaches, because he's too busy taking a shot at the af2 championship.