(CBS Chicago)- The NFL Draft is rapidly approaching, and despite no longer being a public event, it is still on the minds of sports fans everywhere. Hundreds of prospects are hoping to hear their names called the weekend of April 23rd-25th, and former Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman is among them.
Gilman is an interesting story, going from a lightly recruited commit to the Naval Academy to transferring and starring for Notre Dame over the course of his college career. His journey is one that started with his dad, a lifer in the game and former Southern Utah defensive back, encouraging his son’s love for the game without ever pushing him to pursue it one way or the other.
After compiling 168 tackles, seven passes defensed, four force fumbles and three interceptions in his two years with the Irish, Gilman is now ready to take on the NFL. Don’t let his size fool you. Gilman is on a mission to prove he belongs at the highest level. This is his story, in his words, lightly edited.
My dad, he has had a huge role in getting me to where I am. He played, as well as coached and ran a bunch of camps out here, including the first full camp here in Hawai’i. I grew up in that environment, and seeing that and being around coaches from the Division I level, seeing how they do things, it made a big impact on me in addition to my dad’s mentoring.
Football has really been in our blood, my younger brother included (Alaka’i Gilman is committed to play at Stanford in the fall), because my dad has had us around the game for so long. That being said, I didn’t pick up the game seriously until fifth or sixth grade. We’re a water family, so I actually learned to surf before I did anything with football.
Despite my dad running the DB Tech Academy, I actually wanted to be on offense when I was younger. I played quarterback and then all the way up until my junior year of high school, I played wide receiver. I didn’t switch over to the defensive side of the ball until my senior year. It was a very late switch. My dad was never very forceful, he just wanted us to find our own passion for the game.
I played corner when I made the switch, and having played receiver for so many years, it was a huge tool that helped me. Knowing what receivers want to do, how they want to attack you, it made the transition pretty natural for me.
As a kid, I played anything that you could think of. I was competitive, so I wanted to do every sport you could think of. From soccer to basketball, I even did competitive surfing. The two things that probably helped me the most were basketball and surfing, actually. I did a lot of standup paddle-boarding, and that really helped me with my balance and mobility as I transitioned into the defensive back role.
Coming out of high school, despite making all-state teams as a defensive back and returner, I was very underrated, under-recruited. It’s much harder to be recruited here in Hawai’i, but I was also a late bloomer. At that point, I was 5’9″ 165 so there weren’t a lot of programs knocking on the door.
That’s where my connection with Coach Niumatalolo helped. He’s from the same town that I am, and he and my mom grew up together. That made the connection to Navy more comfortable for me, and being at the naval academy was a great opportunity for me.
— Alohi Gilman (@alohigilman) September 1, 2015
It was fun because, my freshman year at Navy, we beat Notre Dame. So, when I transferred to Notre Dame and played out my career there, I always remind the guys that I’m the only one who’s undefeated in the Navy-Notre Dame series among our class.
Getting the chance to go and play for Notre Dame is something that you dream about. I was a very visionary kid. So playing on the highest level was my dream. I did that at Navy, and then got a huge opportunity to do that at Notre Dame.
Since leaving Notre Dame, I got the chance to accomplish another dream by going to the NFL Combine. People see the workouts and a lot of times think that’s all there is. But it’s a lot more than that. With medical checks, interviews, it can be a long process. But I just kept reminding myself that not a lot of people get this opportunity and embraced it. I interviewed with 31 of the 32 teams and then the workouts, that was fun for me, it was like going back to playing in the backyard.
Obviously, things since the Combine have changed quite a bit due to the current situation we find ourselves in. But, for me, I take solace in knowing my whole journey has been uncertain. Island boy going to the Naval Academy on the other side of the world, going to Notre Dame. These are things you can’t predict. In a time like this, there’s a lot more things to be worried about than football and being able to take visits. People have family and friends that are struggling out here. I just keep a positive mindset and recognize that this is bigger than just football.
That said, it’s a lot different doing meetings virtually through FaceTime, Skype things like that. The process remains pretty similar, as if you were doing it in person. All of the teams I have talked to have just been trying to understand a bit more about me, and I think I have done a good job of showing them my intelligence, football IQ.
Staying in shape and staying healthy in this time is the most important thing. As much as I can, I’m working on cleaning up my footwork and the little details of my game right now while training on my own here in Hawai’i.
I was a big Brett Favre, Peyton Manning guy growing up, when I was looking to play quarterback. But my favorite player of all-time is Darren Sproles, because he was a little guy like me. He inspired me to keep working and keep at it, not worry about my size.
As a player, I pride myself on versatility. I’m able to cover in the backfield, man-to-man, play in the slot as well as help in run support and play in blitz packages. That is what I pride myself on. Any team that adds me is getting a guy with high football IQ and rare instincts. Whoever I go to will get a guy who is able to change the game and change a team.