It may raise a few eyebrows that a proud, rugby-mad Scotsman like Jamie Gillan would admit his role model growing up was one of England’s greatest ever players.
“Jonny Wilkinson was my favourite rugby player. When YouTube first appeared, as a kid, I think I watched every YouTube highlights video of Jonny Wilkinson,” Gillan said of the hero of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph.
“I’ve probably watched them about 100 times each. I loved how he played. He played with a lot of heart and was an awesome kicker as well.
“I also liked watching [former Scotland fly-half] Chris Paterson kick conversions. I like him and Jonny Wilkinson. I looked up to Jonny Wilkinson the most, I liked watching how he played.”
It is that sort of forensic-like analysis and willingness to learn that helped Gillan on a path from aspiring rugby union international to a career in the NFL as a punter with the Cleveland Browns.
Growing up in Inverness, Gillan spent four years playing for the youth teams of Highland RFC before relocating to Merchiston Castle boarding school in Edinburgh where he went to chase his dream of playing for Scotland.
P Jamie Gillan at the podium https://t.co/YEDtXBj0wD
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 2, 2019
But the course of Gillan’s personal journey would change at the age of 16. His father Colin, a navigator with the Royal Air Force, was posted to Maryland.
“It was a really big decision that me and my family made. I was doing really well in Merchiston. I got really good results in my GCSEs and had just come off winning the Scottish schools cup for youth 16s,” Gillan said of the life-altering moment.
“We had a really great team, I didn’t want to leave! I was rugby mad and we had such a stellar team, I really enjoyed playing.
“My goal was to play professional rugby and pull on the Scotland jersey one day, but with my parents moving across the Atlantic and the fact my Dad didn’t want to be that far away from us, I decided to move out.
“Coming to school in America was way different, having to do the different tests and classes. There were some subjects I had dropped when I was 14 years old, but I had to do them again over here which made it more difficult.”
Fast forward six years and Gillan is about to make his NFL debut against the Tennessee Titans for an ambitious Browns side that boasts superstar talent in the form of Odell Beckham Jr, Baker Mayfield and Jarvis Landry.
But American football was not necessarily at the forefront of Gillan’s mind from the second he touched down Stateside.
It was only when Gillan sought out the coach of his high-school team – the man credited with coining his ‘Scottish Hammer’ nickname – with the intention of honing his kicking skills and staying fit to play rugby that things accelerated.
His hammer of a left boot caught the eyes of scouts and scholarship offers soon arrived for Gillan, who rocked up at the University of Arkansas Pine-Bluff.
College life provided another culture shock. The gruelling demands of mixing a full training schedule with studies and sleep deprivation was an experience he credits with preparing him for the NFL.
“Going into college life was even crazier because you’re doing classes per semester, so you’ve only got two months to finish these classes and with the NCAA rules you have to take a certain number of classes,” he reflected.
“A lot of people don’t realise but playing college sports is ridiculously hard, in terms of your timetable and the amount of sleep you’re getting. You’re up at 5am running until you’re throwing up. We’ve got five classes, have to squeeze in some food and lift right after that for an hour and a half, then punting for two hours, then dinner, then study hall/team meetings before getting into bed around 11.30/12pm.
“We’re doing that Monday-Friday during the season. During the offseason you’re doing it for about two months and in the summer, you stay doing the same thing on top of doing the work. It’s a hard schedule but it moulds you well if you stick to it and take it and run with it. I ended up doing okay and playing in the NFL so…”
Jamie Gillan’s understanding of defense is…not quite what you’d expect
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) July 17, 2019
Gillan went undrafted in April’s draft, not uncommon for punters, but was picked up by the Browns in free agency and was in direct competition with Super Bowl winner Britton Colquitt for a place on the roster.
Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer had a tough decision on his hands, but the raw potential of Gillan – whose rugby-style tackling adds another dimension – saw him earn the nod.
Priefer admitted “it would have been very difficult to let a guy like Jamie out the building” but Gillan – who learned of the news while in the Flying Monkey Pub with his father – would have had no regrets regardless of the outcome.
“I was out with my dad enjoying myself a little bit. It was like D-Day, everyone was finding out if they were cut or put on the practice squad or traded or making the team,” he said.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of emotions to be honest. I think my dad was more emotional and nervous than I was because I knew what I had done in the past four months.
“I know what I have done in the pre-season. I’ve worked really hard and regardless of what happens, I can sit back and be happy with what I’ve done. I didn’t know if I was going to get cut, traded or make the team so I was just enjoying the experience.
“I didn’t want to be in my room or hanging out and not really doing much. Me and my dad were like let’s go out and enjoy ourselves and see what happens. So, we did and then I got the phone call from the GM saying that I made the team, so I was extremely happy.”
Gillan insists he has not felt overawed by sharing a locker room with his more globally recognised team-mates, who he says have welcomed him with open arms.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been any playful hazing.
“Yeah there is a little bit,” he said. “We had to get up and sing in front of the team, so that was fun.
“I sung Evil Scotsman by Billy Connelly in front of the whole team and they thought that was really funny, so you know little stuff like that makes it fun.
“I get a bit of a rookie banter, people just having a little laugh you know but at the end of the day everybody has been supportive and fantastic.”
Watch Jamie Gillan in action as the Cleveland Browns host the Tennessee Titans on Sunday 8th September on Sky Sports Action at 17:00 and Sky Sports Main Event at 18:00. You can also catch-up on the action on Tuesday with the NFL This Week highlights show available on BBC Two and iPlayer.