Jamie Gillan: Scot's remarkable rise from rugby-daft teen to Cleveland Browns punter

By Jonathan HollowayFor BBC Sport Scotland

Jamie Gillan arrived in the US as a rugby-obsessed teenager who had never watched American football and had no intention of playing the game.

Six years later, the Scot will make his NFL debut this week after securing the starting job as Cleveland Browns' punter.

It's a startling rise to prominence for Gillan - nicknamed 'The Scottish Hammer' - who has ousted former Super Bowl champion Britton Colquitt, a 10-year NFL veteran, for a place on the Browns' 53-man roster.

Here, the 22-year-old tells BBC Scotland about the slog of 18-hour college days, bringing rugby skills to the NFL, and sharing kilt etiquette with a superstar team-mate.

'I might as well give a it a blast'

There was only one sport Gillan cared about growing up in Inverness. Desperate to play for his country, he followed his dream by moving away to attend Merchiston Castle boarding school in Edinburgh.

"I was absolutely rugby mad and still miss it," he says. "The only reason I chose to go to Merchiston was because of all the guys they'd put through to Scotland."

It was there, as a promising fly-half, he developed his talent for kicking that would come in handy 4,000 miles away when his career took a different trajectory.

His dad, a navigator with the Royal Air Force, was posted to Maryland and the family, including a 16-year-old Jamie, left Scotland for a new life Stateside.

Even then, he only fell into American football as a means to an end. After pursuing rugby regionally in his new home, Gillan approached the coach of his high school football team with the intention of kicking his way onto the team in order to keep fit during the rugby off-season.

With a few tweaks to his technique, Gillan quickly became an accomplished kicker and offers of scholarships to play college football in America began to arrive.

"I was a little bit undersized in Scotland," he said. "So when I came out here, I was hoping to get bigger and I just happened to see the football side and I was like, 'I might as well give a it a blast'.

"All my mates were telling me you could get scholarships for kicking a ball and I didn't believe them at first. But I thought I'd give it a try after I saw the guy missing field goals."

Forging a reputation amid a 'ridiculous schedule'

Gillan impressed on the college American football circuit with the University of Arkansas Pine-Bluff
Gillan impressed on the college American football circuit with the University of Arkansas Pine-Bluff

Gillan quickly made a name for himself in the fiercely competitive college game with the University of Arkansas Pine-Bluff, becoming one of the best kicking and punting options in his conference.

Over his four-year career, he managed 9,024 yards on 214 attempts and averaged 42.2 yards per punt. His longest punt was a whopping 80 yards and he also achieved 27 punts that exceeded 50 yards.

But the life of a college athlete is a demanding one and Gillan found the balance of sport and studies gruelling.

"It was unreal, so tough," he said. "Up at 4.30am, running till you can't breathe, then you've got four classes afterwards, then meetings, then weightlifting. Then you've got meetings at night, then study hall from 8.30pm till 11pm, and then you're up at 4am. It's a ridiculous schedule but you just did it like everyone else."

No nerves, just fun

His consistency and booming left foot led to interest from the NFL, with the Browns first to show their hand by inviting Gillan to Ohio for a visit before the 2019 draft.

Punters are one of the least sought-after positions in the draft as the league's 32 teams replenish their ranks with the best young college talent, so Gillan was not too deflated when he went unpicked.

"But I got a phone call after the fifth round from a coach here and he was saying he was hoping I don't get picked up," he said. "Then, after the draft ended, a lot of other teams called wanting to bring me in as a free agent. But there was no question, I was going to come to the Browns as they had shown me a lot of love."

Gillan's pre-season performances for Cleveland Browns helped secure his place
Gillan's pre-season performances for Cleveland Browns helped secure his place

Joining the Browns in April, Gillan featured in pre-season games, crunching into punt returners with rugby-style tackling which helped set him apart. And despite the huge step-up in quality and spotlight, he was not fazed, edging out Colquitt to get the nod last Saturday.

"I know a lot of people get nervous and stuff but for me it was fun," he said. "We had a huge crowd for the first game, bigger than any I've ever played in front of in Arkansas. But when I went out there it wasn't like a belly of butterflies, shaky legs, or nervous - it was just ultra focus."

Superstar pal's kilt faux pas

The Scottish Hammer now shares a locker room with some of the most famous names in American sport.

The NFL's biggest trade of the off season saw superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr arrive in Cleveland from the New York Giants. And after wearing a kilt to the Met Gala, Beckham might be wishing he had sought the advice of his new team-mate before the blockbuster event.

"It was funny," Gillan said "I did have to tell him, though, he wore it the wrong way. He wore the thing completely backwards. I told him and he was shocked. He was like, 'Are you sure?'. I was like, 'Yeah, I'm 100% sure buddy! He's been good craic."

On the prospect of his own fame, Gillan is taking it all in his stride.

"I don't think I'm famous yet," he said. "But it's cool to have some fans and people taking the whole Scottish Hammer thing and running with it. It's pretty funny."

New signing Odell Beckham Jr in Cleveland colours and, right, donning a kilt at the Met Gala
New signing Odell Beckham Jr in Cleveland colours and, right, donning a kilt at the Met Gala

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