By: Tashan Reed | The Athletic 

Tyree Gillespie noticed a man dressed in all black on the sidelines as he warmed up on the field at Vanguard High. He knew it was likely a college coach but couldn’t make out their face or any logos until he got closer for a pregame conversation. It turned out to be then-Mizzou cornerback coach Greg Brown, who told Gillespie that, depending on how he played, he could secure a scholarship offer.

“Missouri?” Gillespie thought. He was a teenager from Ocala, Fla. — a city of fewer than 60,000 people located in a rural area in between Gainesville and Orlando — and had never even left the state. And now, a coach at an SEC program over 1,000 miles away was showing interest in him.

“I’ll never forget him,” Gillespie said last week. “I’m just like, ‘Just do all you can do to get this offer.’”

Gillespie, who played running back and safety, was ranked the 1,893rd player in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite. The Mizzou coaching staff had come across his film on Hudl and was struck by his explosiveness and knack for taking good angles when lined up at safety. Gillespie didn’t have that background information, but he didn’t really need it. The only thing that mattered was balling out.

He did, and Brown stayed true to his word. Four days later, then-Mizzou co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Ryan Walters reached out over the phone. Shortly after, Walters came down to visit Gillespie at Vanguard. It was then that Gillespie made the decision to commit, and he’d go on to sign with the Tigers in February 2017.

“It was just settled right there, you know what I’m saying?” Gillespie said. “I loved the vibe that he had. He was a young coach; he developed players and was just growing a name for himself. And he was not only interested in growing a name for himself but growing a name for me. I felt like that was something that we could do together.”

That feeling proved true when the Raiders drafted Gillespie in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in April. Las Vegas had already drafted fellow safety Trevon Moehrig in the second round but viewed Gillespie as a talent it couldn’t pass up and packaged pick Nos. 162 and 200 in a trade with the Jets to grab him.

“We had no intention of trying to get Tyree Gillespie, but at a certain point he stood out like a sore thumb on our board,” general manager Mike Mayock said after the draft. “It wasn’t about need; it was about what we felt was a really good football player available much later than we thought he would be available. So, we’re really excited about that.”

Gillespie is one of five safeties on the roster, with Moehrig and Johnathan Abram the presumed starters and veterans Karl Joseph and Dallin Leavitt as depth pieces. His arrival in Vegas to sign his rookie contract earlier this month was his first step toward making the 53-man roster. It’s not guaranteed, but neither was the scholarship offer he earned four years ago on a night in Central Florida. Just as it was then, his approach is simple.

“Just put me on the field and just let me make plays,” Gillespie said after the draft. “I’m a playmaker. So, just put me on the field and let me do my thing.”

Things weren’t easy for Gillespie coming up in Ocala. His mother, Lawanda Snow, had to work multiple jobs to provide for him and his two older sisters. And beyond the financial challenges his family faced, his surroundings posed potential dangers.

“Just living in Ocala and Central Florida, it was a lot of gun violence and a lot of gang members. I lost a lot of family members and a lot of friends due to it,” Gillespie said. “Just to prosper out of it and to make it as far as I’ve come — and this is only just the location, not my destination — but just to keep going and showing kids around my area that there’s a different way, it’s just amazing.”

Gillespie always wanted to be outside as a kid, but it wasn’t to run in the streets. He was obsessed with football.

“Growing up, the only time my son ever really got in trouble with me was because he was trying to go in the neighborhood and play football,” Snow said earlier this month. “Literally, when I got off in the morning time, I would tell him, ‘Let me just get some rest, and when I get up you can go outside and play.’ But of course, when I woke up, he’s already outside.”

Whether it was a random pickup game or tournaments put together by kids in the neighborhood, Gillespie never seemed to get tired of playing. As he got older, he also realized he was better at it than most.

“I was always that guy that everybody wanted to pick me for their team,” Gillespie said. “So, I just felt like, ‘Oh, this is something I can run with. Everybody’s telling me I’m good at it, so just keep working at it.’”

Gillespie soon started playing organized football in a local youth league. By middle school, he’d refined his skill set enough to consistently excel. By high school, he thrived as a two-way player who also played basketball and ran track. Even in talent-rich states like Florida, it’s abnormal for someone with that makeup to be as overlooked as he was in the recruitment process. After watching his film online, Walters wanted to know why.

“And then when I went down in the spring and saw him, his GPA was pretty low,” Walters said earlier this month. “So, I think teams — most of the time when you see a GPA that looks like his, you kind of back off of him. But when I met him and talked to his coaches and counselors and people around the school, he was a really good kid and a smart kid.”

Gillespie lived far from Vanguard and didn’t have access to the busing system as a result. While his mother and sisters did their best, he sometimes missed classes or even entire days because he couldn’t get a ride to school. Inevitably, his academic performance suffered.

“So, I took it as, ‘OK, this kid is struggling academically not because of his personal acumen but because of the situation and circumstance,’” Walters said. “We put a plan together to get him eligible from an academic standpoint, and we felt like it was worth the risk because of the caliber of athlete he was coupled with what we felt like his character and off-the-field behavior was. To his credit, he got it done.”

Gillespie became academically eligible during the summer of 2017, about four months after he signed with Mizzou. He put in the work, and his teachers and the staff at Mizzou helped, but he credits his mother more than anyone else.

“I give all applause to my mom, you know what I’m saying?” Gillespie said. “She was my motivation. She would put me first before a lot of the things that she had going on in her life, so I just felt like I owe her in the long run when I make it.”

When he enrolled at Mizzou that June, Gillespie became the first of his siblings to attend a university. Snow was happy and excited, of course, but she also challenged her son to stay locked in.

“I told him from the beginning when he got there that I wanted him to look at it and treat it like it was a job,” Snow said. “So, you get up every morning, you go to work, and at the end of your work period, you’re gonna get a paycheck from it. I feel like everything at this point is paying off for him because he has been very dedicated to making all this happen. And I know it wasn’t easy, but he stuck to it.”

Gillespie didn’t arrive at Mizzou until the week fall camp started, which led to a slow start as he acclimated himself to the program. Outside of preparing for football and classes, he was also struggling with no longer being home.

“I ain’t gone lie: It was nerve-wracking,” Gillespie said. “Just due to the fact that I was always a mother’s child. I’m a momma’s boy. So, just knowing that I was gonna be that far away from my mother, it was challenging. But I knew that was gonna help us out in the long run. And that’s what happened.”

Gillespie was primarily a special teams contributor early on in his freshman season, but he was so dynamic in that role that the coaching staff wanted to get him involved on defense. He began to make appearances in third-down packages. The learning curve was steep, especially since Mizzou had a complex and multiple defensive scheme, but he still responded well to the greater responsibility and developed rapidly.

That required extra film study sessions, peppering the coaching staff with questions in meetings and working out with fellow safety Joshuah Bledsoe in the offseason. He understood what needed to be done to get results and had no qualms about the hard work that went into it.

“It was a quote that always stuck with me: ‘Why fail when success is free?’” Gillespie said. “So, I just always had that in the back of my head. That’s what pushed me to do a lot of things in my life.”

In Week 6 of his sophomore season, Gillespie made his first start at free safety. His first test was brutal: a road contest against No. 1-ranked Alabama — featuring new Raiders teammates Josh Jacobs and Henry Ruggs III — that ended with a 29-point loss.

“He got baptized against Alabama, as most people do,” Walters said. “But he bounced back in full force and really has been a staple at Missouri on defense.”

Henry Ruggs III (four catches, 50 yards) and a loaded Alabama team beat Tyree Gillespie and Missouri 39-10 in his first collegiate start in 2018. (John David Mercer / USA Today)

Gillespie went on to have a three-year run as a starter. Off the field, he never had any issues academically, pledged for the Mizzou chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity last year, was described as “well-respected and well-liked” among the team, stood out for his maturity and led by example. On the field, he registered 146 tackles and 12 passes defensed as a versatile and instinctive safety who lined up in the box and as a roaming center fielder. He wasn’t necessarily a star, but he was a complete player who led the secondary as a senior in 2020.

“I just think it was his confidence level,” Walters said when asked how Gillespie grew. “He wasn’t overly confident coming in, probably for a few reasons: No. 1, he wasn’t really highly recruited, and No. 2, he got there late, and No. 3, he wasn’t used to playing heavy defensive snaps. So, I just think coming into his senior year he played like he was more confident. He knew that he belonged.

“And not only did he belong, but he could dominate.”

Gillespie had been locked in on the draft for a while and now is focused on getting off to a quick start in his NFL career, but he’s had another major adjustment to make: becoming a father. His daughter was born a few months ago and immediately shifted his perspective.

“Man, it’s a blessing to have a little baby girl,” Gillespie said. “It was just the fact that a lot was going on at the time, but knowing that I was gonna be a father was the most amazing feeling in the world. I feel like that’s what pushed me a lot, too, also — just to know that I have to provide for not only myself anymore but to provide for another human. It was an amazing feeling and a blessing.”

She was there, of course, for his draft watch party in Orlando on May 1 alongside several other family members, friends and former coaches.

“It still doesn’t feel true, you know what I’m saying?” Gillespie said. “It’s still like a dream come true. This has always been a dream of mine ever since I picked up a football. I’d always seen it happening, but I never knew when it was gonna happen. And when it happened, my heart just dropped. I was filled with joy. I was thanking God just for allowing me to be capable of doing everything that I’m doing today. It was just a blessing.”

Snow was overcome with joy to see her youngest child take the next step in his evolution as a man. As the tears flowed, she reflected on everything that went into reaching that point.

“I’m a firm believer, which I’ve taught him, that you go after whatever you want in life,” Snow said. “It’s not gonna be easy. It’s not gonna always be handed to you. You have to stick to it. And he’s shown me that he can do that. So, him leaving high school and going to college, I knew when he went away that this was gonna transform him. He left a little boy, and he basically came back as a man. And I could just tell the difference. So now with him leaving Florida again and headed to Las Vegas, me as a mother, I know that he’s gonna be OK. And there’s nothing better for me than to know I can rest at night knowing he’s gonna be OK.”

Gillespie is thankful to owner Mark Davis, coach Jon Gruden and Mayock for the opportunity, but he knows his work isn’t done. It’s unclear whether Gillespie will play free safety or strong safety at the next level, but his quickest path to the field will likely come on special teams. Whatever his role winds up being, he’s committed to giving it his all.

“My mindset going into it is just, ‘Work,’” Gillespie said. “Don’t ever get complacent. Just work hard. And what you do in the dark will come into the light.”

(Top photo: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)