By Zach Dean, GateHouse Media Services
Mike Gillislee has seen plenty of the NFL over his first five seasons.
He started out down south in Miami, checked out the deserts of Arizona, and then made a couple of pit stops in the northeast — first in Buffalo and now New England.
But for this week, the former University of Florida standout is exploring frigid Minnesota as the Patriots get ready for their Super Bowl showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles. And, while the Mall of America may not have the same allure as, say, South Beach, there’s no place the 27-year-old would rather be.
“It’s a dream come true, you know?” said Gillislee, who starred at DeLand High from 2005-08 before moving on to UF. “Just growing up, just wanting to play this sport and just living out my dream, that’s the best thing about it.”
Gillislee’s path to Super Bowl 52 has been anything but easy.
He dominated at DeLand, rushing for 1,149 yards as a senior, and then backed that up with a career year his final season at Florida, rushing for 10 touchdowns and becoming the first Gator to eclipse 1,000 yards (1,104) since 2004.
“He’s a great football player,” said teammate, fellow running back, and Super Bowl 51 hero James White on the Patriots’ media availability Tuesday. “He’s a downhill runner, he’s fast and he’s physical.”
Still, that didn’t translate right away in the NFL.
Gillislee was drafted by Miami in the fifth round in 2013, but only played in a handful of games for the Dolphins over two years, including spending a majority of the 2014 season on the practice squad.
The following year was a low point, but also a turning point, in Gillislee’s career. He was cut by Miami and then Arizona early in the 2015 season, but finally found a home with Buffalo for the final five games, scoring three touchdowns in relief of starting running back LeSean McCoy and earning a contract for the next season.
Gillislee scored eight touchdowns and played in a career-high 15 games in 2016, including an 85-yard, one-touchdown performance Week 8 against New England. The following spring, the Patriots would turn around and sign Gillislee to a two-year offer sheet.
“It’s been great,” Gillislee said of his first season in New England, and his first year with superstar quarterback Tom Brady under center. “He’s a helluva football player — great football player, and outside of that, a great person.”
Still, much like the first five years of his career, this season hasn’t gone exactly as Gillislee planned.
Despite a dominant debut — he scored three touchdowns in the season-opener against Kansas City and then another one the following week at New Orleans — Gillislee has dealt with various injuries, and a crowded running backs room, all season. He’s been active for just one game since October.
However, despite an unknown status for Sunday’s game (he’s been dealing with a knee injury all postseason), the former Gator was all smiles during Monday’s media night.
“I’m here at the Super Bowl with my team. It’s a blessing,” said Gillislee, who rushed for nearly 400 yards and five touchdowns this season. “There’s a lot of people out there who wish that they had this opportunity, and I’m still here.”
Contributing: Nate Davis
Super Bowl LII
Who: New England vs. Philadelphia
When: 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
Former UF players in game: Running back Mike Gillislee with New England. Tight end Trey Burton and defensive back Jaylen Watkins with Philadelphia.