SouthLake Christian’s Gilkerson recovers from serious illness

by Cliff Mehrtens

Lose 20 pounds in a week!

What sounds like a dubious weight-loss advertisement happened to SouthLake Christian running back Adam Gilkerson two years ago. It was the apex of his struggle with a debilitating physical ailment. He couldn’t hold down food, tired easily and was dropping weight like a normal teenager shouldn’t be. The strapping 180-pounder was teetering in the 150s.

The culprit was Celiac Disease, a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that contain nutrients. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, commonly found in wheat, barley, rye and oats.

“It was bad, because I struggled with it for six months,” said Gilkerson, a senior. “(Doctors) didn’t know what it was, because it was the type of Celiac Disease that didn’t show up in my blood tests.”

The changes for Gilkerson were immediate.

“I had to switch my diet completely, in about one day,” he said.

He went gluten-free. No more fast food. Goodbye to many other dishes, too. He learned that wheat is an inexpensive filler in many foods.

Gilkerson eats more natural foods now, and a lot of home cooking.

The disease wiped out Gilkerson’s sophomore season. His body was suffering, but his spirit wasn’t. He was determined to return to the field.

It was a slow process.

“It was pretty hard to put up with,” he said. “I really couldn’t go do anything because my stamina was so low. Anytime I would physically exert myself, I would throw up and have to stop.”

Once, during football practice, Gilkerson’s inner drive slammed head-on with his limitations. He tried to push through the vomiting and pain.

“Instead, I had to go to the hospital for an I.V.,” he said.

Lesson learned.

Gilkerson slowly regained his weight and strength. He was a part-time player as a junior, and this season he’s blossomed.

Gilkerson has rushed for 1,003 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Eagles (9-1), who will open the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II playoffs against Forsyth Country Day on Nov. 4.

In the past three games, he’s rushed for 160, 107 and 185 yards. He’s scored three touchdowns in each of the past two games. He’s averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

“Adam has a tremendous amount of perseverance and dedication,” SouthLake Christian coach Rich Landis said. “He is definitely one of the hardest-working players. Adam is among the group of seniors who’ve led by example – they come to practice every day ready to work.”

Gilkerson said he relishes being a team leader. In a way, it helps him make up for lost time.

“I felt like I was pulled back from a lot of activities, even going out with friends, just because of eating,” he said.

“I’m just comfortable with the team. They know about my condition and have been through it every day with me. I think it’s important that if you’re going to go places with the team, you need to bond with them.”

One of Gilkerson’s first targets was the big fellas up front. Last spring and summer, he lifted weights and went through drills with the offensive linemen.

“There’s that mutual respect between us,” Gilkerson said. “We both know we’re going to work as hard as we can for each other.”

Landis and the other Eagles coaches help monitor Gilkerson’s health. Even though he’s back to full strength and 175 pounds, the vigil is ongoing.

For instance, when SouthLake Christian had a road game in Raleigh in August, the team meal was at a Golden Corral restaurant. Normal fare for hungry teens but a red flag for Gilkerson.

He has to be careful his food doesn’t come in contact with anything potentially dangerous, whether it’s tabletops, plates or other people’s hands.

“Adam had his cooler with non-gluten stuff in it,” Landis said. “We talked about whether he should go there, but Adam’s not going anywhere else to eat. He told me, `Gotta go, Coach. Have to.’”

Gilkerson paid for his intense team loyalty a few hours later. He was throwing up during the game and weakened in the heat.

“We have to be careful, and we can talk about things like that now,” Landis said. “But Adam sets a great example of dedication.”

Gilkerson’s running has improved in the Eagles’ zone-blocking scheme. Instead of running through a designated hole, his role is to read his blocking and decide which direction to cut.

Gilkerson said assistant coaches Jimmy Hamic and Angelo Cox have helped with his “pad level,” which means leaning forward more as he runs. A lower target is harder to tackle.

Said Landis: “Adam isn’t big, but he packs a wallop because of his posture. He’s improved considerably.”

Landis said Gilkerson handled the news of his disease “very maturely” and carried on when many players might have given up football in that situation.

“Now that my body can absorb the nutrients, where basically my intestine has healed itself and grown back, I’m good,” Gilkerson said. “Actually I might be better than I used to be, because I know I have a physical limit, and I know how hard I can push myself now.”

Gilkerson said he thought about not returning to football – but only for a few fleeting moments. He said he knew it’s where he wanted to return. Now, he’s there. He’s flourishing and could be an inspiration for others with the same disease.

“It’s definitely hard, and you’ll be put through a lot,” Gilkerson said. “You’ll be tried. But it definitely makes you better and can show you your limits. It can help you get past some of those limits you have.”