For most of his life, things came easy to Mike Gillislee.
In high school, he was the seventh-ranked running back prospect in the country as a senior in 2008.
In college, he became the Florida Gators’ first 1,000-yard runner in eight years when he gained 1,104 yards on 235 carries (with 10 touchdowns) as a senior in 2012.
That led to him getting drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the fifth round in 2013. That’s when things got sideways, though.
Gillislee carried just six times for 21 yards as a rookie. The following season, the Dolphins put him on injured reserve with a hamstring injury – a move he still doesn’t fully understand.
Last season, he could see the writing on the wall when he got to training camp.
“They still had Lamar Miller. Then they drafted Jay Ajayi,” Gillislee said this week. “They knew all the backs they were going to keep. They didn’t know what I could do, so they released me.”
With nearly one full season under his belt now with the Buffalo Bills, it’s becoming clear that the Dolphins let a good one get away.
Gillislee this season has carried 56 times for 326 yards – an average of 5.8 yards per carry – and four touchdowns. That would lead the NFL if he had enough carries, which he’s currently seven short of.
“I’ve always been that type of back, if you go back and look at my history,” he said. “It’s just that when I was with the Dolphins, I wasn’t given that opportunity.”
In five games at the end of last season with the Bills, Gillislee had 47 carries for 267 yards – a 5.7-yard average – and three touchdowns.
At some point, that type of production stops being a fluke.
“Last year, he got the nickname in the locker room ‘Touchdown Mike’ because every time he got the ball he seemed to find the end zone,” quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “Having a guy back there like Mike definitely helps our running game.”
It was fair for fans to be skeptical that Gillislee would be able to keep up the type of production he had last season. After he was released by the Dolphins prior to the start of the 2015 regular season, he spent a month on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad.
He joined the Bills a couple weeks after the Cardinals let go, and spent a month on the practice squad before joining the 53-man roster on Dec. 5, 2015.
“It was confusing at one point,” Gillislee said of bouncing around. “You’ve just got to stay focused, knowing that God’s got you no matter what, and he’s always going to put you in the right situation. That’s something that I did. I just stayed focused and Rex gave me the opportunity.
“It was tough, you know but, I’m here now. Just bouncing around, it made me hungrier — made me want it more.”
Gillislee became the first Bills running back since 1997 to produce touchdown runs of at least 50 yards in back-to-back weeks near the end of last season. This year, he’s got a 44-yard rushing touchdown, which came in Week Six against San Francisco.
“It starts with preparation,” he said. “All the backs, I think we do a great job of preparing, just being when our number is called.”
That’s partly out of Gillislee’s control. The reality is he’s stuck behind one of the very best running backs in the NFL in LeSean McCoy, so there will be times when he doesn’t get the number of touches he’d want.
“Shady, you know, you’ve got to give it to him,” Gillislee said. “We’re two different style backs. He’s a lot more shifty than I am. I’m a guy, if I see something, I’m going to hit it. I’m going to put my foot in the ground and get what I can get – whether that’s a touchdown or 3 or 4 yards.”
Gillislee grew up in DeLand, Fla., which is just about 100 miles south of Jacksonville. He wasn’t much of a Jaguars fan growing up, however, saying he followed Florida’s two professional basketball teams closely.
Now, he feels more like a Western New Yorker than Floridian.
“I love Buffalo,” Gillislee said. “I love the people. The coaches, the whole staff down to the people in the cafeteria, everybody just makes it feel like home here. I’m far away from Florida, but it feels like home.”
The big question is, how long will that last?
Gillislee’s contract expires after this season, and he’ll become a restricted free agent. The minimum qualifying offer is expected to be about $1.7 million, which would be a big bump in pay for Gillislee, who is making $600,000 this season. Of course, the Bills could always try to work out a long-term contract before that.
“I’m just trying to set the bar high for next year,” Gillislee said. “Maybe I’ll be here – I’d love to be – or maybe I’ll be someplace else.”
Gillislee’s status for this week against the Jaguars is up in the air after he suffered a hamstring injury in Wednesday’s practice. He said afterward that he would be good to play and was “just tight,” but then missed practice Thursday. That led coach Rex Ryan to say there was “serious concern,” that Gillislee might not be available.
Less than a year ago, that wouldn’t have been a big deal. After all, the Bills had McCoy and rookie dynamo Karlos Williams on the roster. When’s the last time you thought about him?
But now, Gillislee is clearly a player who is instrumental to what the Bills do on offense.
“I don’t try to get caught up with that,” Gillislee said of his emergence. “I’m doing pretty good, but I think I can do better. That’s not something I sit down and think about. I just love football, love running, love going in and doing what I can do.”