ROCK HILL, S.C. — Talk to the people who know Stephon Gilmore best and two character traits quickly emerge:
First, Gilmore doesn’t say a whole lot.
“He’s always been a good listener,” said his mother, Linda.
“He’s not a Ray Lewis type, with the fiery speeches. You have to drag words out of him,” said Ellis Johnson, Gilmore’s defensive coordinator in college. “It’s not shyness, that’s just him. He’s very self-assured, but he doesn’t run his mouth.”
Two, Gilmore takes coaching well.
“He wants to be told exactly what to do and how you want it done, and then he’ll go out and he’ll try to do it,” said Dennis Thurman, Gilmore’s defensive coordinator in Buffalo the past two seasons.
“He’s a guy that’s quiet, that’s going to do exactly what’s asked of him, and he’s going to fit right in,” said Ruvell Martin, Gilmore’s former teammate in Buffalo.
Physically, Gilmore has all the tools — a 6-foot-1-inch frame, 4.4 speed, the strength to match up against the NFL’s biggest receivers, and he doesn’t turn 27 until September.
But those other two qualities help explain why the Patriots broke all of their supposed rules and made a huge investment in Gilmore.
Normally prudent in free agency, and with a well-documented history of playing hardball with their own stars, the Patriots opened their checkbook for Gilmore when free agency opened March 9.
They blew away the market, signing Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million with $31 million fully guaranteed. It’s the largest total value and second-largest guarantee ever given out by the Patriots, behind only Tom Brady. It’s the big contract that Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones couldn’t get.
“I really feel like he will thrive in New England with the way they handle their business, because they’re exact, and that’s the way he likes to be coached,” Thurman said. “I just think it’s a match made in heaven. I really do. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Putting in the work
Belichick wants players who love football, and Gilmore fits that criteria. He grew up in Rock Hill, a town of about 70,000 situated 25 miles south of Charlotte. It is nicknamed “Football City, USA” due in part to the number of players it has sent to the NFL. Jadeveon Clowney, Johnathan Joseph, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Hope, and former Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson all hail from Rock Hill.
Gilmore’s father, Stevie, spent hours tossing a football to young Stephon while the two watched games on TV. At age 7, Stephon was running cone drills in the family’s driveway. The drills paid off, as Stephon clocked the sixth-fastest time in the three-cone drill at the 2012 NFL Combine, out of hundreds of participants.
“My dad pretty much put me in the game since I was 7, so I love the game,” Gilmore said. “People say you think about it 24-7. It’s probably close to that.”
The oldest of six children, Gilmore was a quiet leader in his household.
“He wasn’t trying to replace my dad, but he was like a father figure,” said his sister, Scarlett Gilmore, 16. “When he tells us something, we know it’s not just talk. We know we should actually listen.”
Gilmore was a natural athlete, excelling in football, baseball, basketball, and track. South Pointe opened in 2005 when Gilmore enrolled as a freshman, and on the very first play in school history, Gilmore ran 70-odd yards for a touchdown on the freshman team. In his senior season of 2008, Gilmore was the quarterback in a spread-option attack and led South Pointe to a 15-0 record and a state championship.
He was a Parade All-American, South Carolina Mr. Football, and the MVP of the North Carolina-South Carolina all-star game. His No. 5 has unofficially been retired at South Pointe.
But Gilmore didn’t simply rely on his natural athleticism. One year he asked then-South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll to open the weight room on Christmas Day. As a senior, he asked Carroll if he could come work out at the school on Sundays after church.
“I told him he couldn’t work out by himself, so he brings somebody with him,” Carroll said. “Not long after that there were eight to 10 of them lifting on Sundays, and he was the one that kind of started that.”
South Pointe principal Dr. Al Leonard tabbed Gilmore as one of the school’s ambassadors when it had visitors. Gilmore was not the best student, but he graduated from South Pointe in December of his senior year so he could enroll in college for spring practices.
“If he wasn’t in the weight room, then he was probably getting tutoring, because he did whatever he had to do to stay on course with his goals,” said Strait Herron, Gilmore’s defensive coordinator and now the head coach at South Pointe.
The football team now hands out the Stephon Gilmore Award at the end of every season to the player who best exemplifies hard work and unselfishness.
“Just a great young man,” Leonard said. “He really does show that hard work does pay off. You all are getting a good one.”
Preparing for the pros
Gilmore had offers from all the major schools. Alabama’s Nick Saban, one of Belichick’s close confidants, wanted him badly. But Gilmore chose South Carolina, about an hour south of Rock Hill, to be a part of a star-studded recruiting class that included current NFL receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier wanted to use Gilmore on offense, but Gilmore knew his best chance of getting to the NFL was at cornerback.
Gilmore had barely played defense when arriving at South Carolina but was determined to make it work.
“I have never been associated with a student-athlete at that age that was mature as he was,” said Johnson, a coach since 1975. “The kid is 17 years old and he’s evaluating himself like a 35-year-old NFL scout. He wanted to be an NFL cornerback, so that’s what he made himself into.”
Gilmore’s technique was raw, but he started as a true freshman and started all 40 games for the Gamecocks in three seasons.
Gilmore honed his technique battling Jeffery every day in practice. In SEC play, Gilmore covered A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and several other players who reached the NFL. Those battles brought out Gilmore’s competitive side.
“Every now and then at practice, you’d look back and they’d be fighting like hell,” Johnson said of Gilmore and Jeffery. “A lot of times it’d get heated up and they’d get wrestling over the ball, and then it would be over in five seconds.”
And like at South Pointe, Gilmore’s college coaches never worried about him getting into trouble. He began dating Gabrielle Glenn, a sprinter at South Carolina who was a 2010 All-American in the 4 x 400-meter relay. The two married in 2014.
“He was never on the academic report, missing too many classes or anything like that,” Johnson said. “He just focused on the task at hand and got it done.”
Chance to play for a winner
Gilmore declared for the NFL Draft after three seasons. His coaches thought he’d maybe be a second-round pick. After showing off a 4.38 in the 40, 36-inch vertical leap, and his stellar three-cone score, Gilmore became the 10th overall pick in the draft, the second cornerback off the board.
Gilmore’s draft position, and newfound millions, didn’t change his attitude.
“He was a kid that was always on time, always had his books, ready to pay attention, ready to listen,” said Martin, who sat next to Gilmore in team meetings in 2012. “We would sit down in team meetings and go over fines for the week, and never once did you hear his name called.”
Gilmore was still raw when the Bills drafted him, and the instability in Buffalo didn’t help. He had five defensive coordinators in five seasons and didn’t really start coming into his own until his third or fourth year.
There are two knocks on Gilmore — he’s not the most physical tackler, and he’s had an injury bug. He has played in 68 of a possible 80 games, and made it through all 16 games just once in five seasons, his rookie year.
Gilmore had major surgery to repair a torn labrum in December 2015 but responded by playing in 15 games last season, securing five interceptions and earning his first Pro Bowl selection.
Gilmore is best used as a physical, press-man corner, but his willingness to take coaching and do whatever is asked of him should help him thrive in New England, where Belichick wants things done precisely.
“The most important thing is he is going to go out there and do exactly what they ask him to do,” said Thurman, the ex-Bills defensive coordinator. “He’s a pro all the way around. He handles his business, he’s on time. He’s going to thrive with their coaching staff and the way they do business.”
The new contract doesn’t seem to have changed Gilmore, either. He has been working out in Charlotte four days a week since January, putting in eight-hour days with multiple workouts and massage work.
“My phrase for Steph is ‘silent but violent,’ ” said Jeremy Boone, Gilmore’s personal trainer in Charlotte. “As far as competitiveness, he won’t say a word, but nobody hates losing more than him. We kind of have fun — how can I get him riled up in the moment? But he’s kind of a straight-laced guy.”
The Patriots were on Gilmore from the start of free agency after facing him eight times in five years, but several teams were hot on his trail — the Bears, Titans, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Jaguars, and others. The Patriots stepped up their offer at the last minute to land their cornerback, and Gilmore, who has never played in the postseason, is excited to play for a winning organization.
Gilmore has been texting with Devin McCourty, excited to get started with the Patriots’ offseason workouts in April.
“It’s surreal when you go in there and see [the Super Bowl trophies],” Gilmore said of Gillette Stadium. “They just brought me in to hopefully be a piece to go get another one.”