Surrounded by family at a crawfish boil at his home in Katy, Cullen Gillaspia received a telephone call unprecedented in the rich 12th Man tradition.
When Texans general manager Brian Gaine dialed up the burly, long-haired Texas A&M fullback in the seventh and final round of the draft, the AFC South franchise acquired a hometown player with a reputation as a head-knocking special-teams ace and a bruising lead blocker.
Gillaspia became the first 12th man in school history to be drafted by an NFL team.
Steeped in a 12th Man tradition launched in 1922 when Aggies student E. King Gill left the stands to join the shorthanded Aggies on the sideline against Centre College in the Dixie Classic, Gillaspia is a former walk-on from Katy Taylor who earned a scholarship.
Now, he’s a fully-fledged NFL rookie.
“When I got that call, it was really just a surreal moment,” Gillaspia said. “Five years ago, I was a walk-on at Texas A&M. I was on the scout team for two years. If you would have told me that I’d be getting drafted right now, I would have laughed in your face. But it happened. All my best friends are Houston Texans, my family are Houston Texans, and I couldn’t be happier.
“My dad is literally busting at the seams with happiness and my mom is happy with me just staying home, and my brother is just happy he doesn’t have to root for anyone other than the hometown team. It was a great experience. I’m happy I couldn’t be more excited for the situation, and I’m ready to get to work.”
Knows how to beat the odds
With all-out hustle, his trademark relentless nature and deceptive speed, Gillaspia loves beating the odds.
Gillaspia emerged as something of a campus rock star in recent years. His popularity kept growing in College Station through his thunderous tackles on special teams and his blue-collar work opening up holes for All-Southeastern Conference running back Trayveon Williams, a Cincinnati Bengals sixth-round draft pick.
More than a curiosity at his school as converted linebacker, Gillaspia parlayed a strong senior year into becoming an NFL draft prospect. He played in every game, catching five passes for 52 yards, recording six tackles on special-teams and ran for a touchdown in a Gator Bowl blowout victory over North Carolina State. He won the Aggies’ Most Impactful award for his special-teams handiwork.
All heady stuff for a player who toiled away on the scout team before earning a scholarship as a sophomore and being named a team captain as a junior when he blocked two punts, including one for a safety against Alabama.
“He’s a unique guy in his position,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters following the draft. “He’s extremely athletic, and what he brings to special teams in the NFL, which we emphasize, too, it’s one of the great rewards you get in coaching. It really is.
“It’s great to see a guy who never really thought about playing in the NFL, but once he realized he could, it’s a credit to him and his coaches. They developed him, and he allowed them to do that.”
A former all-district linebacker and return specialist who played baseball and served as vice president of the Katy Taylor student body, Gillaspia captured the imagination of Aggies fans with his rugged style of play.
From the days of Gill to former Aggies coach Jackie Sherrill forming a 12th Man kickoff team from Corps of Cadets members and other students in the 1980s, the legend of the 12th Man lives on in College Station and through Gillaspia.
“It means everything,” Gillaspia said. “They say that I’m the 12th Man or that I’m number 12 and I’ve made this thing popular, but that’s not true. The 12th Man and Texas A&M have such a rich history from E. King Gill in the early 1900s all the way to Jackie Sherrill of the 12th Man kickoff team.
“Me getting drafted, me scoring the touchdown in the bowl game, this is for all of the number 12s before me. It’s not about me. It’s about the brotherhood. It’s about the guys that came before me and laid the foundation for me to get to wear the number 12.”
Now, No. 12 is wearing the No. 44 jersey for the Texans after impressing coaches and scouts during their local prospect day at NRG Stadium.
Gillaspia will have an opportunity to earn a roster spot, primarily on special teams working for special-teams coordinator Brad Seely, but also blocking for running backs Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman.
“We’ll start him off on offense as a fullback, and he was an excellent special teams player there (at A&M),” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “Was the 12th man at Texas A&M. I think everybody understands what that means there. Our scouts did an awesome job getting him into our local pro day. We’re excited to be able to add him to our team.”
Between his 4.57 time in the 40-yard dash at the Aggies’ Pro Day audition and 6-2, 235-pound frame, Gillaspia has the physical requisites and the temperament to excel on special teams.
Declining scholarship offers from smaller schools, Gillaspia enrolled at Texas A&M to study environmental science. He joined the team as a walk-on during the tenure of former coach Kevin Sumlin. It took a few years, but Gillaspia assumed the coveted 12th Man role when Sam Moeller graduated.