Saturday will be the eighteenth time Northwestern and Penn State have played against each other, and to most people, it will be just another game. For Walt and Taryn Gillikin, it will be just the opposite.
Northwestern’s Homecoming football game marks the first time the Gillikins will see their twin boys — Tyler, the redshirt freshman long snapper for the Wildcats and Blake, the sophomore punter for the Nittany Lions — take the field as opponents instead of teammates.
Other than being one minute apart, something Tyler jokingly said his slightly-older brother has always held over him, the two have always had extremely similar interests, something which brought them closer throughout their childhood years.
“You have a best friend built in,” Tyler said. “You always have that one person to rely on just right by your side all the time.”
The brothers grew up playing the same sports in their hometown of Atlanta, Georgia and began playing football together around a decade ago.
One of those sports, soccer, was part of what led Blake to become a punter. “Back then he would score like nine or 10 goals,” Tyler said. “He always had a really strong leg.”
Tyler credited his brother with being “a lot better” at soccer. However, when it came down to football, the two had multiple schools eyeing both of them, including Northwestern, Georgia, Georgia Tech and others.
“Junior year, having (Blake’s) film go to other places because he was very sought out in high school, I was able to get recognition that way,” Tyler said. “Everybody would say ‘who’s the long snapper in your film?’ and my brother would always say me.”
Walt, who was a long snapper when he played football in high school, passed his skills along to Tyler. He was also one of the reasons Northwestern was on his radar in the first place, as he attended the Kellogg School of Management after swimming at the University of North Carolina.
“He wanted to go Northwestern, regardless of football,” Blake told The Morning Call. “When he got the opportunity to play football there, it was too good to pass up.”
Two years after helping their high school team, the Westminster Wildcats, win a Georgia state championship, Tyler has started in all four games of his redshirt freshman season and Blake is averaging 44.4 yards per attempt as the starting punter in his sophomore season.
Although the brothers were never battling for the same positions, Tyler said they were always striving to do exactly the same things academically and athletically, which inevitably led to competition.
“I think that’s what made us both better,” Tyler said. “I think every single thing that we did throughout our first 18 years was competitive …it was definitely something that helped us become who we are right now.”
The twins carried their academic parallels to college, where Blake is now studying kinesiology and Tyler is majoring in biology. Both are on similar tracks, aiming to pursue careers as orthopedic surgeons in the future.
Although the brothers are now playing 582 miles away, Tyler said he and Blake try their best to catch each other’s games whenever their busy schedules permit.
“Last year I was able to watch a lot more than I am this year just because I’ve been traveling every game and playing my own games, but (last year) every single weekend I’d make sure that I knew exactly when my brother was playing so that I could watch him.”
He added that Blake “rushed back” after his own season opener earlier this year and was able to watch Tyler play his first game at Ryan Field, something which “meant a lot” to the (technically) younger brother.
Last time the two schools faced off, Tyler and Blake were seniors in high school, already having committed to play for their respective schools. “Northwestern won that one, so I’ve always had a little something over him just because of that game,” Tyler said.
He added that they call each other almost every week before their games, and this game has been brought up every single time.
The Gillikin family has been extremely supportive of both boys this season. Tyler said their grandparents got a motor home in order to attend both boys’ games.
“Family has always been really important to both of us,” he said. “It’s meant the world to me because last year I don’t think I got to see them as much as I really wanted to and athletics have always been a big part of what me and my brother do. They’ve always been great supporters of that.”
As for which school colors their parents will be wearing in the stands this Saturday, Tyler said they have made special jerseys in order to properly cheer on both boys.
“This is a really big deal for my family,” Blake told The Morning Caller. “It will be really special for us to see each other on the field.”