By Brian Wagenaar
The historic 2021 Mountaineer Football season has officially come to a close, and Top o’ the World is running a short “senior spotlight” series highlighting Western players who are graduating, or have one year of eligibility remaining due to covid-19 eligibility rules.
Our third feature highlights redshirt senior wide receiver Elijah Garcia Gillespie, who graduated from Western in Dec. 2021.
For redshirt senior wide receiver Elijah Garcia Gillespie, Mountaineer Football is a family affair. He has five siblings, and both his brothers, Gabe (2014-15) and EJ (2006-2010), played football at Western; “From a very young age, I was familiar with Gunnison, [because] I was going there for his games all the time. It was a totally different place back then, it’s crazy since I’ve come out [here] how much it’s grown.”
Garcia Gillespie’s recruitment out of high school in Denver did not always come easy. “My high school actually lost twenty games straight, my junior and senior season we did not win a game at all,” he says. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Garcia Gillespie, who was already playing on the varsity squad, had drawn a lot of attention, including from some Division-I schools, but the recruiting interest in him waned as the team struggled. “A school that has an 0-20 record, not many schools recruit there,” he adds.
Nevertheless, Garcia Gillespie’s individual efforts stood out, and he accumulated nearly 4000 total combined rushing, returning, and receiving yards across four seasons, finding the endzone 22 times. Growing up, Garcia Gillespie tried his hand at baseball, basketball, and track (largely as a complement to his football training), but football has always been his truest passion. He ended up with scholarship offers from Black Hills State in South Dakota, Colorado Mesa (where his childhood best friend committed to play football), and Western, along with a smattering of preferred walk-on offers at Division-I schools.
When he made his official visit to Western, Garcia Gillespie said it felt like the coaching staff already understood who he was as both a person and a player. His familial connections to the Mountaineers, which he describes as an opportunity to build on a family legacy, certainly didn’t hurt either. While he nearly committed to Mesa, he opted for Gunnison instead after falling in love with the campus and “buying in” to Coach Bains vision for a championship team, despite Western’s struggles at the time of his commitment (the team had a 4-7 season in 2015).
“Coach Bains had always told me that we bring guys in to win a Conference Championship,” says Garcia Gillespie. He notes that Western’s team don’t always pass the “bus test” by boasting the most physically impressive and intimidating players upon arrival, but instead the Mountaineers attract, recruit, and develop players who believe in the system and are devoted to helping the team win. “The guys who stuck it through [over the seasons] were the ones that had that similar background, kind of being overlooked and having that chip on their shoulder,” he notes.
Garcia Gillespie stepped foot on campus in 2016, seeing the field in four games and making two catches in the team’s final game. That season was Austin Ekeler’s swansong at Western, and his nearly 1500 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns guided Western to a 7-4 record. “I played as a true freshman, they pulled my redshirt halfway through the season,” says Garcia Gillespie, “Being around that group of guys was a surreal feeling… especially coming from my high school team which hadn’t won a game in two years.”
Garcia Gillespie redshirted his sophomore year (the Mountaineers went 1-11 in 2017), before making the leap to regular playing time in 2018, catching 28 passes for 266 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns on a 2-9 squad. In his redshirt junior campaign, Garcia Gillespie evenly matched his 2018 production, totalling 31 catches for 266 yards once more as the Mountaineers improved to 5-6. He is quick to point out that the Mountaineers were a couple friendly bounces from a winning season, having dropped a tight 24-22 contest to New Mexico Highlands University (and losing two other games by eight points or less).
The 2020 campaign saw the Mountaineers playing a singular game amidst Covid-19 outbreaks and concern. That season saw some players opt-out for the season, as well as players who later decided to forgo their remaining eligibility and move on from Mountaineer Football. But Garcia Gillespie saw the extra year as an opportunity, tacking on additional coursework in finance and sales and returning for the highly anticipated 2021 season along with a deep and experienced squad.
“For me, I always knew I wanted to finish. I had to see it through, everything we worked for, all the stuff we went through, that was our year to basically cash out for it after turning the program around,” he says. Regarding his decision to remain with the team in 2020 and into 2021, Garcia Gillespie adds: “I wanted to be there for the younger guys who were just coming into college as freshmen. It was a weird experience for everybody, but leaving your parents in a time where the world basically shut down and being in a remote town like Gunnison, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for them,” he says.
He notes that he benefited from upperclassmen leadership just a few years back when he made the life-altering decision to move to the Western Slope of Colorado. “Being a city kid, I never really pictured myself living anywhere other than a city. Living in a place like Gunnison, a very remote place, it was challenging for me the first two years, you felt like you were kind of isolated.”
Heading into 2021, Garcia Gillespie served as a veteran leader for a historically strong Mountaineer receiving corps, notching 19 grabs for more than 170 yards and two scores en route to a shared RMAC Conference Championship and a long-awaited playoff berth. He finishes his Mountaineer career with 80 catches for more than 700 yards, as well as multiple Honorable Mention awards for his success in the classroom.
Garcia Gillespie describes the 2021 iteration of Mountaineer Football as “relentless”, and believes the success of Western Football is the result of trusting the developmental process and putting faith in the decisions and vision of the coaching staff. “As we moved on, we lost some guys who just couldn’t buy in, but the guys who bought in are a [big] part of the reason we are where we are today,” he says. “Anything that was thrown our way, we never really backed down from it.”
Garcia Gillespie cherished the opportunity to earn his degree while playing a sport he loves, and was grateful to learn something new every day from his teammates, coaches, and professors while making lifelong memories. “Something I’ll always remember is walking off the field after we played Nebraska-Kearney and realizing this is the last time I’ll step on the field or play on this field is kind of a surreal moment. And I can still in my head picture the scoreboard…and the grass, and the clouds. It’s something I will never forget.”
Looking to the future, Garcia Gillespie sees a team loaded with budding talent, and believes that trend will only continue as Western’s recruiting benefits from the team’s recent success. “Especially in the receiving room, it was a very competitive group,” he notes. This year, freshman Cole Riters led the team in total receiving yards (444), while redshirt sophomore Damian Macias led the team in receptions, snagging 33.
“The receiving corps next year is going to be something very special,” says Garcia Gillespie, who sees big-time success ahead for Riters and Macias in their remaining years of eligibility. “As a receiving corps we always [said] that we wanted to be the best that Western has ever seen. And I think that we raised the bar to that, and I think it’s going to keep being raised higher and higher,” he notes, highlighting other promising young receivers like Sage Yazzie and Drew Montez that played well in fall camp, but were ultimately redshirted due to the Mountaineer’s excellent receiver depth, which saw eight receivers make 10 or more catches in 2021.
With quarterback Connor Desch and star running back Josh Cummings among the returning players, Garcia Gillespie is highly optimistic about the Mountaineer’s immediate prospects. “I just think they [the Mountaineers] have a lot of great things building. I’m excited to see what they accomplish as a team next year, and I think they’re going to be probably a better team than they were this year…I’m excited for Coach Bains and the coaching staff to build off this winning season to return Mountaineer Football to [greatness].”
Garcia Gillespie wrapped up his time at Western in December 2021 with a degree in Business Administration and emphases in Marketing, Management, and Finance, as well as a minor in Sales. Garcia Gillespie first became interested in business through a Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) program in high school, which aims to train future entrepreneurs and leaders in the business world. Garcia Gillespie, naturally, competed in the sports marketing competition offered by DECA. “I’ve always wondered what I want to do with my life after football. I want to stay in a competitive environment, and [business] led me down that line.”
Garcia Gillespie will soon move to Owatonna, Minnesota for a training program with his new employer, Federated Insurance, which will last up to a year. Afterwards, he plans to return to Denver and continue his young career with the company, chasing his goal of leading teams off the field. “Hopefully in five years I find myself in a leadership role helping others accomplish their dreams,” he says. “I hope to be in a position where I can give back to [my] community, whether it’s in sports or homeless [shelters] or food banks, whatever it is, finding a way to give back to the communities I live in.”
Garcia Gillespie is also looking forward to spending more time pursuing off-the-field interests, including fitness and wellness activities that are not laser-focused on improving onfield performance, and honing his culinary passion in the kitchen. “It’ll probably be nice not being a college athlete anymore so I don’t feel as self-conscious about what I eat,” he says with a grin.
Having completed his degree, helped raise an RMAC Conference Championship banner, and officially hung up his cleats after six years of hard work on and off the field, Garcia Gillespie is excited to live life to the fullest outside the confines of the demanding student-athlete lifestyle for the first time in a long while. That said, the positive memories he made at Western will not soon be forgotten. “Even though I’m a city kid, Gunnison is always going to have a special place in my heart,” he says.