Before he got engaged at a shooting range last year, Crockett Gillmore hid his girlfriend's family in a barn. Only this was Bushland, Texas, and the July heat was too much, and their clothing much too nice. He insisted they wear boots and jeans, as he did.
Before he got down on bended knee, Gillmore's girlfriend fired an AR-15 rifle at an arrangement of tiles. Behind it was a message: "Hayley, will you marry me?" Only she missed the target the first two times, connecting finally on the third burst.
Before he slipped a ring on her finger, Gillmore waited for a response. Only she was more taken aback than he maybe had expected. "Oh, my God, I have a gun in my hand," she pointed out. "Yeah, I know," he said. "I gave it to you." Then she said yes, and they could laugh at the ludicrousness of it all.
"It was chaos," Gillmore, now married, recalled last month. That has been the essence of Gillmore's past year with the Ravens: chaos, both the kind that can lift you up and the kind that can put you down.
He emerged as the team's top option at tight end last season after a free-agency departure, an injury and too much production to ignore. He ended last season on injured reserve. He returned this week from a hamstring injury suffered on the second day of practice and finds himself among seven tight ends on the 90-man roster. It's a crowded position group, but Gillmore is the only one in it who coach John Harbaugh last year said would become "one of the best tight ends in the league."
"It's really an open battle for the spot, but at the end of the day, we're all on the same team," Gillmore said early in training camp. "We're all here to make the team better. We're here to win games and help the team maybe win the one-on-one battles at the end of the game we didn't get last year. We've got guys that have done it. We've got guys that can do it. It's just putting it all together."
It all came together for Gillmore last season partly because of the guys who couldn't do it.
A third-round selection in the 2014 draft out of Colorado State, he had 10 catches for 121 yards and one touchdown as a rookie. The following March, Ravens tight end Owen Daniels signed with the Denver Broncos. Four months later, Dennis Pitta was placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list, having dislocated and fractured his hip each of the past two years.
The two veterans ahead of Gillmore on the depth chart were out of the picture. Two rookies, second-round pick Maxx Williams and fifth-rounder Nick Boyle, couldn't take their place. In Week 1, he started against the Broncos. Gillmore's two catches for 23 yards were overshadowed by the game's final play, an end-zone jump ball he couldn't bring in. Denver's interception sealed a 19-13 win.
"I have to come down with that," he said after the game. "I was given the opportunity and I just have to come up with the play."
Rarely did he not in 2015. He was targeted 46 times in 10 games and finished with the fourth-most yards per target (9.0) among the league's tight ends, according to Pro Football Focus. His 412 yards ranked third overall on the Ravens, a total that could have been so much bigger, more Texas sized. He missed two games in October with a calf injury, then went on the IR in December with a back injury. Oh, and he'd played through much of the season with a torn labrum in both shoulders.
"He's just going to improve in everything, really," Ravens tight end coach Richard Angulo said. "Execution of the small things, really."
The true measure of that improvement comes with the return of Pitta and arrival of Ben Watson, now a Raven after a career year with the New Orleans Saints. Williams should improve, as Gillmore did in his second year, and the suspended Nick Boyle (10 games) and Darren Waller (four games) both produced during the Ravens' opening preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday.
Also in the mix is Daniel Brown, a converted wide receiver who — while a long shot to make the team — has the former construction worker with the Dave Navarro beard to thank for helping ease his position switch. Gillmore, Brown said, was the one who approached him last year with the idea about changing positions. He was the one who lent his run-blocking expertise in drills when the Ravens were off the clock.
Gillmore doesn't just welcome competition; in one sense, he has created it.
"I want to learn from these other guys," he said Wednesday. "The fact that I can see it, that's something I can learn from every day, whether it's how they practice or the way they walk or talk."
Gillmore's weeks-long absence from the practice fields followed an eventful offseason. In May, he earned his bachelor's degree in sociology at Colorado State, after completing his final three classes online. Last month, he completed the 1,600-plus-mile trip from Colorado to Baltimore before the start of training camp in his Dodge pickup truck.
In between, Gillmore tied the knot with Hayley, a former women's basketball player he met in school. (Their wedding hashtag: #HappyGillmores.) When he saw her walking down the aisle, he was overcome with emotion. That was unexpected. But then, so was his Independence Day proposal the summer before.
As he recounted his wedding day, he was asked about the happy couple's first dance. He groaned in self-reproach: It was … something by Alison Krauss. An older song. You'd know it when you hear it, he said. "She's going to shoot me for not knowing."