Heart Defect Forces Him to Quit Football. After Surgery, He Returns to Field — and Meets Hero Jason Kelce (Exclusive)

Spencer Gilliam plays center for his team and wears number 62, just like Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce

By Hannah Sacks Updated on February 20, 2024 02:09PM EST

Meeting Jason Kelce is a dream for so many fans — but for Spencer Gilliam, it represents a reality he almost didn’t get.

The 17-year-old athlete, who originally hails from Texas, made the journey to Orlando, Florida, recently to attend the Pro Bowl. Spencer, who plays center on his high school football team and wears a jersey with the number 62, was hoping to get to meet one of his heroes: Philadelphia Eagles center Kelce, who also wears number 62.

For Spencer, getting to do things like attend the Pro Bowl is extra special.

“When I was 15 weeks pregnant, my OB found a tumor a quarter of the size of his heart in his left ventricle,” Spencer’s mom Thea Gilliam tells PEOPLE exclusively.

The neonatal cardiologist told us when there are these tumors, the child has a 50 percent chance of having a disease called tuberous sclerosis. This means he could be born with tumors all over his major organs, including his brain, which could lead to severe mental and physical disabilities.”

When he was born a few months later, Spencer was taken to a neighboring children’s hospital. Although doctors discovered he didn’t have any other tumors, they found that he had a leaky, hardened heart valve. His tumor was taken out when he was 2 months old, with doctors telling his parents that they’d eventually need to replace his heart valve when it further deteriorated.

Despite his difficult start, Spencer’s health remained stable over the next few years. While his heart was being monitored, he was able to participate in team sports — and for him, football was everything.

“I started playing in fourth grade because my parents had gotten divorced when I was 7 and we were jumping around schools,” he tells PEOPLE. “I thought we had finally found a school that we were going to stick with. So I started playing football.”

Spencer was able to play until his sixth grade year, when his heart condition began to worsen.

It had gotten too bad when I hit sixth grade that they finally made me quit,” he remembers. “And I was really sad and depressed about it, so that’s when my mom started taking me to Cowboys games, Cowboys meet and greets, making sure I was happy.”


It was then, Thea says, that doctors informed Spencer and his parents that he would no longer be able to play sports. Additionally, in January 2021, doctors scheduled Spencer’s heart valve replacement.

“I was heartbroken,” Spencer remembers of being told he couldn’t play football anymore. “I thought I’d never be able to play again, and football was my dream.”

According to his mom, because of the severity and old scar tissue, the doctors had to open him up again and break his sternum to perform the surgery. “Poor guy couldn’t have any visitors except his parents due to COVID. [It was a] 9 hours surgery and he was able to get off narcotics the next day,” she tells PEOPLE.

After 45 days, doctors had amazing news for the athlete: they were clearing him to return to sports, first baseball and later football.

Teen’s Heart Defect Forces Him to Quit Football. After Surgery, He Returns to Field — and Meets Hero Jason Kelce (Exclusive)


Spencer Gilliam plays center for his team and wears number 62, just like Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce

By Hannah Sacks Updated on February 20, 2024 02:09PM EST
Spencer Gilliam Football injury
Spencer Gilliam. PHOTO: THEA GILLIAM
Meeting Jason Kelce is a dream for so many fans — but for Spencer Gilliam, it represents a reality he almost didn’t get.

The 17-year-old athlete, who originally hails from Texas, made the journey to Orlando, Florida, recently to attend the Pro Bowl. Spencer, who plays center on his high school football team and wears a jersey with the number 62, was hoping to get to meet one of his heroes: Philadelphia Eagles center Kelce, who also wears number 62.

For Spencer, getting to do things like attend the Pro Bowl is extra special.

“When I was 15 weeks pregnant, my OB found a tumor a quarter of the size of his heart in his left ventricle,” Spencer’s mom Thea Gilliam tells PEOPLE exclusively.

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE’s free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

Spencer Gilliam Football injury
Spencer Gilliam. THEA GILLIAM
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“The neonatal cardiologist told us when there are these tumors, the child has a 50 percent chance of having a disease called tuberous sclerosis. This means he could be born with tumors all over his major organs, including his brain, which could lead to severe mental and physical disabilities.”

When he was born a few months later, Spencer was taken to a neighboring children’s hospital. Although doctors discovered he didn’t have any other tumors, they found that he had a leaky, hardened heart valve. His tumor was taken out when he was 2 months old, with doctors telling his parents that they’d eventually need to replace his heart valve when it further deteriorated.

Despite his difficult start, Spencer’s health remained stable over the next few years. While his heart was being monitored, he was able to participate in team sports — and for him, football was everything.

“I started playing in fourth grade because my parents had gotten divorced when I was 7 and we were jumping around schools,” he tells PEOPLE. “I thought we had finally found a school that we were going to stick with. So I started playing football.”

Spencer Gilliam Football injury
Spencer Gilliam with friends. THEA GILLIAM
Spencer was able to play until his sixth grade year, when his heart condition began to worsen.

“It had gotten too bad when I hit sixth grade that they finally made me quit,” he remembers. “And I was really sad and depressed about it, so that’s when my mom started taking me to Cowboys games, Cowboys meet and greets, making sure I was happy.”

It was then, Thea says, that doctors informed Spencer and his parents that he would no longer be able to play sports. Additionally, in January 2021, doctors scheduled Spencer’s heart valve replacement.

“I was heartbroken,” Spencer remembers of being told he couldn’t play football anymore. “I thought I’d never be able to play again, and football was my dream.”

According to his mom, because of the severity and old scar tissue, the doctors had to open him up again and break his sternum to perform the surgery. “Poor guy couldn’t have any visitors except his parents due to COVID. [It was a] 9 hours surgery and he was able to get off narcotics the next day,” she tells PEOPLE.

Spencer Gilliam Football injury
Spencer Gilliam. THEA GILLIAM
After 45 days, doctors had amazing news for the athlete: they were clearing him to return to sports, first baseball and later football.

“I’m still playing to this day,” he proudly says. “I play center and I’m number 62, and we play about 10 games a season. I’m actually working on getting recruited right now to play college ball.”

Spencer sees his cardiologist every year right before summer workouts to monitor the valve integrity. But otherwise, he spends his summers attending college football camps in an effort to get recruited and has had unofficial invites during his junior year.

In addition to his job at Whataburger, the teenager makes money off TikTok by filming and posting videos of all things football. “He makes enough to pay for all his NFL games (even tickets for his closest teammates) and even going to Pro Bowl and training camps,” his mom shares.

This year, Spencer attended the Pro Bowl in Florida and had his sights set on meeting one of his biggest heroes: Kelce.

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