Gilliam worked hard in rehabilitation, taking his medication regularly and doing every prescribed step to ensure he would be ready for the first game. So when he met with doctors on Monday, the news was much better.
"He asked me if I wanted to play," Gilliam said in a Tuesday interview. "I thought it was the stupidest question I had ever heard in my life."
The injury occurred early in Purdue's preseason camp when Gilliam got his pinky finger caught in a teammate's jersey. He continued through practice and even participated in workouts, but the pain grew. It wasn't until he received an x-ray when he learned the severity of his injury. Gilliam had a pin inserted in his finger, but it was removed last week, allowing him to take the field again.
The night before Gilliam's return to the field, he couldn't sleep he was so excited. He past the doctors' tests, but he still needed to prove his level of conditioning would pass for game-ready. He demonstrated so in Tuesday's practice.
"I really thought I was going to come out here and die today, but it wasn't that bad at all," said Gilliam. "I made it through practice and didn't trip over myself or fall over anybody, so that's good."
Gilliam, a junior from Indianapolis, brings a lot to the table for Purdue. He posted 57 tackles—including 41 solo tackles—in 2012 and was a key figure in the middle of the defense. But above all attributes, Gilliam's leadership stands out.
"You can just feel the different presence, just from a guy out there yelling things with confidence, getting the guys lined up," defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. "I think they guys feel confident when he's in there."
Junior defensive end Ryan Russell—who started all 13 games with Gilliam last season—agrees with the defensive coordinator's sentiments.
"Joe is one of those players that makes players around him play better," Russell said. "Having him back in the middle is a great asset for our team."
When the Boilermakers take the field in Cincinnati, they'll have Gilliam, their leader in the middle of the defense. Just a few weeks ago, it didn't appear that he would be in uniform.
"This is what I love doing," Gilliam said. "It's great to be back out here."