Greg Van Roten may have dreamed of playing in the NFL, but he never imagined his dream would actually be realized — until now.
Van Roten, a 2012 graduate, recently signed a deal with the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad after participating in the team’s training camp.
He’s come a long way since his high school days, when his coaches told him he was “unlikely to ever play Division I football.”
“I used that as fuel,” Van Roten said.
Penn took a chance on the Long Island native and it quickly paid dividends. Though he did not see any varsity action in his freshman season, he started all 10 games at left tackle as a sophomore, was named first-team All-Ivy as a junior and was a unanimous choice for that recognition as a senior.
“All of a sudden, it seemed possible, that I had the skills and the athleticism to just go for it and see what happened,” Van Roten said. “Like all this work could maybe pay off.”
Van Roten’s offensive line coach, Jon McLaughlin, made a similar assessment.
“He came here with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder,” McLaughlin said of the then-undersized Van Roten. “He was probably [a] 6-foot-3, 235-pound high school senior, but he was extremely athletic. We could see from the beginning how athletic and how competitive he was.”
McLaughlin said Van Roten put on 15-20 pounds of muscle every year and ultimately played at 290 pounds in his senior season.
“It’s a great testament to his work ethic, he took that very flexible and athletic frame and combined it with a lot of strength and muscle and power,” McLaughlin said. “I’m awfully proud of how far he’s come and this opportunity he’s earned with his determination.”
The next step for Van Roten after his senior season was to get his name out, which he hoped to do at Penn’s Pro Day. At Pro Day, NFL scouts attend and analyze players their teams may be interested in drafting or inviting to minicamps.
But even then, there didn’t seem to be much interest in the three Quakers trying out. That, Van Roten said, was a little discouraging.
His solution was to create a website where he posted his career notes, Pro Day results, and a comparison between his results and the NFL Combine numbers of other offensive linemen. The fifth-fastest 40-yard dash time at the regional combine was 5.11 seconds; Van Roten ran it in 5.06. The top vertical jump was 32.5 inches; Van Roten’s was 34.5. His broad jump of 9 feet, 4 inches matched the second-best finish at the combine.
Van Roten then sent the website out to “everyone [he] could think of,” and that’s when the calls started to come in.
He was invited to play at minicamps hosted by the New York Jets, the San Diego Chargers and the Green Bay Packers, but he could only participate at the Jets and Chargers camps.
Though he performed well at each camp, he didn’t get an invitation back from either team.
“That was probably the low point — I got really discouraged,” Van Roten admitted. “But my mom told me that I needed to commit to my Plan A and forget about Plan B. She said if I thought about my Plan B, I wouldn’t commit to my Plan A, and she was right. I just had to keep trying.”
Then came the unexpected call from Green Bay, just days before the Packers opened training camp.
“I guess they liked what they saw at the other camps, because they invited me to preseason training,” he said.
Van Roten participated in all of training and made it onto Green Bay’s preliminary 90-man roster. He made it through the first round of roster cuts, when the team had to reduce its numbers to 75 players, but when the Packers had to shrink again to the regular season total of 53, Van Roten didn’t make the cut.
But when the 22-year-old cleared waivers, the Packers placed him on their eight-man practice squad.
“I just tried to show that I was coachable and I could take their techniques and coaching points, and I tried my best to improve every day from the last day,” he said. “I think they just took a chance on me.”
And now that he’s been signed to the practice squad for the season, his mind can relax a little bit and he can enjoy the fact that he gets to play another season of football.
The learning curve, however, has been steep.
The speed of the game is completely different, he explained, because everyone is so much stronger and faster than Ivy League players. All he could do was learn as he went and try to adjust as quickly as possible.
And even though he had proved himself to the coaching staff, Van Roten admitted he was a little starstruck at the beginning.
“The first couple of days, I was shocked seeing Aaron Rodgers in the locker room. I kept thinking ‘Why am I here, how did I get here?’” he recalled. “But you just have to remind yourself that you belong here, that they saw something in you that they wanted to keep around.”
While Van Roten learns the Green Bay offense and the NFL ropes, the 2012 Quakers will have to adjust to an offensive line without him.
“He’s a singular kid, so I’m not sure it’s fair to say we’re going to replace him,” head coach Al Bagnoli said last week at Penn’s media day.
Bagnoli expressed confidence in his returning offensive line — many of whom Van Roten helped lead and teach.
“The biggest thing I learned from Greg was to see every play through to the end,” senior lineman Joe Bonadies said. “He was always aggressive and always determined and I know his drive is going to be a huge asset for him in the future.”