When he walks into the Packers' practice facility, offensive lineman Greg Van Roten admits he sometimes feels like a tourist. Everywhere the rookie offensive lineman from Rockville Centre looks, he is reminded that he is part of NFL royalty.
"The first thing you see are the four Lombardi Trophies," Van Roten, a 2012 Penn graduate who played his high school football at Chaminade, said of the Super Bowl championship hardware named for legendary Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi. "Then you see the retired jerseys on the walls and all the photos of the great players. Honestly, it's surreal."
But Van Roten's journey from Chaminade of the CHSFL to Penn of the Ivy League to a storied NFL team as an undrafted free agent is a very real study in perseverance.
For now, special teams are the only way for Van Roten to get on the field, but even that seemed like a long shot.
"A few months ago, I was sitting on my couch, and now I'm playing for one of the best franchises in NFL history with one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history [Aaron Rodgers],'' he said. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'Why am I here? How am I here?' But I'll do everything I can to stay here."
The "why'' and "how'' questions are answered by going back to last fall, when Van Roten finished his senior season for the University of Pennsylvania and was told by some NFL scouts who watched him practice that he wasn't ready for the next level. "But I was too stubborn to take the word of someone who hadn't seen me play in a game," the 6-3, 295-pound Van Roten said.
He worked out with a personal trainer, did well on the "measurables" at various pro days -- bench press, vertical jump, agility drill, 40-yard dash, broad jump -- but still was told by scouts he wouldn't be drafted.
A graduate of Penn's renowned Wharton School of Business, Van Roten put some of those marketing skills to use. He created a still-active website -- GregVanRoten.weebly.com -- that featured a college highlights video and the statistics that NFL scouts look for at various combines. He went online to track down NFL player personnel people and sent them the link to his website.
The Chargers and Jets invited him to work out in early May, and though he thought he did well, Van Roten wasn't invited to training camp. In mid-July, the Packers called to invite him in for a one-man tryout on July 23.
"I didn't know what to expect and I didn't think I did all that well," Van Roten said. "They had me doing drills alone, with two offensive line coaches and eight or nine scouts. All eyes were on me. Afterward, I heard the same thing I'd heard from the Chargers and Jets. 'We like you but we don't have any room.' But they told me to stay overnight in the hotel because camp opened the next day. That was a long night."
But it was well worth the agonizing wait. Two players were cut the next day and Van Roten was invited to training camp. He was a quick study and got into all four preseason games, wearing No. 54.
The morning after the final preseason game, he was called into the coach's office. He remembers the conversation well. "They told me, 'It's bad news/good news. The bad news is we're cutting you, but the good news is we want to sign you to the practice squad,' " Van Roten said.
There was another long night; he had to wait 24 hours to clear waivers before he was signed. He is learning the center position as well as both guard spots and stayed on the practice squad for six weeks before an injury opened up a spot for him in Week 7. He was "active'' for three weeks but did not play until last week against the Lions, when he made his NFL debut blocking on five kickoff returns.
"I'm starting on the kickoff return team right now. I'll be there the rest of the season if I don't screw it up," Van Roten said.
Watching his every move Sunday night at MetLife Stadium will be his parents: Tom, a Jets fan like his son used to be, and Cathy.
"When he made the practice squad, we immediately bought the NFL Ticket [TV] package," Cathy said. "And we ordered a box of No. 64 jerseys. I never really followed the NFL. Now you can't get me out of the house on Sundays."
Cathy Van Roten was part of the inspiration for her son's doggedness. "When I was working out and trying to plan my future in case football didn't work out, my mom said, 'If you have a Plan B, you'll never fully commit to Plan A.' So I concentrated strictly on football."
And Plan A is working out just fine.