Harvard's Ortiz eyes landing spot in NFL

Harvard defensive end Josue Ortiz working out at Harvard defensive end Josue Ortiz working out at the Parisi Speed School in Fair Lawn, NJ. (April 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

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FAIR LAWN, N.J.

Near the end of his predraft news conference Thursday, Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum offered words of hope for every would-be NFL player, especially those fringe players struggling to make their mark.

"There's a Jeremy Lin story in the NFL," Tannenbaum said, referring to the Knicks guard's unlikely emergence, while discussing two of the Jets' younger players. "Why can't it be in that locker room? Why can't it be [guard] Caleb Schlauderaff? Why can't it be [linebacker] Ricky Sapp?"

Or why can't it be Josue Ortiz, who is about to begin a journey remarkably similar to Lin's as he prepares for his NFL career?

Same school. Same daunting challenge.

Like Lin, Ortiz was a star at Harvard, winning Ivy League defensive player of the year honors last season; Lin was the runner-up to Cornell's Ryan Wittman for Ivy League basketball player of the year. Ortiz now dreams of a professional career the way Lin once did before getting his break with the Knicks earlier this season. Like his basketball-playing counterpart, with whom Ortiz occasionally chatted and had meals while the two were at Harvard, Ortiz now will try to take advantage of his own break to make it in the sport he loves.

And who knows? Ortiz just might get that break in the same city as Lin; the Jets and Giants have worked him out in advance of this week's draft. Ortiz might have to go the free-agent route the way Lin did, or he might be a lower-round pick. Either way, all he's asking for is a chance.

"When you play at a school like Harvard, it's hard to get recognized, it's hard to stand out on film because there's an understanding [among NFL scouts] that you're not really playing against schools with scholarship players," Ortiz said after a workout at the Parisi Speed School in Fair Lawn, where he has spent the offseason preparing for the draft. "So it's definitely tough to make a name for yourself. There are a lot of good football players in the Ivy League, but they get pushed to the side and get overlooked."

The few current Crimson alums in the NFL include Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ravens center Matt Birk and Raiders defensive tackle Desmond Bryant. Fitzpatrick and former Chicago Bears offensive tackle Dan Jiggetts are among the most notable Harvard grads in the NFL.

Ortiz, who is 6-5, 253 pounds, is projected as either a defensive end in a 4-3 alignment, which the Giants use, or an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, used by the Jets.

"I'm going to do my best to show people that I have what it takes," he said.

If his unlikely career path is any indication, it would be unwise to bet against him.

Ortiz, who grew up about 60 miles south of Orlando in Avon Park, Fla., graduated high school at age 15 as class valedictorian. He was recruited by college football powerhouse Florida State at age 17 but wound up attending Harvard after deciding that an Ivy League diploma was worth passing up a chance at a more traditional football-centric school.

He graduated in December with a degree in economics and plans to pursue a career in law after what he hopes will be a long and productive NFL career.

"No one in my county had ever gone to Harvard, and my parents, coming from Puerto Rico, believed in the value of education," said Ortiz, 22, the oldest of Julio and Gladys Ortiz's six children. They moved to Florida in 1995. "I was on the fast track going to Florida State, and some ACC schools had recruited me. But Harvard came knocking, I applied early, got in, and the rest is history."

Gladys Ortiz often was amazed, if not a little frightened, by how driven her son was during his high school years. After receiving enough credits to graduate at an age when most kids are just starting out in high school, Josue enrolled in a community college and took additional courses. He would ride his bicycle 20 miles round trip each day, getting back in time to practice for the Avon Park High team. He held down a job at a nearby grocery store, too.

She pulled him aside one day and talked about his busy schedule. "I said, 'Josue, this is so much work. Why do you do it?' " she recalled. "He said straight out, 'Mom, if it was easy, everybody would do it.' He knew exactly what he wanted, and he's driven to get it. That told me that nobody can tell him what he's going to do. That's Josue."

After being redshirted at Harvard, Ortiz eventually grew into a dominant lineman, winning Ivy League defensive player of the year honors in 2011 with 38 tackles, 10 sacks and 14½ tackles for loss. But making the jump from Ivy League to the NFL won't be easy, just as it wasn't for Lin.

The fact that Lin made it to the NBA is further motivation for Ortiz. "It's great to have Harvard be on the scene like that with Jeremy, developing school pride that you normally don't see coming out of the Ivy League as far as athletics is concerned," Ortiz said.

Lin, currently out with a knee injury, declined comment on Ortiz through a team spokesman.

Ortiz now hopes to carve his own place in the NFL the way Lin has with the Knicks.

"If I make a team, I'll work out every day like I'm trying out,'' he said. "Every day. Every practice. I'm just looking for a chance."

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