Spotlight is on Jets quarterback Greg McElroy, making first NFL start

Greg McElroy #14 of the New York Jets Greg McElroy #14 of the New York Jets scrambles against the Arizona Cardinals at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, December 2 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Greg McElroy's first step out of the MetLife Stadium tunnel will be just as he imagined -- more exhilarating than nerve-wracking, and more meaningful than any other moment in his football life.

He'll jog his way onto the field Sunday afternoon, reminding himself that this is his time, his moment. And then he'll calmly huddle with his teammates before lining up under center for the first time as an NFL starter.

McElroy, the Jets' former third-string quarterback -- who, through the most unimaginable circumstances, was named the starter over Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow -- is no stranger to the spotlight. So while he attempts to lead the Jets to victory over the San Diego Chargers, anxiety will not overcome him.

"You want to play under the brightest lights," said McElroy, 24. "That's what's great about New York. That's what's great about playing for the Jets."

He's played for a national championship at Alabama, and before that, he starred in state playoff games for Southlake Carroll High School in front of Texas crowds as large as 40,000.

"He's always been a real calm and cool and poised young man," his father, Greg McElroy, Sr., said by phone from his Texas home Friday night. "That's probably one of his best character traits. Nothing seems too big for him."

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The Jets (6-8) have no playoffs to play for now. Sanchez's five turnovers against the Titans and late breakdowns by the Jets' defense obliterated all hope of reaching the postseason.

The Chargers (5-9) are just as hopeless, having been eliminated by Carolina last week. But while most will be playing for pride, McElroy will be focused on proving that his game-winning touchdown pass against Arizona on Dec. 2 -- a game in which he replaced a struggling Sanchez -- was no fluke.

Greg Sr. and his wife, Jami, were nervous as they watched that game. But their son, as they expected, rose to the occasion.

"They showed a close-up of him behind center and you could just see it in his face -- as we've seen so many times -- that he was under control," Greg Sr. said. "There was no look of panic in his eyes at all."

Twelve members of the McElroy family flew from Texas to New Jersey Saturday and plan to be "decked out" during the game in green and white -- coincidentally, Southlake Carroll's colors. But there's an entire clan of Cowboys who'll be rooting for McElroy, too.

Greg Sr., the senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Dallas Cowboys, said "the players, the coaches, the Jones family -- they all follow my boy pretty closely. It made me feel really good because I could see the genuine excitement in a lot of those guys. That's what makes it very cool. It's not just our family that's excited for him."

McElroy's coolness under pressure comes from Jami, a "patient and calm" soul, according to her husband. And it's a trait that has served their son well.

Within a sport in which unpredictability is the most certain occurrence of all, the Jets' new starting quarterback said there isn't room for over-analysis or time to entertain what-ifs. The only thing that has changed, he said, is the number of interviews he's now required to do.

"It's OK," he said, smiling at his newfound celebrity. "Probably getting sunburned from the lights, but that's about it."

When he learned his son had won the starting job, Greg Sr. offered a simple message to him: Just enjoy it.

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"This is only going to happen one time in your life, where you're starting your first game," Greg Sr., a former offensive lineman for Hawaii, recalled of their conversation. "I don't want you to get caught up in all the details."

And his son hasn't.

Greg Jr. said he always knew that if he remained patient, he'd get his shot.

"He's just a guy that just refuses to give up," Greg Sr. said. "He just keeps after it. I think that's the greatest thing I can say about him: his work ethic. He refuses to not be the best he can be."

Born in Northridge, Calif. -- and having witnessed some of Los Angeles' great sporting moments firsthand (Greg Sr. worked in the front offices of the L.A. Kings and Dodgers before joining the Cowboys) -- Greg Jr. has always adored Troy Aikman. He'd wear the No. 8 jersey his parents bought him without fail, mimicking throws as if he were the Cowboys' quarterback. After all these years, the jersey remains in the McElroys' Texas home, right in the closet.

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"It's not very big," his father said with a laugh, "but we still have it."

Intelligent, affable and quick-witted, Greg Jr. possesses a perfect blend of qualities rarely seen in athletes his age. The bright lights of the Big Apple have failed to throw him off his game. And regardless of the final score Sunday, there is plenty left for him to do.

"This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the finish line," the Jets' new starting quarterback said. "This is the starting point."

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