All throughout the preseason, Jon Halapio kept saying the same thing: “It hasn’t sunk in.”
The “it” was the building indication — which eventually grew to a reality — that he was going to be the starting center for the Giants. And it’s hard to blame him for not acknowledging his position after his wild journey.
The 27-year-old has spent the last few years bouncing between teams at various levels of professional football, from NFL practice squads to the now defunct FXFL, selling used cars in Florida in 2015, switching positions from guard to center, working his way up the Giants’ roster from literally the last man on the team, and never even making an opening day roster until this, his fifth season in the league.
When he takes the field against the Jaguars, though, the reality of his situation will be unavoidable.
“That’s when it’ll really hit me,” Halapio said this past week. “On Sunday.”
That’s when it is likely to hit the rest of the offensive line, too. The Giants open their season Sunday against the Jaguars at MetLife Stadium and are a club brimming with optimism and potential. For that to be realized, however, the completely overhauled offensive line will have to come together quickly.
What’s also about to sink in is whether these five can keep the entire team’s ambitions afloat.
Halapio’s route to the starting offensive line may be the most circuitous, but not one of them has had a path that has been direct. All five are either playing their first game at a new position or with a new team. There are two first-rounders (left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Ereck Flowers) and one who came into the NFL undrafted (right guard Patrick Omameh). There is a tackle who has never played a professional season that fell short of the conference championship game (Solder) next to a guard who hasn’t won a game since 2016 (left guard Will Hernandez). And in the middle is the former car salesman whose gray hairs belie his lack of on-field experience.
One thing they do share is having something to prove, both individually and as members of the Giants.
“Everybody’s got their own story,” offensive line coach Hal Hunter said. “Everybody comes from a different place and what they want to try and show the NFL and the people that are going to be watching them play. Everybody’s got their own unique story. Am I a rookie and playing for the first time? Am I playing in a different position? Did I leave one zip code and come to another? Everybody’s got something they’re trying to establish.”
As Giants linemen, too. The position has been much maligned, scapegoated rightly or wrongly for much of the frustrating results in recent years.
The names have changed. Now the narrative must, too.
The other thing they have in common is that they have been working together almost exclusively all summer. Instead of experimenting with different combinations during training camp, the Giants have played just about every rep since July with the same five up front.
“Every snap we get out there on the field with those guys being together, collectively offensively, we feel like we’re going to get better,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “We don’t have a lot of time on task together.”
“You can tell our guys are talented, it means a lot to them, they communicate very well,” he said. “And now it’s time. We’ve got live bullets coming Sunday against a really good team. We feel very comfortable with those guys, and [I’m] looking forward to them helping lead our offense.”
But it’s a very large stone they must carry. Pat Shurmur said this summer that the Giants will go only “as far as that line can block for us.” They’ve all come a long way to get to this point and this team. Now together they need to pull the team forward.
“They’ve got two jobs,” Hunter said. “They’ve got to protect the quarterback and play good run football. Offensive line play is real simple. That’s all they’ve got to do. And if they do that, you have a good chance to win.
“If they don’t,” he added, “probably not going to win.”