As the Jets' seventh-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, quarterback Greg McElroy was brought in with an eye toward the future. He enjoyed an impressive training camp, starting slow but making visible, dramatic improvements during August. His play in the preseason opened eyes as he completed 61 percent of his passes for 335 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
In the preseason finale McElroy suffered a dislocated thumb against the Philadelphia Eagles, requiring surgery. He was placed on injured reserve on Sept. 4, ending his rookie year.
McElroy was disappointed but not broken. He finds himself in a familiar position: a backup role.
It may seem hard to believe that a former Texas High School 5-A state champion and former NCAA national champion, was not always the face of his team. But the hard truth is that football never came easy to McElroy.
"I was very average, bordering on being bad," said McElroy after speaking to a group of youth football players in the past week. "At the same time, I think that's why I liked it so much. Struggling at a young age and working hard allowed me to want it even more."
His career began as an offensive lineman in third grade. He played center until seventh grade, when he had lost too much weight to be effective on the line. The switch to quarterback wasn't easy, which made McElroy like it even more.
"School came natural to me, making friends came natural to me, but football didn't," he said. "At that point I said, 'This is difficult for me. I want to be better at this.' "
"OK, I Can Play This Game"
So McElroy committed himself to the craft. A diligent student, his dedication in the classroom translated to the football field. To help attack the transition from lineman to quarterback, he would wake up at 5:30 a.m. on weekdays for 6 a.m. workouts with a personal coach.
Growing up in Southlake, McElroy's middle school had two football teams to accommodate the throngs of young Texans clamoring for an opportunity to start their dream path to the NFL. The first team was competitive while the second, according to McElroy, was akin to being cut. He spent his seventh- and eighth-grade seasons as a member of the second team.
When he entered Southlake-Carroll High School as a freshman, he began a three-year stretch as a backup. He played behind Chase Daniel, a two-time Texas 5-A Player of the Year, the former University of Missouri starter and the current backup to the Saints' Drew Brees.
While frustration would have settled in for many, McElroy embraced his chance to learn and study behind such a successful player in Daniel. He might not have been seeing the field, but he knew he was improving.
"Probably around my sophomore year in high school, I realized, OK, I can play this game. I can do the little things. I realized what I did well and I shaped and molded my game around recognizing defenses, making reads, decision-making, accuracy, and things like that," he said. "That's when it really clicked."
McElroy finally received his chance to start in his senior year of high school and he did not disappoint. He led his Southlake-Carroll Dragons to a perfect 16-0, wining a state championship, and was named the Texas 5-A Player of the Year. His 56 touchdown passes set a state record.
Long Road to Starting for 'Bama
He then left for Tuscaloosa, Ala., to play for the Crimson Tide. Alabama first became interested in McElroy when scouts visited Southlake to recruit Daniel. Daniel eventually committed to Missouri, so Alabama turned its attention to current Broncos QB Tim Tebow, who opted for the University of Florida. The door was open for McElroy, who gladly walked right through.
With the Crimson Tide, McElroy sat behind incumbent John Parker Wilson until his junior season. In what was becoming a trend, he used his time as a backup to study the system, learn defenses and improve. He never sulked, never complained, never thought he was being slighted. And again it paid off as Alabama won a national championship in McElroy's first year as a starter at the college level.
"I thought I played okay as a junior," he said, "but I knew I didn't play nearly as well as I was capable of. My senior year, I played pretty well, pretty consistently all year."
Suddenly, the career understudy was being spoken about as a possible draft pick.
"At that point, I said, OK, this might be possible for me. As the end of senior year approached, I started having agents call me," he said. "I didn't know if it was going to be feasible at that point, but I always wanted the NFL. All I ever wanted was to play pro sports, but I never thought it was realistic."
The Jets made it a reality in the seventh round in the April draft. His season-ending injury was a blow to the start of his career, but it's a familiar position. Once again McElroy is on the sideline observing, absorbing and studying.
Football Was Always His Priority
"I've been able to see the way it's all done, the sideline execution. I've been able to digest defenses, apply the game plan in my mind and play the game in my mind," he said. "I think all those things have been beneficial, and I think going forward it's going to pay a lot of dividends."
To this day, McElroy continues to be a true student-athlete. He substitutes cerebral ability for his lack of a rocket arm, quick feet and superhuman strength. He knows where his receivers are at all times, he can read a defense quicker than most, and he keeps the ball safe. You can call it game management, small ball or some other catchy label, but in the end McElroy plays smart football.
If not for an impressive senior season at Alabama, McElroy may not even be here. Instead, the knowledge-hungry quarterback would have continued to live out the "student" aspect of being a student-athlete.
"I thought I might go to law school. I thought I might go into broadcast, maybe go back and get my MBA. I have my masters in sports management," he said. "I wanted more school at that point, so it was something I thought about, but football was always my priority. That's the way it's going to be until they tell me I can't play anymore."
To advance to the professional ranks, McElroy took a route less traveled. He made it via the classroom. He raised his athletic ability to a point where he could satisfactorily play at any level, but became a standout through his intellect. It's his X-factor.
"My ability to execute in the classroom definitely translated to the field," he said. "It allowed me to learn playbooks faster, allowed me to digest information faster, and allowed me to process it. All the things I learned in the classroom were really applicable, and I think it's a big reason why I'm sitting where I am today."
Starting to Throw Again
Heading into a long weekend after the Week 11 loss to Denver, McElroy is out of his cast and in the midst of an intense rehabilitation program. He even travels with the team, uncommon for players on IR.
"I'm staying as busy as I possibly can," he said. "I'm fortunate to have [head strength and conditioning coach] Bill Hughan, who has been fantastic in providing different exercises and workouts for me. I'm starting to be able to throw in the training room. Those guys have done a great job nursing me back to health."
McElroy's career continues to be a carousel. Once more he is in the shadows waiting for his turn to play. It may take some time to break into the starting lineup, but he's used to it. Remember, he was once an unathletic offensive lineman. He's been here before, and he always makes the most of it.
"I would never bet against myself," he said. "I've realized that up to this point. I've been able to answer every question throughout the course of my time. Up until this point, there has not been one thing that has stood in the way of accomplishing what I wanted to do at the high school level, at the college level and hopefully now at the professional level."