Sometimes, one man’s tragedy becomes another man’s opportunity.
That was the case on Saturday at Penn State when Ohio State right tackle Kirk Barton was forced to the sideline with a knee injury in the first half.
The Buckeyes shuffled their lineup and put left guard Rob Sims at left tackle and put senior and former walk-on John Conroy in at guard. Conroy played the rest of the half before the Buckeyes inserted Alex Boone at right tackle in the second half and Sims returned to guard.
Still, Conroy got the thrill of a lifetime with some meaningful playing time.
“It was wild with 108,000 people yelling and it was on national TV,” said the 6-3, 295-pound Conroy. “It was a big deal.”
Conroy is the son of Jim and Bonnie Conroy. His dad was a walk-on at OSU from 1968-70, meaning he and his son were each members of national championship teams.
OSU lost the game to Penn State 17-10, but Conroy said his dad was thrilled to see him play some meaningful minutes in such a big game.
“My dad said he would take that one to his grave,” Conroy said. “My dad played here and he walked on back in the 1960s. For me to get in there and have a chance to help the team score a touchdown after all of that work, it was nice to do some good things.
“He’s a pretty emotional guy and he loves Ohio State to death. It was a big game. There was a lot of emotion and they were going nuts. They were getting into it with my dad. My dad was out there with my mom. All of the parents were going back and forth with the fans.
“We have a real good relationship. He’s always been such an Ohio State fan. He loves the university and it was an emotional thing. He felt so bad for us. It was a tough time.”
Conroy is a native of Bay Village, Ohio, and a graduate of storied Cleveland St. Ignatius. He had some recruiting overtures coming out of high school, but knew there was only one place for him to be.
“I got recruited a lot by schools in the Mid-American Conference and a little bit by Iowa and a little bit by Purdue,” Conroy said. “That was pretty much it.”
Conroy reflected on his time at OSU.
“My sophomore year (in 2002), we went to Tempe and everything was great,” Conroy said. “But my junior year was tough. I had to sit on the bench and play behind some great guys like Shane Olivea, Adrien (Clarke) and Alex (Stepanovich). Those guys were such good leaders and they taught me to keep pushing through and keep working.”
His hard work paid off as Conroy played in 10 games last year.
“You want to contribute to the team whatever way you can,” he said. “I got started on some special teams. I got out on the field (on offense) a couple times in my junior year. If you’re a competitor, you want to get out there and play.”
Conroy was one of several players selected by OSU head coach Jim Tressel to receive a scholarship before the season.
“We were doing a show on 1460 The Fan during the preseason and he told Steve Winner and I were were doing it (getting scholarships),” Conroy said. “You put a lot of work into it. It is nice to finally see some financial benefits. It’s a good thing for my parents. They don’t have to pay for me any more.”
Barton was injured on OSU’s first-quarter field goal attempt. Conroy went out on the next series.
“The first play I got in there, Troy (Smith) looked at me and said, ‘Welcome to the game, man.’ That was pretty cool,” Conroy said.
Saturday’s game was played under a raucous environment and Conroy said it was like a blur being on the field.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “You can’t hear a thing out there. It was a volatile environment. It’s a pressure packed thing. You couldn’t hear the center and you couldn’t hear the play coming in. It really was a ton of pressure out there.”
Compounding the pressure was the fact Conroy was going up against PSU’s heralded defensive lineman Scott Paxson.
“It helps your confidence out,” Conroy said. “You go out there and, sure, you’re nervous. You don’t want to be the guy who gives up a sack. I went out there and played with him. He’s a good player.”
Even better was Conroy’s participation on OSU’s 14-play, 81-yard touchdown drive just before halftime. The had-to-have touchdown cut Penn State’s lead to 14-10.
“We went out there and we drove for a touchdown,” Conroy said. “We drove the ball for 80 yards. We threw the ball three times. It was nice to go out there and grind some meat.
“We had run (13) plays and this was the (14th) play. We were all sucking wind and we were tired. But we pulled it together and we scored with 30 seconds left. It was great. Everybody on our sideline was going nuts.”
Barton is listed as questionable for the Michigan State game, meaning that Conroy could again see some playing time with the game on the line.
“They’ve got some big defensive tackles, some big guys,” Conroy said. “Our guys are doing a good job of simulating what they do. They twist a lot.”
And, if he has to stay on the bench, Conroy has shown he can handle that, too.
“It’s tough,” he admits. “It really is, but you have to fill your role and be a team player. It would be selfish of me to go in there and be upset. It’s a team. There are 100 guys on the team. Whatever is best for the team is fine for me.”