All signs are pointing to Ryan Groy getting his first start in a Buffalo Bills uniform Sunday.
It’s the type of career milestone that any athlete might reflect on, but for Groy, the significance runs even deeper. It will be the 26-year-old’s first NFL start since losing his father, Doug, in a tragic accident in February 2015.
Doug Groy was just 55 when the snowmobile he was driving crashed into a tree in Lake Tomahawk, Wisc., killing him.
“They say it gets better with time,” Ryan Groy said, “ but I don’t necessarily know if that’s it. I think you get used to it. You find other shoulders to lean on, but that pain of missing someone never really goes away.”
Doug Groy died just five months before his son got married. Ryan has leaned on his wife, Sara, for support as the family has tried to work through their shared grief. He’s also grown even closer with his sister, Kassie, who followed in her father’s footsteps by graduating from Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“Everything since he died has been reliving everything that he gave us, how he brought us up and the great times we had together,” Ryan said. “Everything we do is for him, to make him proud.”
Doug Groy instilled a love of the outdoors in his son. Hunting. Fishing. White-water rafting. Name an outdoors activity, and chances are Doug took part in it with his kids. Ryan was 6 when he started hunting with his dad, and at 12, he got his first deer – a buck. That same day, Doug, got a doe.
When Ryan was attending the University of Wisconsin, he and Doug would go bow hunting on Mondays after Badgers games. Those are the types of memories that Ryan now clings to.
“My buddies got me into football. He got me more into the outdoors,” Ryan said of his dad. “Obviously he always supported me with my sports, but we more so did outdoors stuff.
“All the times we went hunting, the times we went camping … that kind of stuff is what I think about.”
The obituary listing in the Wisconsin papers after Doug Groy’s death included a quote that provides some insight into how he lived his life. It reads: “Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - chocolate in one hand - strawberries in the other - body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming - WOOHOO! What a ride!"
So on Sunday, before the Bills visit the Cincinnati Bengals, Ryan knows there will be a time for reflection on that ride.
“I do that quite a bit,” he said. “You have a second to yourself, and you think about what got you here, about how you’ve achieved what you have and how you can keep moving forward and getting better. I think about who helped get me here and I’ll definitely think a lot about my dad before the game. It will be special.”
In addition to family, Groy’s teammates have been a source of strength and support. Those who know him best on the team can’t say enough about how approaches the job.
“It’s a lot to overcome. I don’t know what I would do if I lost my dad,” guard Richie Incognito said. “Groy’s a great guy. He’s a hard-working guy, he fits on this O-line really well and I’m excited for him to get the opportunity to play. He’s earned this, and you want to see guys like that do well.”
“He’s come in and competed his butt off,” quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “He’s had plenty of playing time throughout the year, just not at the center position. He’s a confident player. He’s had a week to think about the opportunity that he has before him and I’m pretty sure that he’s dialed in. … Going into practice he was definitely pumped up for the opportunity that he has and I’m happy for him.”
Groy has some big shoes to fill. He’ll start in place of Pro Bowl center Eric Wood, who is out for the rest of the season after suffering a broken leg against the Seattle Seahawks in Week Nine.
“I think the most important player on our offense is Eric Wood,” running back LeSean McCoy said. “I mean, everybody will tell you that. As a whole, we just have to be dialed in, study a little harder, and be for sure. We put a lot of pressure on him to make the right calls and put us in the right protection and right schemes.”
That pressure now falls on Groy.
“It’s a lot more than even the average center does in this league,” Groy said of his responsibilities. “I’m prepared to take on that challenge. When you’re a back up, it’s your dream to get a shot, whether it came from injury or now. I’m excited to get going. Hopefully we can not take any steps back with me going in there.”
To this point in his professional career, it would be fair to classify Groy as a journeyman. He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears in 2014, earning a call-up to the active roster after starting the season on the practice squad and eventually starting three games as a rookie. The following year, he was traded to New England during training camp, but released by the Patriots before the regular season and released with an injury settlement. He then joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad before the Bills signed him.
Groy appeared in four games last season, and has participated in all nine this season, lining up everywhere from tight end, to tackle, guard and center. That versatility dates back to his college days. While at Wisconsin, the 6-foot-5, 320-pounder appeared in a school-record 54 games with 33 starts – 28 at left guard, two at left tackle, one at center and two at fullback as a redshirt freshman.
“He’s done great,” Incognito said. “He got a ton of reps during training camp. He was that sixth guy that was always mixing in during practices. He’s done a good job of communicating what he sees.”
While Groy’s time at center with Taylor has been limited, he’s played the position on the scout team throughout this season.
“It’s not like I haven’t had any reps,” he said this week.
Still, the stakes will be raised Sunday. The Bills have to play perfect football if they’re going to make a charge toward the postseason, and all eyes will be on Groy in the middle of the line – including those from above.
“I’m sure my dad will be looking down,” Groy said. “I know he’s proud of me, seeing me work hard and living my dream.”