The story of Ryan Groy becoming a starting NFL offensive lineman doesn't begin in Pop Warner or high school or his beloved University of Wisconsin. It's rooted in 4,000 saplings that were planted in swampland his father owned in a small Midwestern town about two hours west of Milwaukee.
Groy was 14 years old when he worked up the nerve to ask his father to buy him a used dirt bike for $600. Doug Groy struck a deal with his son: He could work off the cost by helping him grow white oaks that would help stabilize the soil. Four thousand holes later, the kid was the proud owner of a motorcycle.
The message from father to son, complete with a seed literally and figuratively planted by the man who became his biggest influence, was obvious: Nothing is free. To succeed in life, Ryan would need to work for everything. A summer of hard labor paid for the dirt bike, but the lesson was priceless.
"Nobody is going to give you anything," Groy said. "You have to earn everything you get. That was something I was born with and something I learned as I got older and experienced. I was definitely not spoiled as a kid. If I wanted something I was either working for it or splitting (the cost) with them. Four thousand trees. It was brutal."
Doug passed away three years ago after slamming into a tree while riding a snowmobile during Ryan's bachelor weekend in Lake Tomahawk, Wis., about 200 miles north of Ryan's hometown of Middleton. Ryan had been riding ahead and arrived at their camp when he realized his father wasn't behind him.
Ryan backtracked and found his father's sled with the hood torn off and the engine still running before discovering Doug's body, face down in the snow next to a tree. The man he trusted more than any other, who taught him all he knew about the outdoors, who had been his backbone and became his friend, was dead at 55.
"Immediately, you knew," Groy said. "It's amazing how many thoughts I had right at that moment I realized he was gone. It was just a rush of the most extreme emotions you can have. Just the way your mind races, it brings you to the worst times you had with him to the best times you had with him to … what the hell are you going to do?
"For a year and a half, I would grab my phone to call him and (say), 'Ugh, what am I doing?' It happened for a least a year where I would say, 'Oh, I should ask him …' It happens to anybody who loses somebody."
Ryan thinks about his father every day and the lessons he learned from a man who helped raise him through a broken marriage. He carried his father's advice through childhood and college and now professional football. Give your best effort, he would say. Finish what you started. Be a good person.
The importance of parental guidance becomes clear once you become familiar with Groy, an undrafted free agent who bounced around the NFL before finding a home in Buffalo. He served as a backup with the Bills for the better part of three years but never stopped working toward becoming a full-time starter on the offensive line.
Groy, 27, is expected to get that opportunity this season. In January, center Eric Wood was told by doctors that his career was over. Last week, left guard Richie Incognito announced his retirement on Twitter last week in a string of strange messages. Groy was the backup to both players while appearing in all but one game last season.
In 2016, he started seven games after Wood suffered a broken leg. The Rams offered him a two-year contract worth $5 million that the Bills matched. He stands to receive a hefty raise if he stays healthy and plays well in the final year of his contract. Sean McDermott already noticed Groy emerging as a leader. This is an important season on many fronts.
"It's interesting when you’re such close friends that something bad happening to him ended up helping my life at the end of the day," Groy said of Wood. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for my whole career. It's good to have a chance to compete. Now it's legit. If you play well, you start at one of these spots."
And to think his career could have ended in 2015, eight months after his father died. Groy was traded by the Bears, cut by the Patriots and assigned to the Bucs' practice squad in less than three months. The Bills took a flier on the 6-foot-5, 320-pounder who showed enough in the final two months to return in 2016 and played well after Wood was sidelined for the season.
"You know, 2015 was a rough year," he said. "Those were some tough times for sure. Looking back on it, it made me tougher and made me who I am. It made me focus my time and energy on what I wanted and what I wanted to achieve. I know (Doug) is looking down and proud of what I've done and what I've overcome."
Groy is one of the good guys you find in sports, a bear along the offensive line and a teddy bear everywhere else. He weighed 10 pounds, 2 ounces when he was born a week early in Charlotte, N.C., before his family moved to Wisconsin. He grew up in Middleton, about 6 miles from the state's flagship university.
For a kid practically raised in the shadows of Camp Randall Stadium, playing for the Badgers was the ultimate goal. He appeared in a school-record 55 games at various positions, including fullback for two games as a redshirt freshman, but he was overlooked in the draft.
(Incidentally, Doug Groy and Ryan's younger sister, Kassie, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The same school also produced UB football coach Lance Leipold and basketball coach Nate Oats.)
Groy's parents divorced before Ryan and Kassie started elementary school but kept a cordial relationship. His mother, now Kelly Baker, was the one who introduced him to sports. She was his primary caregiver and remains his biggest fan. She signed him up for golf when he was about 5 to keep him busy during the summer. He remains a single-digit handicap.
"He's a very determined guy," his mother said. "He has been that way since he was born. He was super strong-willed when he was a toddler. I remember going to the pediatrician being so frustrated and saying, 'My gosh, he's so stubborn!' Even when he was a baby, he was like a little man. He was always so strong, like this powerhouse."
Groy was a terrific athlete who also played basketball, but his size and aggression that emerged in his teens made him a natural for football. His mother, a substitute teacher by day and a waitress and night, managed to make ends meet. Groy was 12 when he started selling pop and bottled water at Wisconsin football games.
"I loved selling pop at the games," he said. "I wanted to watch football, and I didn't have money to buy tickets. It was an awesome experience. I made a little money, and it built my love for UW football so much more."
"He was pretty smart and pretty resourceful," his mother said. "He knew where people were who knew him and liked him and tipped him well. It was a tough job. Those bins of soda and water were heavy, up and down the stairs. Most kids his age were selling peanuts and popcorn."
The guy seems like an ideal fit for Buffalo. Middleton might as well be a Western New York suburb with its cold weather and warm, unpretentious people who work hard and play harder. Here's all you need to know: Middleton is known as the "Good Neighbor City" while Buffalo is the "City of Good Neighbors."
"There's really no difference," Groy said.
Groy didn't live on a farm but grew up in a farming community. He had chores in separate households. He learned the value of patience, kindness and incremental progress from his mother, now a fourth-grade teacher at Sunset Ridge Elementary back home. His work ethic came mostly from his father.
"It ended up working out well," Groy said. "They complemented each other well. Everything was different, and they had different sets of rules, but they got us into different things. It does make sense."
Doug Groy had been a salesman before he founded Madison-based Verona Safety Supply in 2001. The company specializes in equipment: hard hats, vinyl gloves, glasses, reflective vests and other protective gear. But he loved nothing more than the outdoors and the peace and serenity that came with owning his own land.
He passed his passion for hunting and fishing to Ryan – "It's his escape," his mother said – along with an old-school mentality that has served his son well. In the coming years, Ryan will instill similar values in his own child. His wife, Sara, is expecting their first child June 4, which happens to be his father's birthday.
Doug would have loved to watch his son become a father, but he never seems too far away. Groy returns home every offseason to work for the company his father started. He remains engrained in the community while keeping the same friends since childhood. In February, he walked Kassie down the aisle on her wedding day.
Last summer, he took Sara to visit the land his father owned to check on the 4,000 trees they planted. Although some had died, he was astonished to see how much others had grown. The roots had taken hold, and they were standing on their own.
Thirteen years later, the same is true about him.