By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
After a position change during his senior high school season, Josh McNary thought he’d left football behind.
The plan was to head to the University of Houston, study pharmacy and prepare for his life’s work.
But he ended up at West Point, walked onto the football team and left as the Black Knights’ career sacks leader and a lieutenant in the Army.
And this summer McNary will get his shot at the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.
“I did have other opportunities,” he said during a conference call with local media Thursday. “But the Colts were just unique in their eagerness and enthusiasm to get me on board. I got a call from the general manager (Ryan Grigson) himself to sign with the organization. That was huge.
“Then getting a call from Coach (Chuck) Pagano, it was basically like an overwhelming amount of attention and enthusiasm that they showed toward me. So it definitely wasn’t matched by any other teams.”
It’s been two years since McNary last played in a football game.
He left Army in 2010 with 28 career sacks and 49 tackles for loss, setting program records in both categories. He is the only Black Knight to record two double-digit sack seasons, and he also holds records for sacks in a game (four) and a season (12.5).
But the NFL didn’t touch him in the 2011 draft because of his two-year commitment to the armed forces.
McNary started his military career as the strength and conditioning coordinator for the Army football team. From there, he spent about six months in an office of leadership course before accepting his post as a lieutenant at Fort Hood last October.
“I don’t think any other job compares to Army lieutenant with the responsibility, how much it demands of a kid so young, straight out of college,” McNary said. “You get millions of dollars worth of equipment assigned to you that you are responsible for. You have a whole worth of men that you are responsible to manage. It’s a lot on your plate, but it just makes it all the more fulfilling and satisfying when you do a good job.”
Perhaps McNary was destined for military life.
His father was a Marine officer. His paternal grandfather fought in the Korean War, and his maternal grandfather saw battle in World War II. He has an uncle who is a first sergeant in the Army and cousins who are officers.
He’s spent the past six years learning that life, and he’d like to return to service whenever his time in the NFL is over.
“I’ve learned so much, not only through college and the four years at The Academy, up until this point I’ve been in the Army, and I’m trying to learn so much,” he said. “I’m feeling comfortable in my role in the Army that I wouldn’t want it to go to waste. Not to mention it’s also a pretty fun experience.”
But football was a pretty fun experience for McNary, too.
The Army kept him in shape, but it wasn’t necessarily football shape. With his two-year commitment expiring in late May, McNary has taken to running through football drills in recent months.
Learning, he said, to move “like a football player” again.
“You’ve got to get on the seat and start pedaling,” McNary said, comparing returning to the game to getting back on a bicycle. “I just try to dive straight into it.”
He set his sights on last weekend’s regional scouting combine in Dallas, knowing it would be his best chance to impress NFL decision makers. Like the soldier he is, McNary focused not on doing the minimum expected of him but on obliterating all preconceptions.
“I was kind of skeptical as to how teams would perceive me, having been out for two years,” he said. “I expected for them to kind of doubt the shape I was in. Not to mention I also wanted to improve on what they did see from the film of me in college.
“I wanted to at least get back to that level, but then be better than that just to kind of impress people and reassure them that I didn’t lose anything, and in fact I actually gained something in these few years that I’ve been out of the game.”
There still will be skeptics.
McNary was projected as a late-round pick coming out of college, when he wasn’t also dealing with the baggage of a two-year layoff. At 6-foot, 251 pounds, there also will be questions about whether he has the size to excel as an outside linebacker in the NFL.
But McNary has proven the doubters wrong before -- being named the East-West Shrine Game Pat Tillman Award winner at the annual college all-star game in 2011, among other accomplishments -- and he has a strong supporter in Grigson.
“Josh had an outstanding career at West Point,” the Colts general manager said. “His production speaks for itself, but his intangibles rival any stats. He is still fulfilling the commitment he made to serving our country, but we look forward to him wearing the horseshoe here in the near future.”
McNary could be in Indianapolis for the mandatory minicamp in early June, and he’s confident he’ll be on hand when training camp begins in late July or early August.
He’s also confident he’s got a future with the Colts.
“These guys saw things in me that only I thought I knew I had,” he said. “They really sound like they really know what they’re going to do with me. They sound like they’re going to put me in a place that’s going to optimize my potential, kind of like I was in college, filling a role on defense. So I thought it was a pretty safe choice.”