Of all the players who made the Carolina Panthers’ 53-man roster, the most obscure one has to be the versatile offensive lineman from an Ivy League college who had a two-year stint in the Canadian Football League.
Greg Van Roten has been hired and fired by two of the best franchises in the NFL (Green Bay and Seattle) and one of the worst (Jacksonville). He went to Canada in 2015 and 2016 to play for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and attempt to find his game and his mojo.
“I was able to go up there, get a lot of experience in two years and just get my confidence back,” Van Roten said. “Because you get cut from a couple of teams and you’re like: ‘Can I do this? Am I wasting my time?’”
Van Roten also wants you to know his last name is pronounced ROAT-en, not “Rotten,” although he has heard the latter pronunciation all his life.
“Rotten has two T’s, guys,” he laughingly admonished. “You should know that.”
Van Roten is in a good mood these days because he somehow survived “Cut Day” despite only getting on the Panthers’ 90-man roster the day before training camp.
“It’s one of those stories that is kind of neat,” Panthers interim general manager Marty Hurney said of Van Roten. “The underdog comes in – and he’s done it with hard work and really good practices and games.”
For the Panthers, Van Roten will be a swingman – a lineman who can play both center and guard.
“He’s a powerful guy,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Van Roten. “He’s stout at the point. ... He’s quick with his hands and he can snap the ball. If you can do those things and be able to play center/guard – and he’s a very bright young man – you’ve got an opportunity to stick in this league. And that’s really what happened with him.”
‘I don’t have that pedigree’
Van Roten grew up in the Long Island area of New York, wasn’t recruited by the big football Division I-A powerhouses, had very good grades and decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania. There he was a three-time All-Ivy League standout for the Quakers in the FCS (formerly Division I-AA).
Of course, that sort of resumé doesn’t mean much to NFL scouts. It’s odd to think that an Ivy League graduate didn’t have the right credentials to get a job somewhere, but that’s kind of what happened to Van Roten.
“The Ivy League – it’s not a Power 5 conference, obviously,” Van Roten said. “So people worry about the competition. So I don’t have that pedigree. … And I’m not 6-foot-5 or 6-7. I’m 6-3 and 300 pounds (which is close to being undersized for an NFL lineman). But I’m a hard worker. My mom says I’m tenacious – a dog that latches on and doesn’t let go. I like to prove people wrong, and that’s pretty much been my M.O. my entire football career.”
Van Roten, now 27, graduated with an economics degree from Penn’s well-known Wharton School of Business. His degree had a concentration in marketing, and that came in handy when he graduated in 2012. There was so little interest initially in Van Roten that not only was he undrafted, but he also couldn’t even find an agent.
So Van Roten put his marketing know-how to work and got his own website designed. GregVanRoten.com was never designed to go viral. It doesn’t have videos of cute cats – it mostly contains game film of an offensive lineman blocking with headlines like: “Full Games 2016 Center.”
But that website, in its earliest form, was effective. Van Roten searched for as many email addresses as he could find of NFL front-office decision-makers and mailed them his website links.
“That’s how I got workouts with the Chargers, the Jets and the Packers originally,” Van Roten said. “It was grassroots.”
Used to ‘surprising people’
Eventually, Van Roten got an agent. And he got a job with the Packers – first on the practice squad and then on the active roster. Van Roten had an odd role, playing as an extra offensive lineman but usually lining up in the backfield or at tight end. He always blocked, though. Aaron Rodgers never once threw him a pass.
“I just couldn’t talk them into it,” Van Roten said.
He got hurt his second year in Green Bay, though, and after a stint on injured reserve got cut. Seattle signed him, took him through training camp and cut him. For a year after that, he was out of football entirely.
Then came the CFL, where he played 12-man football against lighter, quicker defensive linemen and came out on the other end better for it. He was twice a finalist for CFL’s outstanding lineman of the year.
That got him a contract with the Jaguars – briefly – before they cut him. Carolina brought him in the day before training camp for a tryout, along with a handful of other guys. The Panthers were really just looking for some extra bodies.
“I’m used to surprising people at this point because everyone just is kind of like, ‘We’ll see,’” Van Roten said. “I don’t think Carolina planned on signing me honestly. I just had a really good workout.”
“He’s a guy we basically brought in with what three other guys at the beginning of camp to work out because we needed numbers,” Hurney said. “And he’s just been so steady. He can play both center and guard. ... In practice, in games, he just played well.”
‘Maybe I can start trusting this’
Van Roten also benefited from serious injuries to two other Panthers reserve linemen – a concussion to Chris Scott and a back injury to Gino Gradkowski.
He thought he had a chance to make it past the cut deadline of Saturday at 4 p.m., especially when no one told him to report to the second floor (where players generally meet with front-office or personnel men and are released).
“I walked in yesterday morning and they didn’t tell me to go upstairs,” Van Roten said. “I was eating breakfast and I thought, ‘Maybe I can start trusting this.’ I was in the first team meeting – and I was still here! I was still waiting for that 4 o’clock deadline to hit until I exhaled.”
So now Van Roten has exhaled a little bit, although history has shown him that he shouldn’t get too comfortable. He conceivably could still be cut any day.
He likely won’t play in the actual games unless someone else gets hurt, but that’s OK.
For now, Van Roten has an NFL job again.
And they spelled his name right on his game jersey, too.