Scott Fowler

Panthers’ Greg Van Roten knows some big words. Smarts, steadiness got him to the NFL

You might be able to win a trivia contest by naming the only Carolina Panther to participate in 100 percent of either the offensive or defensive snaps in 2018.

The answer is offensive guard Greg Van Roten — “GVR” to his teammates — who played in 1,058 out of 1,058 Carolina offensive snaps in 2018. He probably wasn’t the first guy to come to your mind.

But if you think Van Roten is an obscure starter now, check out exactly how obscure he was a few years ago.

Every NFL team has a couple of players who somehow made the team without the pedigree, without the Power 5 conference connection and without ever being drafted. Van Roten is one of those for the Panthers — a guy who got hired and fired multiple times in the NFL and ultimately created his own website and posted his Canadian Football League game film on it as he angled for one more chance.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (right) reaches out to congratulate guard Greg Van Roten during a 2018 game in Cincinnati. Jeff Siner

I asked Van Roten recently if he had foreseen becoming an NFL starter when he spent a year out of the league and another two in the CFL.

“It’s weird,” Van Roten said. “It’s like cognitive dissonance, right? There’s always the goal. You want to do this. You want to start. You want to be the best at your position. So you set those high goals.

“And then you’re not drafted. You’re out of the league. You’re playing in Canada. So how is this going to happen? So you have to be kind of just naive and defy logic to be successful in this league sometimes.”

Since you just read Van Roten utter a quote that includes the word “cognitive dissonance,” it may not surprise you that he’s an Ivy Leaguer. Penn, to be exact, where he made the all-conference team three times.

Today Van Roten is an offensive line rock for the Panthers.

“He’s a very steady football player,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Van Roten. “He’s smart. Does things the right way. He’s a guy that just keeps working. When you don’t have to worry about a guy, it takes a lot of pressure off everybody else.”

But when he was coming out of college, no one saw that in Van Roten’s future. The NFL is one of the few employers in America, though, where saying you went to an Ivy League school gets you exactly nowhere. Van Roten has an undergraduate degree in economics from Penn’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, but that’s not going to matter when he’s protecting quarterback Cam Newton. He’s also 6-3 and 305 pounds, which sounds huge to you and me, but is on the verge of being undersized for an NFL guard.

Carolina Panthers offensive guard Greg Van Roten, formerly an undrafted free agent out of Penn, made the team in 2017 and had the first 16 starts of his NFL career in 2018. Jeff Siner

All that considered, it wasn’t a big surprise that Van Roten didn’t get drafted in 2012, or that Green Bay, Seattle and Jacksonville all invited him onto their rosters, only to eventually release him. He was out of football entirely for a year, then went to the CFL for two. He was good enough there that the website — which won’t be going viral anytime soon, with the primary footage being full games of Van Roten playing the offensive line — got some traction. He had trouble even attracting an agent, but eventually got one. The Panthers invited him to their 2017 training camp, and he surprised everyone when he made the team.

‘You’ve got to stay green’

Van Roten didn’t start a single game in 2017, but he played in 10 of them and showed one key facet beside his obvious smarts — durability. The Panthers have had what seems like dozens of offensive linemen get hurt in the past two years. Van Roten has received a few battlefield promotions, and then he has just never left. Now it seems like he’s part of the furniture, which is the way he likes it.

“I’ve never counted myself out,” Van Roten said. “I’ve tried to just improve my game every day when I come out in practice. I pick two things to improve on — one in the run, one in the pass — and cumulatively over the years it’s helped me become the player I am today.”

Former Panther Ryan Kalil helped advise Van Roten during his time with Carolina. Said Van Roten: “Ryan Kalil always told us: ‘You’ve got to stay green. You’ve got to stay fresh. You’ve got to learn something new.’ You can’t get complacent.”

Still, he’s cognizant that the trust the Panthers have shown in him can be fleeting in a league where the NFL’s initials are routinely joked to stand for “Not For Long.”

“It takes a lot to start in this league,” Van Roten said. “You’ve got to play well. The offensive line coach has got to trust you. The offensive coordinator has got to trust you — and the head coach, the GM and the owner. So there’s a lot of people that have to be ‘Yes, this guy can do it for us.’ So I’m thankful. I’m lucky to be in a place where they gave me an opportunity, and I’ll just try to make the most of it.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”