PDT Sports Writer
Dreams of a career as a professional athlete are seldom reached; but when they are realized, it’s an accomplishment that brings the best of the craft into the same environment.
With less than four months until the NFL Draft, Ohio University and Portsmouth graduate John Prior believes that his dream of playing professional football will come to life. The only question will be whether the offensive line prospect has done enough to receive the phone call saying that he’s been selected in the draft or the message that he will be free to try out for any team that he chooses.
One way or another, the former Trojan is eager to shine in the spotlight, no matter what the level.
“Right now, I’m willing to go anywhere,” Prior said. “If it’s in Canada, if it’s semi-pro, whatever it may be. Me personally, I’m just not ready to hang it up yet.”
His high school coach, Curt Clifford, hopes that he can chase the dream as far as he can for as long as possible. Clifford tried to make a name for himself in Canada before deciding to go into coaching.
“You see what you can do to help your kids get another chance if they want that chance,” Clifford said. “Some kids don’t want it, John did.
“He worked for it and all I did was lay out the ground work and the game plan for him. He ran with it and now he’s going to get his shot.”
Reviewing 2013: The Ebbs and Flows
The 2013 season for Prior and the rest of his Bobcat teammates started off with a lot of optimism. With a taste of a major upset and poll recognition a storyline for last year, they looked to take another landmark win in the opener at Louisville.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals — led by quarterback and potential first round selection Teddy Bridgewater — sent the Green and White back to Athens with a 49-7 defeat.
Ohio shook off the setback by racking up four-straight wins. But on Oct. 12, Prior’s hopes for a professional career almost came to a halt.
Just before halftime of the Bobcats’ homecoming game with Central Michigan, Prior felt something go wrong when a pile rolled on his right side.
“When the injury first occurred, it was almost devastating because it was a broken leg,” Prior said. “I knew it was broken but I didn’t know to the extent.”
The 26-23 loss to the Chippewas was the least of Prior’s worries. He was just as concerned about his team’s future as he was his own.
“The time that I had to sit out was just frustrating because my backup had to be in and he didn’t quite know the playbook like I did,” Prior said. “And then with me stepping up and being the leader of the line and calling stuff out, I was no longer on the field so all communication stopped on the line.”
But good news came in the form of a better diagnosis, a fracture in the non-weight bearing bone of his right leg meant that an initial timeframe of six weeks until the end of the season would be much shorter. He sat out the Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio) wins and received another week of healing that came with the second of the team’s two bye weeks.
He returned to action Nov. 5 when Ohio traveled to Buffalo. The Bulls took advantage of a safety on Bobcat quarterback Tyler Tettleton and ran away with a 30-3 win.
Prior faced the conference’s defensive player of the year that night in Khalil Mack and came away impressed.
“He’s a man amongst boys on the football field,” Prior said. “It’s not just the physical being of him and the speed, it’s the mental game that he plays. It was real interesting to see because as you go on and you play throughout your years, you get calmer and calmer and the game slows down for you, you’re able to understand things.
“Being out there and playing (against) him, you can read him playing his mental game. It was just at a whole new level, I had never seen an individual play like he did. He stayed calm the entire game, adversity or not, he was able to conduct himself and play his game.”
The loss was the first of a three-game losing streak and threatened Ohio’s chances of another bowl appearance. But a 51-23 win over Massachusetts in the home finale was the Bobcats’ seventh of the season and made them more attractive to bowl committees.
“It was real inspiring to see us come back and be able to finish the season playing Bobcat football,” Prior said.
The question would be if they had done enough.
Where’s The Beef?
With temperatures falling on a cold and snowy Sunday night in December, the Ohio football program held its collective breath to see if one more game was in the plans. Prior and his teammates knew it would come down to the Bobcats and MAC foe Toledo, which had a better conference record, to fill one of the remaining bowl slots for the conference.
“There was always that doubt that (a bowl bid) wasn’t (going to happen), we didn’t have the best of records,” Prior said. “We have probably the best guys working for us and pushing for us. Coach (Frank) Solich is a real selling ticket which helped us out a bunch.”
Luckily for Ohio, the committee for the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl invited the Bobcats to play two days before Christmas against East Carolina. They accepted and set their travel arrangements for St. Petersburg, Fla., where they played the Pirates at Tropicana Field, the home of the MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays.
“Getting the bowl bid just lifts you up, you get to slip that uniform on one more time for the team,” Prior said. “I went down there with the mindset that the university gave me so much and what a great way to pay them back for an outstanding career there. Me personally, I wanted to have my most physical game of the year.”
Despite a strong effort in the first half, ECU proved to be too much for the Bobcats to handle in a 37-20 outcome. Looking back, Prior felt the season wasn’t complete for his team.
“We didn’t accomplish everything we set out to accomplish,” Prior said. “At the beginning of the season, we set goals and unfortunately, we didn’t meet those goals.”
Preparing for history
After a few days off to celebrate the holidays with his family, Prior is back to conditioning his body for the biggest audition of his life. With the help of Dave Ritchie as his agent, Prior will fly to Miami in the coming weeks to prepare for pro days.
According to NFLDraftScout.com, Prior is the 47th-ranked offensive tackle in his class. The site projects the top 28 in the position as potential draft selections.
His size at 6-foot-5 is what scouts like and a move to guard along with adding more to his 300-pound frame may be in his future, changes he would welcome back after playing the position in high school.
“I love pulling, guards pull a lot,” Prior said. “I would love for them to call my number that way.”
Despite the injury, Prior played in 37 of the 40 games he was eligible for Ohio after he transferred from Florida State.
Another positive is at the same time, a trait that he will need improve.
“Some scouts have come back to (Ritchie) and said I have a mean streak at times,” Prior said. “But the “at times” part would be the negative of that. I need to learn to play every play and there’s no play off.”
If he is drafted, he’ll join a short list of Scioto County natives that includes Ed Thompson. The former New Boston and Ohio State standout was selected in the eighth round of the 1977 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. Prior believes his journey can be a lesson for future Scioto County football stars that a potential professional career in the sport can happen if they put in the work.
As Prior leaves with a double major in criminology and sociology as well as playing experience, he will miss a bond with a number of players who had the same characteristics.
“You have got to be tough to play at Ohio University,” Prior said. “With us being at a MAC-level school, a lot of people don’t understand that, they think that only think the tough guys are in the big divisions. Coach Solich and the coaching staff will only recruit tough guys.”
With another step to make before realizing his dream, Prior brought advice to those who are wanting to make the jump from the high school to collegiate level.
“Become a practice player,” Prior said, “that’s what I struggled with for the longest time. It was hard for me to get out there and practice every day and have the want to practice every day.”
Living without regrets
A night after Florida State won the BCS National Championship, Prior said he didn’t have any regrets about transferring and was glad for his former teammates. His old roommate, Bryan Stork, was the starting center for the Seminoles.
“I really watched the game for him and in support of him,” Prior said. “It was relieving seeing him and knowing the hard work he had to put in. It was relieving to see him to be able to leave his (collegiate) career as a national champion.”
Clifford was glad Prior could be at peace with his choices.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of John,” Clifford said. “I’ve watched his career, we’ve went through the recruiting wars together, the signing day was quite an experience for us. John didn’t leave Florida State with any animosity toward Jimbo (Fisher) or toward (Rick) Trickett.”
Cody Leist can be reached at 353-3101, ext. 294, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking sports news, follow Cody on Twitter @CodyLeist.