NEW YORK -- Packers running back Ryan Grant owes his football career -- as well as his extraordinary patience and good humor -- to a childhood spent placating his driven, well-meaning father. A South Bronx-bred former playground basketball whiz who banged with city legends like Nate (Tiny) Archibald and Willie Worsley, Vincent Grant was determined to mold Ryan and his older brother, Netic, into fierce point guards who would achieve his unrealized dream of playing in the NBA.
The old man's relentless (albeit good natured) pursuit of that deferred dream earned him a reputation around their Rockland County, N.Y., neighborhood that fell somewhere between fitness guru Billy Blanks and Nike's fictional guru Leroy Smith. But Ryan, who's entering his third year as Green Bay's featured back, welcomed his dad's intensity.
"I used to watch him play [in pickup games] and built that competitive nature for myself," said the 26-year-old Packer after appearing on the sports-themed live show 12 Angry Mascots at the Chelsea nightclub Comix last Tuesday evening. "I just really wanted to work and just trusted that whatever he came up with would make me better."
The only thing Ryan's dad loved more than reinventing old-school drills was seeing if his boys could survive them. He subjected Ryan to his first workout "boot camp" at age 7, gifted him his first dip bar at age 9 and had him pushing the family minivan up small hills (with some help from a cousin) as soon as he was tall enough to touch its rear windscreen. "My friends knew I couldn't play with them unless I did a workout before," Ryan said. "It became this big joke."
Whenever Ryan asked for permission to go to the park and play with his friends, his dad would insist he first run the park's two-mile perimeter. And whenever Ryan would gently point out that doing so might deplete his energy reserves for the rest of the afternoon, Pops rarely resisted the urge to crack wise. "How bad do you want it?" he'd say, smiling.
When Ryan reached his current height (6-foot-1) at age 16, he decided football might be a better fit, so the old man went mining for new conditioning inspiration -- and hit pay-dirt at the video store. The high school wrestling drama Vision Quest inspired him to send his boy running up the stadium steps at his high school -- Don Bosco Prep, a private, all-boys Catholic school in New Jersey's Bergen County -- with a piece of lumber slung across his shoulders.
Then, after seeing a video of Walter Payton running up a 92-foot hill, the old man became convinced his boy could do the same. "He'd make me put on my pads before practice and go out to this big hill behind school," Ryan said. "I'd run up it about 20 times. At first, people were like, Who the hell is that kid? Then it became, Oh ... that's Grant's kid."
When it came to Ryan's TV viewing habits, his ever-inventive father made certain he stayed active even while vegging out. "He took an old helmet of mine and hung weights all over it, and if I was sitting around watching TV or playing video games, I'd have to work my neck; that was his mantra," Ryan said, before slipping into an impersonation of his dad that recalled The Nutty Professor's Cletus Klump. "Work ya neck, boy! Work ya neck! Work ya neck!"
Vincent's fitness fanaticism has been a running (uphill) joke in the family for years now. Less funny is the setup: At 17, Vincent broke his ankle and efforts to fix the injury only made it worse. He had the ankle reset, but it healed wrong, requiring another break. He eventually recovered, but not fully enough to resume a high-level basketball career. Ryan said that's why his father "wanted us to be in the best physical condition -- to help prevent those things."
For as much as he lovingly goofs on his Dad -- and he goofs on him a lot -- Ryan is quick to credit his dad and his homespun workouts for helping him rise from the depths of a loaded New York Giants backfield as an undrafted prospect out of Notre Dame in 2005 to the top of the Packers chart by Week 7 of the 2007 season. Dealt to Green Bay for a future sixth-round pick shortly before the '07 season started, Grant emerged as one of the league's most productive runners over the second half of the year, rushing for 929 yards and eight touchdowns while helping propel the Packers to their first NFC championship appearance since 1997.
Things didn't go so smoothly in 2008. Everything seemed to come in stride for Ryan in '07, but three days after re-signing with the Packers (for four years and a potential $30 million) after a protracted contract holdout limited his participation in OTAs and sidelined him for the first six days of training camp, Grant injured his right hamstring. He missed most of the preseason, and though he made every regular-season start he didn't find his form until Week 9. The next week against Chicago, he busted out for 145 yards and a score on 25 carries. Green Bay finished 6-10, but Ryan led the team on the ground (again) with 1,203 yards on 312 carries, even though he only scored four touchdowns.
After sheepishly admitting he may have hurried back onto the field too quickly, Grant says he is finally fully fit and eager to complete his first full offseason with the Packers. So far, he has spent a good chunk of OTAs cleaning up his footwork and trying to regain explosiveness, but has also found time to work on becoming more of a factor in the passing game. "I wanna be more involved," said Grant, who caught just 18 passes for 116 yards last year. "I'm letting [Packers quarterback] Aaron Rogers know -- I'm open!"
Grant's positive outlook has yet to put his critics at ease, however. More than a few have wondered whether '07 was a fluke and if last season's display better represented his abilities. When he hears those and other picayune gripes -- he didn't break as many tackles, carry for as high an average (from 5.1 in '07 to 3.9 in '08), or rip off as many 10-plus-yard runs (from 24 in 10 games in '07 to 27 in 16 games in '08) -- though, all he can do is laugh. "I was a top 10 running back on a bad leg, and now that I'm healthy my speed is gonna be there when I need it," he said. "I know my ability. When you put the work in, nothing's a fluke."
Ryan's dad certainly knows his ability. And sometimes, when he feels like goofing on Ryan, the old man starts waxing on about what could've been. "To this day, he'll say, 'We were making you into a mean point guard!'" Ryan said, his voice soon giving way to laughter. "I'm like, 'Dad, I think I'm doing OK. I think the football thing is working out for me.'"