Note: With Green Bay Packers rookie offensive lineman Jon Runyan set to make his first NFL start against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, we are reposting our story featuring his dad, former Eagles offensive lineman Jon Runyan Sr.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Long before he was a grown man, Jon Runyan Jr. was expected to act like a grown man. In fact, he was expected to act like one grown man in particular, Jon Runyan Sr.
The elder Runyan was one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL during a superb career. He was one of the toughest, too, having started all 192 possible games from 1997 through 2008. With that pedigree, greatness was the expectation for Jon Runyan Jr.
“I think he put pressure on himself,” Gabe Infante, who was Runyan’s high school coach, told Packer Central. “People forget, he’s a 15-year-old kid. What were you like when you were 15 years old in high school? You want to fit in, you’re trying to socialize, you want to meet girls. People forget; they look at a kid like that and they think he’s an NFL professional now. He was gawky and awkward and had to grow into his body and had to develop strength. He had to work his ass off. He really had to work his ass off. People were expecting him to be (great) and he had to work toward it. That’s what I admire most about Jon. People forget they’re kids. They’re kids trapped in men’s bodies.”
Long before he was a sixth-round draft choice by the Green Bay Packers in April, Runyan Jr. attended St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia. That’s the city where his father started every game for nine consecutive seasons and earned his one and only Pro Bowl honor in 2002. To be sure, there are perks to being the child of a professional athlete. There are drawbacks, too – especially in a city like Philadelphia. Because of genetics, Runyan Jr. was supposed to be an invincible blocking machine. Sometimes – perish the thought – he played like a high-schooler who was merely a three-star recruit.
“It was difficult growing up, especially playing in the Philadelphia area where my dad was such a great player,” Runyan Jr. said. “One thing my high school coach told me was you’ve just got to be you. Your dad is a completely different person than you, so you don’t have to live up to any of his expectations. Just start your own path and your own goals, and all that stuff that comes with it is just secondary. It was a struggle for me in high school, but I chose this road moving onto college and I’m comfortable with everything I’m doing. He’s cast a big shadow over me, but I’m not trying to live in that shadow my whole life. I’m trying to step out and make an even bigger one.”
Ultimately, Runyan Jr. did follow in his dad’s footsteps. Runyan Sr. played at Michigan and was a fourth-round pick by the Houston Oilers in 1996. Runyan Jr. played at Michigan and was drafted by the Packers.
It wasn’t the lifelong plan for Runyan Jr. to join the family business. While there have been some controversial parents in the history of athletics – Todd Marinovich’s father, Marv, perhaps being the most infamous of all – Runyan Sr. made it a point to not push his son in one direction or another.
“You’ve seen all those things where guys get burned out, pushing them too hard, making them train. If they wanted to do something, I would let them do something,” Runyan Sr. said this week.
“To pigeon-hole somebody when they’re 12, 13 years old and say, ‘You’re going to do this for the rest of your life,’ I think that’s unfair. I was that guy. I was a basketball player. I didn’t play football until I was a junior in high school. I ended up playing tight end my junior year and tackle as a senior. I was a better defensive lineman in high school than an offensive player, and there was a shot that I was going to play tight end at Michigan. I just kept putting on weight. That’s how I took the approach with all my kids.
“Let’s see what you grow into. Let’s see what you’re passionate to do. All three of my kids were passionate about a different sport. I’ve got a football player, I’ve got a soccer player and I’ve got a basketball player. If you’re passionate about something, you’re going to do the extra things to make yourself that much better. That’s really the factor. If I’m telling you at 12 years old, ‘You’re going to play this sport,’ and you’re not passionate about it and you’re just doing it because I want you to do it, you’re probably going to fail because you don’t have that extra motivation.”
Runyan Jr.’s big break came in 2018. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2015, he started just one game in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, Ed Warinner was hired as Michigan’s offensive line coach. Warinner certainly knew the Runyan family genetics but there were no comparisons and no unfair expectations. That’s because Warinner’s son, Edward Warinner Jr., is a linebacker for the Wolverines.
“I think everybody likes to make their own mark,” Warinner told Packer Central. “I don’t think every time you get introduced you want to be, ‘Oh, this is Jon Runyan’s son. This is Jon Runyan’s son.’ I didn’t do that. I know that. My son’s name is Ed Warinner. My son plays linebacker at Michigan. My son doesn’t want to be introduced as, ‘That’s Coach Warinner’s kid. That’s Coach Warinner’s kid. That’s Coach Warinner’s kid.’ He wants to be Ed Warinner, the linebacker at Michigan. He doesn’t want to be Coach Warinner’s kid because it sounds like you’re getting charity or you’re there because of your dad. So, I never did that to (Runyan) because I was well aware of how it worked with a son that carries the same name as me and plays on the same (team).”
For spring practice in 2018, Warinner slotted Runyan Jr. as his starting right tackle. By the end of spring ball, it had become apparent than Runyan Jr. was the team’s best offensive tackle, period, so he was moved to left tackle. Runyan Jr. earned first-team all-Big Ten both seasons.
“I never acted like he was the same guy” as his dad, Warinner said. “I never challenged him or said, ‘Your dad was better than that.’ Or, ‘Your dad didn’t do that.’ I never, ever, ever made him feel anything other than he is who he is. He’s his own guy. He needs to be the best player he can be. Whatever his dad did is not helping his cause.
“He just grew up in a family that knew what hard work was, knew what toughness was. He was brought up in a family that understood the culture of competitive, winning football. That’s good. Now, what he does as a player, boom, is on his shoulders. When I came, he got a fresh start. I think he probably felt a lot of that (pressure) when he first got here. When I got here, I was like, ‘Hey, this is a fresh start. I think you’re the best tackle we’ve got. I’m moving you to left tackle.’ I coached him for who he was, didn’t try to compare him. ‘I used to see your dad do this. Why don’t you do that?’ I never, ever one time threw one of those at him because I don’t think that’s fair.”
The approaches taken by Runyan Sr., Infante and Warinner were key in paving Runyan Jr.’s path to the draft. Runyan Jr. appreciated his father’s “hands-off” approach to sports. They spent the Saturday of the draft together, though generally not side by side as they battled different kinds of nerves waiting for Runyan to be selected. When it finally happened – an anxiety heightened when Runyan Jr. inadvertently hung up on a call from the Packers – the two shared a congratulatory moment. Then, it was time for some father-son advice.
“It was more of a relief than anything,” Runyan Sr. said. “Like I told him, I said, ‘Congratulations. Remember all the stuff that got you to this point. Now, you’ve got to double-down on it because it doesn’t get any easier because you’re going in to take someone’s job. Now, it becomes even more competitive. You don’t have the ability, like you did in college, to wait around for two or three years. If you’re not making an impact in three years, you’re not going to be around. You’ve got to put the time in.”
It’s a message Runyan has taken to heart.
“Everything I’ve done throughout my career has been reset,” he said. “Now, fortunately, I have this opportunity to go out to Green Bay and prove myself at the next level, and I couldn’t be more excited about that.”