INDIANAPOLIS — Josh McNary spent the last two years working with the real America’s team — the U.S. Army.
This fall, he could be America’s favourite comeback story.
On Thursday, the Indianapolis Colts signed the free-agent linebacker and Army lieutenant. He hasn’t played a down in two years while he fulfilled his military obligation but was impressive enough at a regional combine in Texas that the Colts decided to take a chance on the pass-rushing specialist who turned 25 years old Wednesday — the day he actually agreed to terms with the team.
"I’ve got a lot of confidence after getting in shape and after seeing the progress I’ve made physically and knowing what I’m capable of, given my instincts on the field," he said during a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon. "I’m very optimistic and pretty confident of what I bring to a team. The Colts also named a few characteristics I had that I wasn’t sure they anyone else was seeing, you know unique characteristics, so that gives me the confidence that they’re going to give me a pretty good shot."
There’s no risk for the Colts.
For the moment, the 6-foot, 251-pound linebacker has been placed on the reserve-military list. As an undrafted free agent and older rookie, he comes at a bargain basement price. If everything works out, the Colts will get another strong pass-rusher — something they could definitely use after letting franchise sacks leader Dwight Freeney go in free agency — and a trained leader in the locker room.
At Army, McNary set career records for sacks (28) and tackles for loss (49), the school’s single-season mark for sacks (12.5) and in a game (4.0). He finished his career at West Point with 195 career tackles, nine passes defenced, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries including a 55-yard return for a TD in the 2010 win at SMU. He also was named the 2011 East-West Shrine Games’ Pat Tillman Award winner — an award that goes to a player who best represents character, intelligence, sportsmanship and service.
All that came after McNary said he planned to give up the game after playing as undersized, overlooked defensive tackle during his senior season in high school.
Now, he’s ready to make a second comeback attempt.
"Once I committed to going to the combine and stuff like that, I incorporated a lot of football skills and drills to kind of bring msyelf back," he said. "So I’ve been doing a lot of drills in general, things that get me moving like a football player again because that doesn’t happen overnight. I was still in shape being in the Army and everything, but it’s a different type of shape. In the Army, it’s a lot more long-distance running, more endurance-based and football is more of an explosive sport."
McNary would not say exactly when he expects to join the Colts for off-season workouts, though he said his two-year commitment ends May 21. Sometime after that, he’ll start working out at the team complex.
Until then, he’ll continue working at Fort Hood in Texas, where he has been stationed for the past six months.
Football was never the ultimate goal for McNary, who grew up in a military. His grandfathers both fought in wars, one in the Korean, one in World War II. His father was a Marine officer and his uncle has returned home from active duty in Iraq.
With nothing more than Division II scholarship offers available out of high school, McNary never thought twice about his career path when he was accepted into the academy.
"I had applied to West Point and, fortunately, they accepted me and that was like a no-brainer," he said. "It was only when I arrived at West Point that I decided to pick football back up because it was so convenient, it wasn’t going to conflict with my aspiration to be an officer or my job in any way."
Football wound up taking McNary farther than he ever imagined.
Instead of getting drafted in 2011, he remained on campus and began his two-year commitment by working with the football teams as a graduate assistant coach and in the conditioning department. When those assignments ended, McNary went to officer’s training for six months. Eventually, he wound up at Fort Hood.
And if the NFL doesn’t work out, McNary said he would eagerly return to military service.
"I’ve learned so much through the four years at the academy and also to this point, I’m starting to learn so much, I’m finally feeling comfortable in the Army and I wouldn’t want it to go to waste," he said. "So I could definitely see me sometime trying to return to the Army."
For now, though, McNary is content to chase his other dream — playing in the NFL with a team that he thinks will give him a legitimate chance to make the opening day roster.
"I did have other opportunities, but the Colts were just unique in their enthusiasm to get me on board. I got a call from the general manger (Ryan Grigson), who basically said sign with the organization, and that was huge. I got a call from Coach (Chuck) Pagano. It was just an overwhelming amount of attention that they showed toward me, it definitely wasn’t matched by any other teams and these guys saw things in me that I thought I only knew I had. It sounds like they’re going to put me in a place where they can optimize my potential, kind of like they did in college. So I thought it was a pretty good choice."