Starkey: Pitt's Schlieper living a dream

| Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011

Ready, set, hut ...

This is the story of a kid who fell hard for Pitt football while watching games with his dad at ancient Pitt Stadium.

The old man had been a farmhand in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. He was a 6-foot-6 pitcher who'd played on Shaler's legendary 1980 team and starred at West Virginia, of all places. He'd stared down the likes of Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark and Barry Larkin.

Naturally, then, the kid's first love was baseball. But he was moving fast toward 300 pounds, and you don't see too many 300-pound baseball players. So he made his name on the offensive line at North Allegheny High.

The kid hoped and prayed Pitt would offer a scholarship. It never came. He gave his verbal pledge to Maryland in fall 2008.

But his heart remained at Pitt.

Then came the miracle: Less than 48 hours before signing day, reserve Pitt quarterback Kevan Smith quit the team to play baseball. A scholarship opened. Assistant coach David Walker called the kid to ask if he still wanted to come to Pitt.

Silly question.

Maryland was just going to have to be left at the altar. That's life in college sports. A coach will leave a recruit in a split second if another school writes a big enough check, right?

Still, the kid had given Maryland his word. He now needed to make the most difficult call of his life. He had to tell his Maryland recruiter and coach Ralph Friedgen he was reneging.

You'll love the kid's recollection. It's real.

"I had told them I was going to their school, so I technically lied to them," he said. "But they say everything's a business. College football's a business. (A college) wouldn't think twice if they screwed you."

How true. How true.

Fast forward to Thursday night at Heinz Field. Pitt-USF. National television. Penguins stars Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik in the house. LeBron James watching on TV (as we would later learn on Twitter).

The kid, a backup right guard behind NFL prospect Lucas Nix, is standing on the sidelines. His folks are sitting behind Pitt's bench.

Two plays in, Nix goes down. The kid is watching the scoreboard replay when he hears four words he was never expecting.

"Get in there, Schlieper!"

On this night, the Panthers aren't slowing down for anyone. Quarterback Tino Sunseri turns to redshirt sophomore Ryan Schlieper and says, "Hey, this is your shot. Play your heart out."

So he did.

The rest of the night was a blur (just ask South Florida). Pitt ran 91 plays in a 44-17 victory. It delivered the kind of break-neck offense coach Todd Graham had promised, and it did so with two backup guards -- Schlieper and Cory King -- helping pave the way for Ray Graham's 226 yards.

Schlieper still can't believe how quickly USF wilted.

"I think by play 20 they were worn down, tapping their helmets," he said. "We wore them down mentally, emotionally and physically."

Maybe the biggest news happened after the game, in an emotional Pitt locker room, when Ray Graham didn't get one of the game balls.

"Coach told Ray, 'I give you a game ball every week; let's share the wealth,' " Schlieper recalled with a laugh.

So guess who got one• Teammates mauled the kid as Coach Graham flipped him a football and said, "You stepped up, got your chance and proved something!"

The next day, the old man -- Rich Schlieper -- was bursting with pride. The stadium Thursday night looked half empty to most. It looked half full to Mr. Schlieper.

"I was in some big games, but never a big game like that," Rich said. "There were, what, 40,000 people there• I wouldn't know what it's like. I give (Ryan) a lot of credit."

Nix, who injured a knee, is questionable for Rutgers on Saturday, so Schlieper might get his first start. Or he might not see the field until next season. But even if he never plays another down, he'll know he made the right decision picking Pitt.

Isn't that always the case when you follow your heart?

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