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September 12, 2011

Leading from the front

By: Jimmy Robertson

Greg Nosal shuns the spotlight, but excels as an offensive lineman with a work ethic and a disciplined approach instilled by his father, a lifelong Navy man

Greg Nosal

Greg Nosal shares living quarters with teammates Andrew Lanier, Chris Drager and Danny Coale. The first two, Lanier and Drager, though they work hard on and off the field, like to create a little mischief on the side and have been known to participate in Happy Hour every once in a while. Coale relates well to everyone and probably ranks as the team’s nicest and most popular player.

As for Nosal, he’s not quite as comical as Lanier and Drager and certainly not as well known as Coale.

“I’m not very interesting,” Nosal readily admitted, with a smile.

“I’d have to agree with that,” Drager opined.

Nosal’s roommates like to give the 6-foot-6, 303-pound offensive lineman grief in part because they like the guy and in part because he makes for an easy target. They joke about his preference for remaining in his room at their house and watching TV or playing video games. They laugh because he orders delivery most of the time instead of going out for dinner, preferring to avoid any possible crowds.

“He doesn’t like leaving the house, so he usually gets, like, Moe’s or a pizza,” Drager said. “He hasn’t been downtown in over a year.”

And then there’s his attire, which makes for another easy mark.

“He shops a lot at ‘Lester’s Warehouse,’ as we like to say,” Coale said, referring to Tech equipment manager Lester Karlin. “A lot of his get-up and clothing is from Lester. The ‘Air Nosals’ are the Lester-issued sandals. He’ll wear those everywhere, rain or snow or sunshine.”

Those who question Nosal’s talent or his toughness on the football field, though, may well find the joke on them. While he shuns any sort of attention, he certainly peaks the interest scale among his coaches and fellow teammates when the discussion concerns his play.

That’s because the fifth-year senior anchors Tech’s offensive line, and quietly and professionally does his job week in and week out, standing as the Hokies’ most consistent lineman. For that, he won’t stay unnoticed for long.

Consistency is the buzzword when querying teammates and coaches about Nosal. They cite his intelligence, work ethic, and toughness and a disciplined approach, and none of those traits comes as a surprise considering Nosal grew up the son of a Navy man.

And not just the son of an ordinary Navy man, mind you. Greg Nosal is the son of Rear Admiral Gregory Nosal, a 1981 graduate of the Naval Academy who just took a position as the commander of Carrier Strike Group Two in Norfolk, Va. A carrier strike group usually consists of 7,500 personnel, an aircraft carrier with between 65-70 aircraft, and three or four other smaller ships.

Born in Portsmouth, Va., Greg bounced with his family all over the country, mostly the East Coast, as his father climbed up the Navy’s hierarchy. The family has changed addresses six times since Greg’s birth and is getting ready to make a seventh move, this time back to the Tidewater area from Northern Virginia.

“Every two years, we’d get up and move,” Nosal said. “I actually got pretty lucky, luckier than my little brother. I got to spend seven years in Virginia Beach through middle school and high school. My little brother had to move to Hawaii and then to Fairfax.

“You get used to it [moving around]. It’s not a terrible thing. You get to experience new places, stuff like that. I’m sure it was hard for my little brother, being in high school. I got really lucky.”

As a kid, Nosal trailed along as the family, which consisted of his mom, Elizabeth, and an older sister and younger brother, moved from Portsmouth to Jacksonville, Fla., to Washington, D.C. and then back to the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area, where he went to middle school and later Kellam High School. He and his siblings grew accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle and quickly made new friends as a way to pass the time while their father went on six-month cruises throughout the world.

“He was gone a lot,” Nosal said. “I was born in 1989, and I remember them telling me that he left right after that to go to the [Persian] Gulf [for the Iraq War]. Whenever he left, that was tough on my mom because she was raising three kids. But we were so young, I don’t think we could tell.”

They became used to the military-like precision in which the Navy moved his family and also the regimented way in which his parents raised him and his siblings, especially during the times when his father was home. They let them play sports and be kids, but put up with no foolishness.

“He definitely was strict,” Nosal said of his dad. “My mother was more lenient. Dad was stricter, but I think that’s turned out for the best for all three of us kids. He enforced manners, looking people in the eye – I think he went over that with us every time we met someone – and firm handshakes. He’s big on proper manners and things like that.

“I only got in trouble a few times. Just little stuff. I never wanted to be on that side of him. It wasn’t so much the punishment. It was the disappointment. You never wanted to disappoint him. His morals and values were so high that you tried to live up to them.”

With discipline and other traits instilled in him by his parents and that military background, Nosal became a terrific football player. As a senior at Kellam, he was a first-team All-Group AAA selection as a tight end and earned a spot on the prestigious All-Tidewater team.

Nosal wasn’t highly recruited, but Tech offensive line coach Curt Newsome saw a future tackle when he watched Nosal play. He went after Nosal hard, and Nosal picked Tech over some offers from smaller Division I programs.

“Virginia Tech was always my first choice,” he said.

Newsome always envisioned Nosal as an offensive lineman. Nosal possessed excellent speed and footwork, and he also possessed the frame to put on more weight. Still, Newsome allowed Nosal to attempt to play his beloved tight end spot. Yet after a while, he approached Nosal about joining the offensive line.

“Initially, he didn’t want to, but Greg’s competitive,” Newsome said. “He didn’t want to watch. He wanted to play. He wanted to get on the field any way he could.”

“I knew in the back of my head that there was a possibility of moving, but I didn’t want to believe it because I still, to this day, think I can play tight end,” Nosal said.

Then he backpedaled with a smile.

“Well, not really, but I’ve always wanted to,” he said. “I’ve come to love the offensive line, though. I don’t think I’d want to go back to tight end now.”

Nosal spent his first couple of years in Blacksburg lifting and especially eating, trying to get his weight to a point where he could play on the offensive line. He arrived at Tech weighing around 240 pounds, so he needed at least 40 pounds to put himself in position for playing time.

Thus, he ate as many as five meals a day.

“That’s anyone’s dream to eat as much as you want whenever you can,” he said. “I really hit the weights hard, too. I took Coach [Mike] Gentry’s program to heart. I think I went up 100 pounds in my bench press in my freshman season and gained about 25-30 pounds my redshirt year. I was really focused on getting stronger and bigger.”

The end result has been the transformation of a skinny tight end to a potential all-conference offensive lineman. Newsome gave him reps at tackle, but a lack of depth at the guard spot prompted him to give Nosal reps at guard. He ended up sticking there.

As a redshirt sophomore, Nosal got extensive reps as a backup at guard, playing in every game and averaging about 25 snaps a game. Then last season, he started every game, playing a line-high 885 snaps.

“It shows hard work pays,” he said. “I know I was never the biggest or the strongest. I just tried to go out and work as hard as I could every day.”

“The thing that stands out about Greg is he’s a hard worker, but he’s also extremely smart,” Newsome said. “You have to have talent, but it helps to be smart. Greg was a quick learner, and he can play faster because he knows what he’s supposed to do.”

Despite playing in anonymity and giving a boring self-assessment, Nosal received national attention last season following a game against Central Michigan at Lane Stadium. At some point in the first half, his left pinky finger got lodged between two helmets, and the collision severed the tip of the finger.

Nosal thought he had cut the finger, a simple gash, as blood poured out of his glove. He came out of the game, and Tech’s sports medicine staff told him not to look at the finger. They scurried around, looking on the ground for the tip of the finger, and then Nosal suggested they look inside his glove.

Sure enough, they found the tip inside the glove and put it on ice, and after begging to return to the game, Nosal received some pain medication and played until the Hokies secured the outcome. He left late in the third quarter, and a doctor stitched the piece of flesh back to the finger.

No one knew about the incident until after the game, but the news quickly spread and the interview requests starting pouring in. The most notable came from ESPN’s Erin Andrews, a blonde vixen whose beauty is equally matched by her talent and professionalism.

Nosal grudgingly fielded the interview requests, but thought the incident got way overblown.

“I thought it was the most blown up thing for such a little finger to get cut,” he said. “I was amazed at how big it got. I thought that was completely unneeded because it was such a little thing.”

Still, the incident put him on the map. Now, when people find out his name, some ask about the finger and ask to see it. Even some teammates question him on it occasionally.

“It’s still a little disfigured, but it’s almost grown back,” he said. “It’s all healed up, and I’ve got feeling in it.”

Perhaps more impressively, he gained even more respect and admiration from his teammates – even more so than he already had.

“He’s a great starter for us and he showed he’ll play with pain,” Drager said. “He’s not one of these who says, ‘Look at me.’ He just does his job and that’s enough for him.”

The coaches have a feeling that he’s in for a big senior season despite missing spring practice after undergoing surgery on his shoulder. His five-meal-a-day diet enabled him to get his weight above 300 pounds for the first time ever. He got stronger in the strength and conditioning program, and his shoulder feels fine. He took care of his academic obligations last semester, too, finishing up coursework toward his degree in business management and graduating in May.

His immediate future consists of helping the Hokies live up to their lofty expectations on the gridiron. Long term, he hopes to stay in football, whether it be as a player in the professional ranks or starting a career in coaching.

“Well, maybe he’s not as smart as I thought,” Newsome joked. “Nah, he’d be a great coach. The game comes easy to him. He does a good job at helping the younger guys because of his understanding.”

“This spring, I was out because of shoulder surgery, and I spent a lot of time on the field trying to help out the younger guys,” Nosal said. “I really enjoyed it, so I’ve been thinking about getting into coaching. I love football and I love being around it. So maybe I’ll get into coaching.

“My degree is a mix of business, finance, economics and accounting. You got little pieces of all of them, but it [his degree] also helps with motivation. I had a lot of classes that deal with motivation, and that could help with coaching.”

Whatever he does, he’ll attack it with discipline, work ethic and respect, as he has done with everything in his life up to this point – and he’ll do so with a salute to his father. After all, he knows that guy would expect nothing less.

He’ll also try to do it with the relative anonymity that his roommates like to tease and needle him about constantly.

But it will be hard. Because as he’s finding out, when you’re good at something, everyone eventually takes notice.