By Hannah Martin
New Orleans Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk decided football wasn't for him.
He hung up the cleats.
And so began the unusual journey that started with a stint at a technical college, a starting spot on one of the most elite offensive lines in the country and finally a first-round pick in the NFL.
A native of Stevens Point, Wis., Ramczyk was a first-team All-State selection by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association, AP honorable mention All-State, first-team All-Region, first-team All-Wisconsin Valley Conference, team MVP and Offensive Player of the Year at Stevens Point Area High School.
Paul Chryst left his position as the offensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the head coach job at Pittsburgh and offered Ramczyk a scholarship, but Ramczyk turned it down.
Instead, he opted to stay closer to home and play at a Division II school, Winona State University in Minnesota. He showed up to campus and participated in a few practices then he made his decision: football was not for him.
He took a year off from football and attended Madison Area Technical College and then Mid-State Technical College in Stevens Point.
"Initially, I wasn't thinking about football," Ramczyk said. "I wanted to get into either welding or law enforcement."
Ramczyk stayed in his hometown while he figured out what his future was going to be. Meanwhile, Tom Journell, the head coach down the road at Division III University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, reached out to Ramczyk and said that he had a spot on the team if he ever decided he wanted to play football again.
"As the months went on it was like, man, what did I just give up? I really love this game," Ramczyk said. "I missed being around the guys. I missed competing on the field."
He stopped by Journell's office and told him he was ready to give football another chance.
For an athlete like Ramczyk, the transition was simple.
"It was under my own free will," Ramczyk said. "It was my own choice and it was my own drive to play again so I was very self-motivated. I was excited to go full steam ahead and attack it and play football again."
From there, Ramczyk played two seasons at Wisconsin-Stevens Point where he earned second-team all-conference honors as a freshman and first-team all-league honors as a sophomore.
He never even allowed a sack.
He fell in love with the game again.
Chryst, who left Wisconsin to become Pittsburgh's head coach, returned to the Badgers coaching staff in 2014.
As a youngster, Ramczyk had dreamed of playing for the Badgers, and now he had his chance. The timing was finally right and Ramczyk couldn't pass up the opportunity. He was hesitant to leave UW-Stevens Point, but Journell understood.
"It was a really special feeling," Ramczyk said. "Growing up I always dreamed of playing for the Badgers and obviously I had that hump there after high school, but to be able to be accepted into that school and have the opportunity to go there and play, it was a very exciting time in my life."
He sat for one year because of NCAA transfer rules and took that time to adjust to the speed and strength that it takes to excel at a Division I FBS football program. He caught on quickly and focused on learning as much as he could from everyone around him. Ramczyk was in the right place for an offensive lineman wanting to play at the highest level.
Ramczyk played one season at Wisconsin and he started all 14 games at left tackle in 2016 in Madison on the way to consensus first-team All-American and All-Big Ten honors. He anchored an offensive line that helped the Badgers rush for 203.1 yards per game while ranking as the season's top run blocker among FBS tackles by Pro Football Focus. The 6-foot-6, 314 pound tackle allowed just one sack and eight pressures, per PFF.
He had one year of eligibility left, but chose to come out and enter the draft which surprised some people.
"It was a big decision to come out because I did have hip surgery (prior to the draft). I had to make the most of it. I did everything that I could to rehab my hip and stay strong in my upper body. When the time came to get out there and do field work and stuff."
"There were people on both sides (with opinions), but at the end of the day I think everyone supported my decision."
It was a risky move for Ramczyk to leave Wisconsin after just one season considering the road he took to get there and the hip injury he had suffered.
His decision paid dividends as he was a first-round pick by the Saints in 2017.
"It was kind of a whirlwind coming in here because initially, you know, I was selected and the Saints had two great tackles starting," Ramczyk said. "And then unfortunately Terron (Armstead) went down and I stepped up in that position."
"It was kind of crazy, but it was great opportunity. I've really been enjoying it and I'm looking forward to this year and many more hopefully."
Ramczyk made an immediate impact to the Saints offensive line. He started all 16 regular season games and both postseason contests his rookie season and made his NFL debut at left tackle in place of an injured Armstead. He became the first rookie to start at left tackle for the Saints in a season opener since Jim Dombrowski did in 1986.
He then moved to right tackle permanently in Week Four, where he saw action early in the season, after starter ZachStrief suffered a season-ending knee injury and finished the campaign there for the final 12 regular season games and both playoff contests and earned PWFA All-Rookie honors.
In his third season, Ramczyk continues to bring that dominance in the trenches for the Black and Gold.
In the Saints season opener against Houston, Ramczyk kept Texan's defensive end JJ Watt, a dominant pass rusher against any opponent and fellow former Wisconsin standout, out of the Saints backfield and left without a tackle or a sack for the first time in his career.
"Obviously it was a huge challenge," Ramczyk said of going against Watt. "I was pleased with my performance and not only my performance but the guys around me who helped shut JJ down for the night."
"I'm happy I handled JJ well, but there's a lot of good pass rushers in this league," Ramczyk said. "You can't look by anyone. JJ is obviously a really good pass rusher, but everyone has their unique abilities. Week-to-week it's going to be a new challenge."
The challenge in 2019 will be to continue the progress of the line in both the running game and passing game, as the Saints look to take that next step.
"We have a really good mesh of all these guys. Losing Max (Unger) is tough. We miss him on and off the field. Erik (McCoy) has been doing a great job (at center). We have really good competition at that spot. But as a whole, we all get along, we all mesh, we all communicate really well. I think it will be a pretty solid group."