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COLUMBUS -- Nothing was supposed to happen as the NFL, its players, and all of the college athletes hoping to join their ranks kept an anxious vigil as the lockout dragged on for weeks and then months.
As the two sides wallowed in a swamp of legalese, would-be free agents, such as former Ohio State Buckeye Dane Sanzenbacher, worked out on their own and waited ... hoping their stock would not drop as the calendar continued to flip.
Then a peculiar thing transpired during a recent ESPN special that was intended to allow host and former NFL head coach and Super Bowl winner Jon Gruden to parade the talents of former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor. As the 2010 season highlight clips played, Gruden heaped the praise on Ohio State's No. 12, senior wide receiver Sanzenbacher.
"You know why you like this guy ... because he's reliable, he's tough, he doesn't make mistakes, and he's a football player," Gruden said about Sanzenbacher, a former Central Catholic standout who was a two-time City League player of the year.
Gruden also openly lamented the fact that Sanzenbacher, Ohio State's MVP for last season who led the Big Ten in touchdown receptions, did not get selected in the April NFL Draft.
"What's wrong with this world," Gruden asked Pryor, who left Ohio State abruptly in early June while at the center of an investigation into potential NCAA violations. Pryor had already been suspended for the first five games of the coming season for his involvement in the sale of memorabilia for cash and discounts on tattoos.
"That ESPN show was supposed to be about Terrelle Pryor, but it amounted to a 10-minute commercial for Dane Sanzenbacher," said Greg Dempsey, Sanzenbacher's coach at Central.
"When somebody like coach Gruden, who analyzes the college game for pro prospects, saw what kind of player Dane is and commented repeatedly on it, that has to get somebody's attention."
As a settlement nears in the NFL labor talks, Sanzenbacher and other prospective free agents inch closer to the time when they will get to display their skills in NFL camps, hoping to win a roster spot. The Gruden commentary gave Sanzenbacher a vote of confidence he had not expected.
"It was absolutely encouraging to hear coach Gruden say those things," Sanzenbacher said. "I'm flattered by it, especially since we've never met and he was just going by what he'd seen on film. Any time you catch the eye of a guy with that much NFL credibility, it has to help."
Gruden, who was born in Sandusky and was a backup quarterback at the University of Dayton before working his way up through the coaching ranks, called Sanzenbacher "My favorite Buckeye" and reminded Pryor that it was usually Sanzenbacher who bailed out the OSU quarterback in crunch times.
"That's my guy," Gruden said.
"The fact that the two of them have never met -- that speaks to what kind of player coach Gruden thinks Dane is," Dempsey said. "I've always felt Dane is a player that coaches really want to coach, but general managers might not want to take a chance on. I think Gruden was saying somebody better grab this guy."
Sanzenbacher (5-11, 182), who expects to meet with his agent and hopefully mull over free agent options once a settlement is reached in the NFL, said he hopes a number of teams heard Gruden's words.
"That's something you can't pay for as an athlete," Sanzenbacher said. "The show wasn't about me, and I've got lots of positive feedback since it aired. When you're working out on your own, not knowing when this thing might end, it was a good shot of encouragement. I'll still have to prove myself, if and when I get the chance, but what coach Gruden said really can't hurt."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.