Before staking a claim to a starting job at the center position this season, Ryan Turnley's career at Pitt was more or less defined by injury.
For his first three years as a Panther, the redshirt junior from Hopewell was on the sidelines with the trainers more than he was on the practice field. And getting in the games wasn't even an option. But this summer he approached the coaches about being able to play center, thus filling a hole on the offensive line; he performed well in that role through the first six games of the season and showed steady improvement each week.
Then, in week seven, Turnley suffered an injury to his right foot that put him back on the sidelines for the next ten days of practice leading into Pitt's Wednesday night game against Connecticut. But the missed practice didn't matter, as Turnley took the field for the 35-20 win over the Huskies.
In the process, though, he injured his left foot. But in a remarkable show of resiliency, Turnley finished the Connecticut game and played the entire game against Cincinnati on Saturday. To say Pitt head coach Todd Graham has been impressed with Turnley's toughness would be an understatement.
"The guy that exemplifies what our program is all about is Ryan Turnley," Graham said Tuesday. "The courage that he shows to play, and will not 'not play,' is phenomenal. The guy didn't go through spring, and we had no idea, really. He came to me and said, 'Coach, I can snap the ball.' We started working on it and it was like, 'wow.' The guy was natural at snapping the football.
"But his football and his courage has been unbelievable, and what's amazing is the level at which he's playing. He's playing really good. He has improved every week without practicing. He actually gets a little bit in on Thursday practice, but the courage, the toughness, and the heart that he's showing has developed into being an anchor of our line. I'm really proud of him."
Turnley is probably the most extreme case, but he's not the only Panther playing through pain right now. Graham said the team has "a lot of bumps and bruises" at this point in the season, and some veteran players are surprised at how long the weekly injury list is.
"There are a lot more injuries that ever since I've been here," redshirt senior linebacker Max Gruder said Tuesday. "I don't know why that is. It's a tough break, but people are playing through injury.
"I was just in the locker room downstairs and looking at all the people who are hurt; it's pretty crazy. I'm pretty proud of the way guys are fighting through it, too. A lot of guys could sit out and not play, but they're fighting through it, which is good to see. It shows that people want to win."
Gruder is dealing with an injury of his own, having broken his left hand in the Connecticut win, finishing that game, and playing the Cincinnati game with a bulky cast. Despite the injury, Gruder has led Pitt in tackles the last two games, recording a total of 20 stops.
"He has played outstanding," Graham said. "The amount of plays and tackles that he's made has far exceeded what our expectations are, and he's a guy that is playing with a lot of heart."
"It probably didn't go through anyone's mind to sit out," Gruder said. "I know it didn't go through mine. I'm sure it didn't go through Turnley's, and he's getting shots in both feet to numb it up. It's the mentality they've given us since they got here."
Turnley was asked on Tuesday if he ever questions the possibility of playing while working in pregame warm-ups.
"No. I know that I'm going to be able to play on Saturdays."