PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The cascade of whispers and innuendo would always somehow find a way to Loretta Runyan, and it didn’t matter where she was. She could be on the sideline of a youth flag-football game, or sitting in the stands watching her son play basketball, or at a little league field were the words would invariably flow towards her: “The only reason he’s playing is because he’s Jon Runyan’s son; he’s really not that good.”
No one ever said it to Loretta’s face. It was always implied — her son, Jon Daniel — was handed his position. Never mind he was just a kid lugging the heavy “Runyan” name, trying to figure out who he was in the considerable shadow of his father, Jon, a former 14-year NFL veteran and all-time Philadelphia Eagle.
Never mind that wherever Jon Daniel went, the stigma followed that he was “carried,” because of who his father is above anything he did , even though he was constantly competing against older kids.
Today, you see Jon Daniel play — eyes still follow him, looking really hard for the crevices, those slips. There are none. He’s clean. He’s finishing blocks. He’s pancaking anyone in his way.
The fact is Jon Daniel Runyan, St. Joseph Prep’s Michigan-bound 6-foot-5, 280-pound senior offensive tackle, has forged an identity all his own as one of Pennsylvania’s best high school football players. The fact is Jon Daniel is a leading reason why the Hawks could repeat as PIAA Class AAAA state champions. The fact is Jon Daniel could one day wind up where his old man once played—if he continues to progress the way he has.
Jon Daniel has excelled far beyond a weighty surname, far beyond the football field and those comfort zones where mommy and daddy are not always there to help.
What’s more Jon Daniel is better—possibly far better—than his father was at the same age.
Hawks’ coach Gabe Infante believed enough in Jon Daniel, a first-team all-state selection as a junior, to plug him in as a starter his sophomore year — at right tackle, where dad played. Since then, Jon Daniel has flourished.
“Jon’s grown tremendously over the last three years mentally and physically,” Infante said. “The kid has really come a long way. He’s become a leader for us, and we’re very proud of him. For a young man like that, it’s been harder because of the expectations that people placed on him at such a young age, and coupled with that is he’s playing in an area where his father was so dominant.
“That can impede a young man’s progress, depending on how they choose to deal with those things. Some kids shy away from that. Jon Daniel didn’t. He’s quiet, doesn’t say much, but he’s a tremendous worker, a tremendous worker.”
Infante bristles over the comparisons to Jon Daniel and his dad (“The father’s a 14-year NFL veteran; the son has played three years of high school football, I mean come on,” Infante said) and some of the trash that’s been unjustifiably heaped at Jon Daniel, going back to his youth sports days. During his sophomore year, opposing players would lean in and tell him, “You’re not as good as your dad,” during the postgame handshake.
“I’ve had people, and I mean adults, come up and ask me to give them the ‘real scoop’ on Jon Daniel and if he’s really that good,” Infante said. “I have no idea where that comes from — what people’s motivations were. Because Jon Daniel is Jon Runyan’s son, some people felt a kid like that doesn’t need to be coached. That it all comes natural. With Jon Daniel, a lot of it does, but he never played offensive line until he got to high school. Jon Daniel is so athletic for a kid that size that he’s a genetic freak. I coach this kid every damn day and he’s the best offensive lineman I’ve ever coached.”
Jon Daniel just shrugs. Off the field, he’s like a shaggy, overgrown puppy. He’s unassuming, other than his size, carries a humility his parents instilled, but underneath that placid veneer is an edge on the field. Because he’s Jon Runyan’s son, he’s often been placed under the microscope searching for that same nastiness his father played with.
You don’t have to look hard to find it. The mean streak is there. Maybe it’s not as demonstrative as his dad’s tenacity, but his drive manifests itself on film. From his junior year, there’s Jon Daniel leveling a hapless defensive tackle; there he is bulldozing some poor linebacker 20 yards down field out of the screen; there is No. 75 playing defensive tackle taking on three blockers — and still getting through to make a sack in last year’s state championship game, his best game ever on his largest stage.
One Philadelphia Catholic League coach simply refers to Jon Daniel as “The Monster,” and that, “We have no one that can stop him, so if anyone thinks the kid doesn’t play mean like his dad never saw the kid play.”
He’s blossoming at the right time. There’s a reason.
“Playing football is something I liked, but something that I didn’t really love until the last few years I’d say,” Jon Daniel admitted. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’m not my father. That’s motivated me. I know who I am. Growing up, I did want to play football because my dad played. It’s nothing my parents pushed me to do. It’s something I wanted to do. I think it’s why I put more pressure on myself than anyone else could. I want to be the best. The goal one day is to play in the NFL. To do that, my father always tells me, you have to put everything into it.”
Football is not all Jon Daniel plunges added effort into. He maintains a 3.0 GPA at Prep, one of the most academically demanding schools in the Philadelphia area. He’s done it through hard work, diligence and with dyslexia, which his father also has.
In his formative years, Jon Daniel had comprehension challenges; auditory processing challenges. In grade school, teachers wanted to place limits on him, telling the Runyans that Jon Daniel couldn’t handle a high academic environment.
Jon and Loretta ended that.
“That’s why Jon Daniel is so special, and I can say this, that’s my son, he had to work to overcome a lot of things in his life; it’s not just about football,” said Loretta, a former police officer in Houston, where she met her husband when he was playing for the Oilers. “Jon Daniel is doing great at a school like St. Joe’s Prep. He’s going to a great academic school in Michigan. He had to work double on his academics and with football.
“Teachers used to tell us Jon Daniel shouldn’t be doing this, and this might be too much for him. I would stop them and say, ‘You know what, I know my son.’ No matter how much it hurt me to see him struggle, Jon Daniel never, ever complained about going to speech therapy, or occupational therapy. That can’t be ignored. It’s more than just about football. I’m proud of my son and I have a right to say that because I’ve seen all the hard work and determination he has.”
Loretta is swept up by a tinge of emotion, brought back to the times Jon Daniel spent countless hours poring over words, then she catches herself for a second and laughs, “Jon Daniel’s mannerisms are like his father’s in every aspect, from his body movement to his quiet nature — but his good looks and coloring come from me.”
Jon Runyan watches everything. He misses nothing. His keen eye can dissect steps, movement, missed blocks and effort. When it came to Jon Daniel, he used to stay on the fringes, making his presence known at a comfortable distance, ever wary of placing any undue stress on his son. But in recent years, he’s taken incremental steps closer to Jon Daniel on the field as an assistant coach at Prep, acutely walking a fine line of not being overbearing and knowing when to step in and teach.
The father’s biggest fear is complacency.
“I am very proud of him,” says Jon, an All-Big 10 his junior year at Michigan. “One of the things I tell all my kids is that if you’re not internally motivated to do something, you’re not going to be successful. You can’t push anyone if they don’t have the desire to do something; you find what you have a passion for and put everything into that bucket. I tell Jon every day that you’re not there yet, but he’s getting there.
“He’s more advanced than I was. I didn’t play football until I was a junior in high school and didn’t play offensive tackle until I was a senior. I never won a state championship in high school. He did. He is heavier than me; he’s stronger than I was; he’s a better athlete than I was. You have to play this game with violence and that’s something I see him growing into on a daily basis.”
Perhaps what Jon Runyan is most proud of is how his son has overcome a hurdle he also had to face.
“I was diagnosed as a dyslexic after my freshman year in college,” said Jon, an all-time Eagle great who is a U.S. congressman in New Jersey’s 3rd District. “I’ve had to battle through stuff like that. Jon had different issues than I had. It’s something that takes a lot of trial and error—and what he’s been through socially, athletically and academically, he’s been tested on all of those fronts. And Jon knows how to deal with adversity and push through it. It’s a constant process and a lifetime challenge.
“I am proud of Jon — but I’m also very critical of him, because I’ve seen people like him who are very talented. I’ve learned if you don’t have the focus and the energy behind the talent, you’re not going to make the best of it. Jon has the tools. You just have to be cautious with the steps and I let him know, ‘By the way, I saw you take this play off, or I saw you take that play off.’ At some point, it’s going to click in their head, someone is always watching. I don’t want people questioning [his] effort. Make it hard for me to find something to critique you on. I want to make his life easier. Jon understands the dedication and sacrifice it takes to reach a higher level.”
Possibly a few higher levels.
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