It was August, 2016 and Notre Dame High School freshman Ryan Monaco was at his first organized football camp. When the Irish coaches told everyone to get in the position line of their choice, the fairly massive Monaco went with the receivers.
That didn’t last long.
“They saw me and put me in with the linemen,” he said with a grin. “I wanted to always be a receiver. I’ve always been fast for my size. But I was like 190 pounds my freshman year. So I figured ‘If this is how I’ll be able to play and get a spot, I might as well do it.’”
It turned out to be the right move for all involved. Monaco has been the Irish’s starting center the past two years and has anchored an offensive line that sparks Mercer County’s most explosive offense. The Irish started 7-0 and won every game by the 35-point mercy rule.
“He plays with a motor that’s going 150 miles per hour at all times,” coach Sean Clancy said. “He makes our offensive blocking calls, he has worked so hard in the weight room over the last couple years to really build up his body. He’s a strong student. All the kids really respect him.”
Not to mention, his technique is solid, which is the most important factor in opening holes for running backs and protecting the quarterback.
“He’s very aggressive,” Clancy said. “He stays on his blocks, he uses his hands well, he has good footwork. We haven’t had a problem with a snap in a game in two years.”
What makes this all so impressive is that Monaco never played football before entering Notre Dame, and he had to overcome a serious health issue midway through high school.
Growing up in Robbinsville, Monaco had a heavy frame that kept him from joining the PAL program.
“There was a weight limit so if I wanted to play I’d have to play with older guys,” he said. “I’ve played baseball in Robbinsville Little League and all through my life, but I always wanted to play football. My friends always played and just hearing them tell all the stories of how fun it was, I really wanted to get out there and get going.”
Thus, when he arrived at Notre Dame he immediately signed up for the team. And even if he couldn’t play receiver, Monaco was willing to do whatever it took. He immediately went to work with Irish strength coach John McKenna to turn baby fat into muscle.
“Going into the weight room every day and just grinding, it really got me going,” said Ryan, who played left tackle his freshman year and went both ways as a guard and defensive end on the JV team as a sophomore.
Clancy, who was an assistant at the time, loved Monaco’s mindset from the get-go.
“What you can really judge with a freshman is their intensity on the field and their competitiveness and their ability to be active on the field,” the coach said. “He definitely demonstrated that as a freshman and a sophomore.”
It helped that the physicality of the line did not faze Monaco.
“I kind of expected it, that I’d have to muscle people, release my physical ability,” he said. “Just be bigger than everyone.”
The fact Monaco had no previous experience was actually considered a blessing by Clancy.
“I think in general his skills were pretty good,” the coach said. “Sometimes it’s an advantage when the kids haven’t played. They haven’t picked up techniques. We run a different kind of offense than a lot of other programs, so sometimes we have to teach kids how to block and how to use their hands. He’s always been a very fast learner.”
Monaco agreed, saying, “I didn’t pick up any bad mistakes or I wasn’t doing anything wrong where I had to be re-taught. I came in with a clean slate.”
He was primed to make varsity as a junior but had to clear a hurdle in July when he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.
“I went from 225 pounds to 179 in August, and I didn’t think I would be ready to play,” Monaco said. “It just got me more motivated to get back on the field and get back to battling with my brothers.
“Coach McKenna called me up and said ‘We’re gonna get through this, you’ll get back on the field even if I have to sit next to you on the sideline, you’re gonna play.’ I ended up playing the whole season last year and every game this year.”
Monaco gives himself insulin shots and trainer Mallory Klapsogeorge monitors his sugar levels on the sidelines. If necessary, she will serve up some Gatorade to get his sugar up.
“It’s all good,” he said.
Monaco returned to the field in time to start both ways in the opening game against Allentown last year, which he would do the remainder of the season. One thing changed, however.
“They moved me (from guard) to center after the Allentown game,” Monaco said. “They had a center and he left after the first game so I got the start. I was pretty good snapping the ball so they said ‘You’re gonna play center.’”
Ryan made the switch by using what he called “muscle memory.”
“You go to the same place every time,” he said. “Hit the back of my butt when I snap it; be in the same position, keep my balance, make sure I’m quick when I’m done snapping to get my hands ready to block.”
Clancy noted that Notre Dame’s blocking schemes are somewhat different than other high school teams.
“Our offensive line is asked to do quite a few things other offensive lines aren’t asked to do,” he said. “Just the way we block, the way we pull, the way we ask them to be able to make decisions in space. We don’t do a ton of zone blocking, we don’t do a ton of big on big blocking, which is fundamentally easier. So he has to identify who his target is coming off the double team, he has to be able to roll to the right person and also, Ryan’s block is the key to the success of the run.”
That’s a bit of pressure to put on the guy, but Monaco has handled it well. He is only playing offense this year and, while he misses being on defense, he does feel fresher as the games wear on.
Off the field, Monaco has amassed a 3.5 grade point average and is a member of Catholic Athletes for Christ, the Italian Club and Peer Leadership. He is looking into playing college football and has been in contact with Division III schools Wilkes, Catholic and Ursinus.
At 6-feet, 210 pounds, Monaco won’t focus on Division I schools since “My size is holding me back”
Despite that size, rest assured he won’t be in the receivers’ line once he gets to college. He has found a home on the line.