AKRON, Ohio — Todd Sibley almost didn’t play football.
It’s pretty understandable. These days, Akron could be considered something of a basketball town. Native son LeBron James just won his third NBA title, and this one came with the just-down-the-road Cleveland Cavaliers.
But it wasn’t roundball that piqued Sibley’s interest as a kid, and it wasn’t necessarily football, either.
“I was more of an inside kid — TV, video games, that kind of thing,” Sibley said in a one-on-one interview at Archbishop Hoban High School Thursday.
The first time he went out for football, he was seven. It didn’t go so well.
“My uncle and my dad suggested it to me,” he said. “All my friends were playing it, my older brother had played it, but I didn’t see anything I liked in it. … I went out my first year, tried it and hated it.”
So he quit. At least temporarily. But that wasn’t a satisfying result, either, so he decided to go back and give it another shot. That time, something clicked.
“I got a feel for it,” Sibley said. “I guess I didn’t like it because I didn’t understand what was going on. Everything was confusing. … Once I got adjusted to it and I understood what was going on, it was kind of fun.”
Football doesn’t get a lot of credit as an intellectual pursuit, but the understanding of the mental side of the game and the camaraderie amongst the players was what finally got Sibley hooked. Picking up blocks, breaking down defensive schemes. That, and the bond of doing it as a group.
“I like how it brings a random group of guys from all different parts of your city to form a bond,” he said. “You can’t be successful in football without being a team. It’s a family. … That’s the one thing that really hits home with me. I’ve learned a lot from football. It’s not just a game to me. It’s taught me a lot of life lessons.”
The familial aspect is what drove Sibley to Pitt, as well. After having first committing to Ohio State, Sibley had his offered pulled by the Buckeyes, who wanted him to grayshirt, or delay his enrollment to the spring in order to count against their 2018 class instead of 2017. That, or find another school.
“I questioned if it was my ability to play football. Was it me? I went through a slump. I didn’t know what to do,” Sibley said. “I wasn’t really sure how I was supposed to take it. How can you not take something like that personal? It was tough.”
Sibley then quickly fielded countless overtures from other teams. The family aspect and down-to-earth nature of Pat Narduzzi and the Pitt coaching staff is what attracted him to the Panthers.
“I feel like I found a home at the University of Pittsburgh,” Sibley said. “I’m glad things went the way they did. Ultimately, everything [that’s happened] has turned me into a better person.”
Narduzzi, a Youngstown naive, appealed to Sibley with his sensible nature and focus on the total well-being of his football players, not just wins and losses. It’s a start contrast to the supersized personality of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer.
“I got to sit down in Coach Narduzzi’s offense with my mom and my dad and it’s like we’ve known each other for years the way we could just and talk,” Sibley said “I felt like he didn’t just care about the success of his players on the field. He really cares about the way they felt off the field. He really cares about how they’re doing, how their grades are. He’s not a coach that’s only using his players for wins.
“I know a lot of places where they only care about wins. They’ll show you their National Championship rings and their Rose Bowl rings, so and so forth. He didn’t really try to come at me with the glamour. He just tried to tell me about what’s great about the University of Pittsburgh and how it can better me as a player and as a person. That was really huge for me.”
After the hectic nature of his recruitment, just playing football has been good for Sibley this fall. That, and salivating over the Pitt offense that’s averaging 250 rushing yards per game — a figure he cited from memory.
“I’m very excited,” Sibley said. “They run the ball so well and the way they run the ball — they have some many varieties of how to get everyone involved in the running game. It’s crazy. They have a really good offense. It’s fun to watch them play.”
But starring in Matt Canada’s offense isn’t the thing Sibley is looking forward to the most at Pitt. It isn’t the first practice or running out of the tunnel at Heinz Field, either.
“The thing I’m looking forward to the most is taking classes in the Cathedral,” Sibley said. “The design of the Nationality Rooms is amazing. I can’t wait for football, but honestly, having class in one of those rooms — I can’t wait for that.”
Of course, that shouldn’t be too surprising. When Sibley first found football, it was the intellectual side of the game that drew him in. It seems his college choice has done the same thing.