A first-quarter injury to the San Diego Chargers’ starting center during their Wild Card playoff game against the host Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 5 forced the team to abruptly call on their backup. With five minutes remaining in the quarter, in stepped Rich Ohrnberger, a five-year NFL veteran, a three-year starter at Penn State University, and a 2004 East Meadow High School graduate.
Seven plays after Ohrnberger stepped on the field, running back Danny Woodhead broke a five-yard run into the end zone to give the Chargers an early lead in a game they would win 27-10. The running game was key to San Diego’s victory — the team rushed for 196 yards — thanks largely to an offensive line fortified by Ohrnberger for the remainder of the game.
For Ohrnberger, who was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2009 and spent three seasons there before signing with the Arizona Cardinals in 2012 and the Chargers last March, it was a long-awaited playoffs debut. But even on such a grand stage, to him it was just another football game. “There’s not a ton of time to think about the scenario,” said Ohrnberger, 27. “I just basically grabbed ahold of Phil” — Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers — “and told him, let’s get a couple of snaps real quick. The gravity of the situation doesn’t really take ahold of you until after the game.”
But some 700 miles away, in Ohrnberger’s hometown, the significance of the moment hit instantaneously. “It was incredible,” said East Meadow football coach Vin Mascia, who coached Ohrnberger. When Chargers starting center Nick Hardwick had to leave the game, “You kind of knew Rich was coming in,” Mascia said. “My phone literally blew up with texts,” he added, from alumni and friends.
Mascia, a New York Giants fan, said he hadn’t been as glued to a game since Super Bowl XLVI. “I was on the edge of my seat,” he said.