The quarterback Aaron Stinnie is responsible for protecting was already accumulating Super Bowl championships by the time Stinnie decided to play football.
Stinnie, a former All-American offensive lineman for James Madison, will take the next step of his unlikely journey when he makes the first start of his NFL career on Sunday for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Playoff against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Kickoff is set for 6:40 p.m.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to be able to put my hand in the pot and help the team out,” Stinnie told the Daily News-Record. “At some point, you know your name is going to get called, so you just have to have faith in that, trust in that; and I’ve been keeping myself ready for that moment to come.”
He’ll line up at right guard in place of regular starter Alex Cappa, who fractured his ankle during Tampa Bay’s win last week in the Wild Card round over the Washington Football Team. Stinnie, a third-year pro, was inactive then, but appeared in six games and logged 30 snaps on offense during the regular season.
The Buccaneers offense, led by six-time champion and four-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady, is thriving and tallied at least 31 points in each of its last four games with Brady racking up 12 touchdown passes during those contests. Stinnie must help keep Brady upright for Tampa Bay to continue its success against the Saints, who ranked fourth for total defense and fifth for scoring defense in the regular season.
Earlier this week when Bucs coach Bruce Arians announced Stinnie would start, Arians said: “He’s done a good job for us, so he’s more than ready to play.”
“We believe in Stinnie,” Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said Thursday. “I believe he’ll be ready to roll.”
As for the words of wisdom Brady provided, Stinnie said the signal-caller told him to “just go out and have fun.”
To understand Stinnie’s path to the NFL postseason, it’s critical to know he never looked that far ahead along the way.
There were other tasks he needed to conquer first, like figuring out football was the sport he was destined to play. He loved basketball throughout his childhood and it wasn’t until his junior year at St. Anne’s-Belfield in Charlottesville that he played organized football.
“Both of my boys wanted to be D-I athletes,” said Phil Stinnie, Aaron’s father and former VCU basketball standout who was a 1988 NBA Draft pick of the New York Knicks.
“But, unfortunately they didn’t grow taller than 6-4, 6-5 and they were both inside players [in basketball],” he said. “So I told them the odds of you being a D-I athlete as a 6-5 inside guy are slim to none unless you’re a freak of nature like Charles Barkley. And they understood, but I told them, if that’s still your goal then go do it in something else and Aaron followed his big brother’s lead.”
Bryan Stinnie, Aaron’s brother, was excellent on the gridiron for St. Anne’s-Belfield and went to play at William & Mary. Phil Stinnie said Bryan encouraged Aaron to believe he could have the same football success.
“His older brother told him he could do it, to embrace it and go after it. And Aaron did,” Phil Stinnie said.
In only his second season of playing, Aaron Stinnie earned Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association All-State honors as an offensive and defensive lineman. There were colleges that reached out, but none willing to provide the inexperienced, but filled-with-potential Stinnie the full scholarship he desired.
“I thought I was going to get a scholarship to go somewhere,” Stinnie said. “And then to get hit with walk-on spot [opportunities] back-to-back and have JMU say, ‘All we have is five percent [of a scholarship], but we’ll give it to you to give you a shot.’ That’s always kind of kept me as the underdog. It’s something I’ve always had to deal with ever since I was a kid in sports. I’ve always had to prove myself and that’s always something I keep as part of me. It’s always been my drive and kept me going. I’ve been looked down on in certain situations, but you’ve got to prove yourself and that’s how I’ve always done it.”
So Stinnie took the Dukes up on their small offer and arrived in Harrisonburg ready to show then-coach Mickey Matthews and his staff that he was capable of playing defensive line for them. That’s right, the current 6-foot-4, 312-pound guard who plays for the Bucs, showed up at JMU as a 250-pound defensive tackle.
He notched 11 tackles to go along with 1.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2014. But on the heels of that fall, coaches approached him about moving to offense.
“The NFL definitely wasn’t in the thought process at that point,” Stinnie said, as he chuckled. “When I was first moving over, I was thinking about trying to figure out how to stay at D-Line and trying to figure out the best route to do that.”
D-Line To O-Line
The offseason before a coaching change occurred at JMU. Matthews was fired and the Dukes hired Everett Withers. One hire Withers made to his staff in between his first and second seasons at the school was offensive line coach Jamal Powell, who Stinnie said mentored him in his transition to offense.
“They had switched him over, and I was coming in during the spring,” Powell said. “And after my first meeting there, Aaron and [former Dukes offensive lineman] A.J. Bolden stayed afterward and reassured me they would do everything I asked them to do to be the best they could be. That was one of the first impressions I got of Aaron.
“And then once we got on the field and you saw the commitment he had, the drive he had and the willingness to do it the way you asked him to, you could just see he was going to be a special player.”
Stinnie said: “I was just trying to figure out this new position and basically how to walk again.”
Phil Stinnie said a few years earlier Matthews recognized and told him he thought Aaron would eventually make a good offensive lineman when he filled out his frame. Howie Long, the FOX studio analyst and former Raiders defensive end great whose sons attended St. Anne’s-Belfield, said the same to Phil about Aaron, according to Phil.
But the process of changing to the opposite front required dedication, Powell said. Aaron Stinnie embraced what Powell was teaching, but repetition was necessary.
“The first part was playing through his feet and that’s more putting your whole foot into the ground when you block and not being on your toes,” Powell said. “It’s different from D-Line when you’re trying to get up field and you’re constantly over your toes trying to get to the quarterback, so that was one of the things. Another was trying to sit him down and get his frame down because he’s pretty long. We wanted to get him to stay low. And lastly, he had very strong, long arms, so I wanted him to use those to his advantage, so those three things were what we focused on a lot.”
In 2015, Stinnie started all 12 games for JMU in his first season as an offensive lineman. It was that year the former five-percent scholarship holder was put on a full ride, accomplishing a benchmark goal he set for himself in high school.
“I got up in front of the team at a team meeting,” Powell said, “got to talk about the work that he put in and say that he had earned a full scholarship. … And you have joy whenever your players have joy, and I was proud of him because he put in the work to be able to do that.”
Said Phil Stinnie: “It was a very emotional day when we were told he had earned his scholarship. And it was like lightning in a bottle to him because he felt like he belonged and then once he felt like he belonged, he owned it.”
Dominant With The Dukes
The rest of his college career was as fulfilling as it gets for an offensive lineman in the FCS.
He shined at left tackle in 30 starts over his junior and senior seasons, stabilizing the team’s pass protection as the blind-side blocker and pushing downhill in the running game. Stinnie was a key cog in JMU’s 2016 national-championship season and helped the Dukes get back to the title game as a captain the following year when he earned All-American honors.
“It just made life a lot easier,” Powell said, “because you didn’t have to worry about [former JMU quarterback] Bryan Schor getting hit from behind, because it didn’t happen.”
Powell said Stinnie excelled in the 2016 Colonial Athletic Association-title clinching win against Villanova when matched up against Wildcats defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, a second-round NFL Draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs the following spring. The same happened in the FCS title game against Youngstown State, which boasted defensive ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss — both draft choices a few months later.
Bryan Stinespring, who moved from JMU tight ends coach to Dukes offensive line coach for Stinnie’s senior year in 2017 when Powell left for Lamar, echoed Powell’s thoughts.
“Stinnie played the position that makes or breaks your pass protection a lot,” Stinespring said. “Especially with a right-handed quarterback. He’s the one that’s got the job of really protecting where the quarterback can’t see. And I think Stinnie’s presence and when I say presence, I mean in a two-fold fashion. He has a presence when the ball gets snapped and then in the locker room, on the sideline and just him being there was a confidence builder and calming value to a lot of people.”
Stinespring said not many folks outside of JMU’s program knew, but Stinnie played most of that 2017 season hurt. And even though Stinnie was banged up and had all the accolades and experience to sit out if he wanted to, he never did.
Stinnie’s work ethic was the same as a walk-on trying to prove himself or a player on five-percent scholarship trying to earn more.
“He had leadership qualities and all of those things,” Stinespring, now Delaware’s offensive line coach, said. “And he always stayed locked in, not getting caught up on the aspects of the long playoff runs we had. Every game was just the next one up and he was mature enough, understood the game enough and that’s part of being successful when you get in the playoffs.”
Stinnie started nine postseason games during his Dukes career. Seven were wins.
“I think when you have a guy that’s been there and done that,” Stinespring said, “for a lot of people it just gave confidence especially for those around him like a [JMU offensive lineman] Liam Fornadel, who was a young guy then and hadn’t played a lot. There were young guys surrounding Aaron for the most part except for A.J. that season and so I think for them and us, too as a coaching staff, it meant a lot to have a guy like Aaron Stinnie out there all the time.”
Overlooked, But Optimistic
Even with the all the triumphs Stinnie experienced in his last two years with the Dukes, he went without being selected during the 2018 NFL Draft before signing an undrafted free agent contract with the Tennessee Titans.
His stay in Nashville lasted until November of 2019 when Tampa Bay claimed him off waivers from the Titans.
“To be brought here, I thought it was a great opportunity for me,” he said.
But Stinnie has still had to wait for his chance. Although he played in six games this past fall, there were weeks he was inactive and he admits the constant back-and-forth can take its toll.
“Like a rollercoaster ride,” he said. “But you’ve always got to prepare when you’re in that situation because the term next-man-up is extremely real and you never know when it’s going to happen, so each week I’ve tried to prepare myself as if I’m the starter.”
He said the support his father, his mother Julia, his brother, Powell and others that he’s stayed connected with through highs and lows has helped him remain motivated to always be poised for whenever a chance presented itself.
“Being a former athlete who has taken this to the pinnacle, to watch him do it the way he’s done it, it makes a father proud,” Phil said. “We raised our kids to always give 110 percent and never feel that any obstacle can stop you from reaching your goals. When he realized this was his niche and this is what he wanted to do, he jumped at it.”
Stinnie’s family will be watching the game from home in Charlottesville and Powell will be doing the same from his home in Texas. Powell said when Stinnie found out he was starting, he FaceTimed his former O-Line coach to let him know.
Stinnie and Powell have bonded to grow even tighter than they were when Stinnie was playing for Powell, who has faced serious health issues over the past few years. Powell said Stinnie always calls and messages him, and has visited, too. Stinnie also joined The Big Man Foundation, a non-profit aimed at aiding coaches and their families to overcome hardships, as a board member.
“I told him to just show who he is,” Powell said of the advice he gave Stinnie. “He’s been playing the backup role for a while, but now he’s in the spotlight, so just for him to show everybody who he is.
“And what you can say is he earned it the whole way. He came in on a book scholarship, I believe, and worked himself to becoming the starter, All-American left tackle that is now starting in the NFL. It’s a great story.”