Most area sports fans would agree that there's nothing like Friday night football in the fall. Whole communities flock to the nearest stadium to watch their friends, neighbors, and family battle it out on the gird iron.
Two former TIMES NEWS area football players will now try and take what they have learned from those brisk Friday nights in Eastern Pennsylvania and use it on Sundays in the National Football League.
Robbie Frey, a former running back at Lehighton, and Mike Ryan, a standout offensive lineman at Marian Catholic, signed free agent contracts after the NFL Draft came to an end on Saturday night. Frey signed a contract with the Atlanta Falcons while Ryan signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Frey, the former Indian speedster and the TIMES NEWS Football Player of the Year in 2005 and 2006, played three years at the University of Connecticut before transferring to Division II Kutztown University for his senior year.
"It feels great. I'm still in a little bit of shock," said Frey. "To get a shot at playing in the NFL is a dream come true.
"I'm excited to get a chance to compete at the highest level of football. It's something that when you are growing up in a small town you dream about, but never really think is going to happen. Now that it has become a reality for me, I'm really anxious to get started."
Ryan was a First Team Class A All State selection as a senior for the Colts, which earned him a scholarship to play collegiate football at the University of Connecticut, where he was a teammate of Frey for three years.
Ryan started to see serious time as a sophomore and in 2010, as a junior, earned First Team All Big East honors. Ryan was then selected to the All Big East Second Team in 2011.
"I'm very happy to be a Bengal," said Ryan. "I'm excited for the opportunity and I'm anxious to see how I can get better.
"I want to figure out what I need to work on and improve on so that I can play for the Bengals and eventually work myself into the starting rotation."
Ryan, a Tamaqua native, played in two all-star games in the off-season. Ryan showcased his talent in the NFLPA All Star Game in Carson, California and the Players All Star Classic in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The possibility of playing on Sundays became evident to Ryan after his junior year and since that time he has never looked back.
"Once my junior year was over and I made all Big East First Team I thought to myself that maybe my NFL dream was possible," said Ryan. "I've been working hard for a pretty long time, day in and day out, to get to this point. I am going to continue to stay driven and work hard and work on the weaknesses in my game."
After excelling on special teams at UConn and also seeing time as a backup running backup, Frey decided to leave the Huskie program after his junior year. This past season at Kutztown, he rushed for 1,185 yards on 189 carries, scoring 11 touchdowns. He was fourth in the PSAC in rushing at 98.75 yards per game.
Frey attended the regional NFL combine at Florham Park in New Jersey and then was invited to the Super Regional NFL combine in Detroit last month. His performance was obviously enough to impress NFL scouts around the league.
"The Falcons expressed some interest in me prior to the draft," said Frey. "I watched it with my finace knowing that I probably wasn't going to be drafted, but also knowing that even if I wasn't I would probaby get an opportunity as a free agent.
"The Falcons were the first team to contact me. They called shortly after the draft ended and I signed that day."
Ryan and Frey mentioned pride and hard work as traits that helped them get their opportunities.
Ryan is proud of his coal region football background and remembers his days at UConn where he defended the Pennsylvania football tradition.
"We had guys from Florida and Texas always saying how they had the best football players," said Ryan. "I always stood up and said how we Pennsylvania guys aren't too shabby either. I'm proud of the way our area portrays football. We're tough, hard-nosed players and that's definitely something I'll be taking with me to the NFL."
Frey said that he has approached playing football the same way his entire life and he's not going to change now.
"I've always prided myself on hard work," said Frey. "I plan on keeping that same attitude when I arrive in Atlanta. I'm going to keep my head on straight, compete to the best of my ability, and see where that takes me."
Both players will be reporting to minicamp in less than two weeks.
Ryan is the second player from Marian to get a shot at the NFL. In the early 90s, Sean Love was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the fifth round. Love had a nice NFL career, playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, and Buffalo Bills.
The last Lehighton player to get a shot at the NFL was Dave Warner. Warner, who is now the offensive coordinator at Michigan State, was in camp with the Eagles in 1982 under Dick Vermeil.