Mark Robinson. Penn State's All-America safety, is approaching the Nittany Lions' defense of their national championship with a Businesslike attitude. "A lot of kids just go out for football for the fun of it," says Robinson, a finance major with a B+ average who starts each weekday by reading The Wall Street Journal. "They don't set very high goals for themselves and never reach their potential. The school has an investment in you, in athletics and academics. You've got to maximize yourself. Why not go for it all? We want another national title."
The Nittany Lions are hoping that last year's momentum, which carried them to seven straight victories, including a 27-23 Sugar Bowl defeat of Georgia, and the No. 1 ranking, will continue in '83. "We're the Paterno family," says Tailback Jon Williams, referring to Coach Joe Paterno. "Nothing can tear us apart." And to make sure that nothing does, the Lions are working harder than ever. "The whole team even took ballet lessons last spring," says Robinson. "I just know I'll be going up to knock down a pass and hear Swan Lake in the back of my mind."
"I want to keep the feeling we had," says Williams. "I'll never forget the locker room after the Sugar Bowl. [Quarterback] Todd Blackledge passed out cigars, and Coach Paterno yelled, 'Don't smoke those! Millions of people are watching on TV.' We waited until he left to light up."
Paterno, who's beginning his 18th season as Penn State's coach, is shrewd when it comes to talking about this year's prospects. He knows that he has to contend with a basic tenet of the college football business: the law of diminishing returners. Only nine first-stringers are back from the title team, which produced three USFL players and nine NFL draftees, including Blackledge and two-time All-America Tailback Curt Warner. Both were No. 1 selections, and together they hold 68 Penn State records. "Winning the national championship has a carry-over effect in things like pride and confidence," says Paterno. "But it won't produce any first downs. We've got a big job ahead."
Which places heavy burdens on Robinson and Williams, the catalysts on defense and offense, respectively. Both are hard-working, self-made young men who have a knack for inspiring others. Robinson is the best athlete on the squad and one of the most punishing tacklers in college football. Just ask Herschel Walker what hit him in the Sugar Bowl. The swarming Lion defense was designed to give Robinson the best shot at Walker, and the strategy paid off: He singlehandedly leveled Walker several times. Says Georgia Coach Vince Dooley, " Robinson's a linebacker playing safety."
Robinson grew up in Washington, D.C., and he was deeply influenced by his father. Bob, who gave up football to pursue a degree in chemical engineering at Minnesota. "My dad was raised in a house with dirt floors," says Robinson. "He put himself through school by playing pool with Minnesota Fats's friends." Last May. at age 50, Bob Robinson suffered a fatal heart attack. "He was so proud of me," says Robinson. "I'm never going to let him down."
Robinson and Harry Hamilton, who plays "Hero" back, which is a-combination strong safety-outside linebacker position, head the best secondary Penn State has had in years. Scott Radecic, a second-team All-America, leads the linebackers, and Steve Sefter, a heavyweight wrestler who placed sixth in the NCAA tournament in 1981 as a freshman, is at defensive end.
As for the offense, first the bad news: The quarterback will be one of two untested juniors, Doug Strang (eight completions in 22 attempts for 137 yards and two interceptions in '82) or Dan Lonergan (one of two for 14 yards). Now the good news: The Lions have one of the nation's best receiving corps, headed by Kenny Jackson, Penn State's first first-team All-America wide receiver, and a slew of gifted running backs led by Williams. Paterno figures Williams et al. can carry the offensive load early on, until the quarterbacks feel comfortable. That promised to be a tall order. The Lions opened on Aug. 29 against mighty Nebraska in the inaugural Kickoff Classic at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
But facing formidable tasks is nothing new to Williams. Last season, after having been a reserve tailback his freshman and sophomore years, he toiled as Warner's blocking fullback. And before entering Penn State, he'd had to shape up his life off the field. With his father serving six years for murder and his mother on welfare, Williams, the youngest of seven children, stole food and cars as a youngster in Somerville, N.J. "I did a lot of stupid things," says Williams, a rehabilitation-education major who plans to work with juvenile delinquents after graduating. "I want others to realize lift isn't that bad—once you give it a chance. I want to tell kids to set higher goals than they think they can attain. It will get them further in life."
Not to mention in football.