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GROWING UP IN HOKENDAUQUA, I WATCHED A LOT OF PENN STATE FOOTBALL—BUT NOT NEARLY ENOUGH TO SELL ME ON THE PROSPECT OF ACTUALLY GOING THERE TO PLAY. AS A 17-YEAR-OLD HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR, I GOT RECRUITED BY TEAMS FROM ALL OVER THE COUNTRY AND SAID YES TO JUST about every pitch. I visited Michigan and told Bo Schembechler I was coming. I went to Ohio State and told Woody Hayes I was coming. I told Bill Mallory that I wanted to go to Colorado, and I meant it—I just fell in love with the place.
The only coach I didn't say yes to was Joe Paterno, and I made sure he got the message loud and clear. He was speaking at a dinner in Allentown, where I was also a guest, and delivering a speech about how Penn State does things the right way and would never get involved in illegal recruiting. In the middle of it, I stood up and I yelled, "Does that mean I don't get the car you promised me?" Because I had no intention of going there, I thought, Hey, I'll never see him again. It's a cheap laugh. The room was in stitches. Needless to say when I wound up on campus months later—after my dad had refused to sign my letter of intent for Colorado (back then you couldn't sign as a minor)—it was a different story.
I came to Penn State in 1976 with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But after a short time in Happy Valley, I became a wide-eyed optimist like everyone else there. That's the prevalent attitude on campus. There's just something about the place that makes you happy to be in college.
And that sense of eternal hope starts with Joe. His mind is as sharp as a tack, and his energy is amazing. I don't know where he gets it, to be perfectly honest with you. All I can tell you is it is infectious. You could see it in our effort on the field. My freshman season we won seven games and went to the Gator Bowl, which laid the foundation for an unforgettable two-year run and an overall college experience that I wouldn't trade for anything. My sophomore year we ended the season with one loss and ranked No. 5 in the country. The following season we went 11-1 and rose to No. 1 for the first time in school history.
Amid that success, Joe was constantly preaching perspective. His emphasis on academics was just as great as his efforts to integrate us among the overall student body. We lived in the dorms just like everybody else. Inside our locker room no one wondered where they were going to be drafted or how much money they could make in the pros. Instead, we asked one another questions like "How are you managing with this English class?" Or, "Who had this professor in finance?" It was a simpler time.
Of course, college football has grown exponentially since then, as has Penn State. The Beaver Stadium that I played in during my freshman year held only about 60,000 people. Today, its capacity is almost twice that. The university is bigger, and the academics—according to my daughters, Michalyn [a PSU junior] and Marianne [a freshman]—are even more rigorous.
And yet with all that evolution, Penn State never seems to outgrow its classic roots. When you think of the quintessential college football school, it has all the ingredients: the ivy-covered buildings, the loyal following and the storied tradition. Simply put, it's one of the jewels in the crown of college football. Playing for the king was a real treat—and that's no joke.