As the current Nittany Lions head into the summer with a quarterback competition on their hands, my mind drifts back to the Battle in the Big Apple, Penn State vs. Syracuse in 2013. No one knew who would line up under center that day until #14, the freshman phenom, trotted out and took center stage. Christian Hackenberg won a QB competition of his own against someone long ago. He led Penn State to victory that day, and went on to etch his name in the record books. In the process, Hack shouldered the brunt of the sanctions as depth, or severe lack of it, affected his offensive line and rendered it a shell of what a typical Big Ten O-Line should look like. His legacy will forever be intertwined with images of Allen Robinson rising above the stars to grab a Hackenberg pass versus Michigan, and Kyle Carter (another potential draftee) catching the winning overtime TD in the Pinstripe Bowl.
That same day inside MetLife Stadium in New York City, another Nittany Lion had already established himself as a veteran and was all over the field honing his craft. By the time his sophomore campaign rolled around in 2013, Jordan Lucas had gained a reputation as a shutdown corner on defense. The New York native spent four years as a starter with swagger, and physical mentality. As a senior, he made the switch to safety only to see his season cut short after nine games due to a nagging shoulder injury, but his legacy as a leader was already etched in stone.
In 2014, James Franklin took over as head coach and brought Sean Spencer with him to coach the defensive line. The birth of the Wild Dogs soon followed and was led by a duo, as fine as ever, to clog the inside. Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson spent the past two seasons dominating the O-Line. The image of Zettel intercepting an Ohio State pass in the 2014 White Out and barreling in for a touchdown won’t soon be forgotten, if ever. After an offseason spent tackling trees and showing his prowess in MMA with a roundhouse kick that nearly ended Saquon Barkley’s freshman season before it ever got off the ground, he entered 2015 with huge expectations but spent the season with a heavy heart instead; his father, Terry, lost his battle with cancer in late September. As much as the image of him scoring that touchdown is etched into our memories, the image of Anthony finding his mom in the stands before the San Diego State game to give her a hug is one that will remain in our hearts. As for Johnson, who declared for the draft as a junior, who can forget the image of him scooping up a fumble versus Buffalo and rumbling over 70 yards for a touchdown? A more traditional size defensive tackle than Zettel who was converted from defensive end, AJ spent two seasons as an immovable object and made life miserable for any running back trying to run inside. He heads into this weekend as perhaps the most can’t-miss of any of the Nittany Lions expected to be called with NFL teams drooling over his combination of size and athleticism.
Late to the game but one who made up for it and then some is another one of those Wild Dogs (a good sign for all of us who hit the panic button after Larry Johnson switched allegiance to Buckeye red) and the man I pegged as The Ultimate Underdog, Carl Nassib. The former walk-on spent his first three years at Penn State in the shadows quietly working his way towards a final season that would be one for the ages. Sack after sack piled up and Nassib set a program record and led the nation in sacks despite missing the final two games with a shoulder injury of his own. He became the face of perseverance in college football and racked up All-American honors and post season awards, including the Ted Hendricks Award and the Lott Impact Trophy. For all of his on field accomplishments, the image I remember most fondly of his senior campaign is the one of him rocking out during the Alma Mater after the Buffalo win, as it represented a testament to us all that hard work and dedication truly does pay off.
As these former Nittany Lions embark on a new journey with new teammates and new colors, I can't help but to reminisce about their time at Penn State. They never won a Rose Bowl, they never won a Big Ten Championship, and their teams never sat inside the comfort of a Top 25 ranking, but they stayed when they could have left. They, along with the rest of their teammates, navigated the program through a storm that many predicted impossible to weather. In the process, they won at the game of life. They persevered. They remained loyal. They put their heads down and went to work. No matter what round they get drafted, or if their names get called at all, they have already provided us with one thing that can never be taken away. Memories. And it’s safe to say, WE ARE all grateful for them.