College Football: Read This, and You’ll Never Watch Another Game the Same Way Again

I’m sure that some how, some way, there’s a lot of college football fans out there – especially Penn State fans – that think I’m incredibly lucky to have had some access to college football at the highest levels.

You’re right.

The last time I played football competitively was in fifth grade. One day at practice, I got my “bell rung” to the point of actually seeing stars. That was the day the Boy From Erie retired from football.

Over the years, I was always a casual fan, but never really followed college sports. I do remember watching Penn State beat Miami for the National Championship in 1986, but that was something of a rarity for me.

When my son Jordan was recruited by Penn State, I can honestly say I knew next to nothing about both Penn State and college football in general. Yes, I was thrilled for him, but I was more like Forrest Gump,  meeting legends of the game and not realizing how lucky I really was. Joe Paterno, Tom Bradley, Larry Johnson…all in the same weekend.

“I gotta pee,” to quote Forrest.

As the business of getting Jordan off to Penn State and settled in began to wane, I suddenly found myself a complete college football junkie. People at work and even my own kids were like, “who IS this guy?” I read every news report and in the process even developed an e-mail relationship with a reporter who covers Penn State for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, David Jones, along with the publisher of Fight On State Magazine, Mark Brennan.

I devoured a few books on Joe Paterno: The Lion in Autumn; Paterno: By The Book; and finally No Ordinary Joe.  I asked David Jones if I was missing anything, and he told me a must-read was Ken Denlinger’s For The Glory, which I promptly purchased and devoured.

For The Glory is a first-hand account of Big Time college football, along with what it was like to play for Joe Paterno. I have to say that this guy can really write: this is no “dumb-jock” book. He does a great job of really digging in and developing the real-life experiences of his fellow teammates and the constant struggles to earn their positions and keep them for the season.

What I learned was that – at least for me – is that you can rest assured when you turn on your TV set on Saturday afternoons that you are watching the absolute best available players from each team compete. “Available” is the key word here, as kids get hurt in practice, run afoul of team rules, or aren’t cutting it academically.

I always wondered why so many scholarships are made available each year, and again this book made it very clear to me: in his own class, Ken Denlinger  started out with 28 scholarship players. By the time his “Senior Day” arrived at Beaver Stadium five years later, there were only 9 of them left standing.

Two players didn’t make it through their first summer, making the “get me out of here” phone call to home before the season even started. Others became disillusioned with the daily grind of practice, getting screamed at, workouts, and wondering if all of the effort was going to be worth it.

Let’s face it: no one knows how any kid is going to respond to moving away from home. Pile on top of that a full class-load and daily workouts and practices, it’s no wonder that around 2% ever make it to the pros.

You might be surprised to know that, as a player for Penn State, you really have no idea of where you stand every day until you show up for practice that day. Your standing on the team is totally dictated by the color of the jersey you are assigned when you give the equipment guy your locker number. Colors designate the following positions:

  • Blue denotes first-string players and others likely to see significant playing time

    Joe Paterno talks to his team inside Holuba Hall during practice. Note the different jersey colors.

  • Dark blue is offense, light blue is defense
  • Red is worn by second-team defense
  • Green is worn by second-team offense
  • Maroon is worn by third-team defense
  • Yellow is worn by third-team offense
  • White is worn by those who will probably never see any playing time during their entire career
  • A Red “X” means “No Contact” as the player is either injured or rehabbing an injury

In the end, the “blue” practice jersey is the “thing of dreams, and white is nightmarish.” Don’t forget, everyone there can see where you are in the pecking-order. It’s a huge self-esteem thing for these guys.

I have to say that – just my personal opinion – the more I learn about what my son endures every day, the prouder I am of what he’s trying to accomplish. Moving away from home is tough for anyone the first time…especially if you’re trying to negotiate your way around a campus with 40,000 students and get passing grades. Temptations are everywhere if you’re on the football team, and you’ve gotta suck it up and believe that you can do it. Make the grade. Please your coaches. Pass your tests. And for God’s sake, don’t hurt yourself. A torn ACL puts you almost a year behind the guys who have been working out every day for your position. It’s really not too hard to just give up, and many do.

“For The Glory.”

The first three words of the Penn State Alma-mater, the glory of running through that tunnel just one time in front of 108,000 screaming football fanatics. Just one time to make a play. To be noticed. To contribute just once to a Nittany Lion victory.

The next time you’re watching a college game, scream at the coaches all you want. But, wow…give the players a break. They’re out on that field because they’ve won their position in practice, they’ve kept their nose clean, and they’re keeping up with their grades. It’s a lot. Believe me, nobody feels worse when they screw up than that poor kid who just got his chance and blew it.

Here’s to all of the student athletes everywhere: you’re living a dream that most of us can’t even comprehend.

Thanks for letting us watch.

***********

If you’re a fan, here’s the link to purchase this book: For the Glory: College Football Dreams and Realities Inside Paterno’s Program

The Guy From Erie
312 Superior Avenue EriePA16505 USA 
 • 814-873-6180
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1 comment

  1. Mark Wirick says:

    Thanks a lot for your insight. I was friends with many players back in the day, and still see several regularly, including a prominant attorney and a nationally prominant labor leader. The grind, as you describe it, prepared them well for life after the spotlight of football, and they got so much more out of their college experience than I did with my relatively cushy schedule. It was hard then for them to keep up with everything, and even harder now. While I know that there will always be fans that look at PSU football as an entertainment product that they simply buy (and therefore think they have a right to demand near perfection from the players) I really believe that the vast majority of us have the right attitude toward Joe Paterno as the teacher. One of his most memorable comments to me, at least, came from a reporters questioning why Joe was not playing a highly recruited (but still raw) underclassman instead of the fifth year senior who was a servicable player, but who everyone knew would not be going to “the next level.”
    Joe scolded the reporter (hell, it might have been Jones) with words to the effect “what right do I have to deny him the right to play college football” just because the young player would someday be better. Let’s hope the new staff has read those books about Joe as well.

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