Watching the action unfold Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center, two thoughts kept emerging over and over:
— This is a fun team to watch.
— Micah Shrewsberry is going to lead Penn State to a whole lot of victories.
There was never a point when you felt Purdue would make a run and put the game away. The vibe wasn’t that the No. 3 team in the country would eventually pull away, that the game was always on the brink of getting away from the Nittany Lions.
Penn State battled Purdue. On the glass. In transition. And everywhere else. The Nittany Lions made seven straight shots to make it a two-point Purdue lead at the under-4 media timeout (64-62), hitting a barrage of jumpers.
However, Purdue closed on a 10-2 run, bouncing back from a home defeat to Wisconsin earlier in the week. Following the game, a 74-67 win for Purdue, Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry said: “I hate losing, but we were a good version of ourselves. We left everything on the court. We’ll get back to work tomorrow and get ready for Rutgers.”
Penn State equaled Purdue in both rebounds (30) and assists (14) — though the Nittany Lions committed three more turnovers (11-8) — and Penn State led by as many as seven in the first half. Our full photo gallery of the game is on Facebook.
Saturday would’ve been the first home victory over a Top-3 opponent in program history, though you get the feeling this team is perhaps further ahead of schedule with its first-year head coach than some may have expected.
Shrewsberry didn’t appear for his postgame media availability right away. He understandably took some time to catch up with Purdue head coach Matt Painter, who hired Shrewsberry onto his coaching staff at Purdue twice. Painter is perhaps Shrewsberry’s biggest mentor, and Penn State’s head coach acknowledged again Saturday that Painter has helped him throughout his career.
Painter shared some stories from practice. Beyond that, Shrewsberry didn’t share much of what the two discussed. Part of me wanted to ask the details of their conversation, though Shrewsberry going against his former team wasn’t the headline from Saturday.
Shrewsberry’s current team receives top billing.
Strange as this sounds, Saturday was the first hoops game I’ve seen in person this season (a four-hour layover in Dulles on Sunday precluded attending that day’s game against Indiana). Attendance at the BJC surpassed 10,000, and hopefully many people shared my thought leaving the arena:
I need to come back, and soon.
That next opportunity arrives Tuesday, when Penn State hosts Rutgers with a 6:30 p.m. tipoff at the BJC.
For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.
Warm weather, the beach, and Penn State football. Bringing in the New Year in Florida at the Outback Bowl wasn’t a bad way to kick off January. That pesky final score was really the only downer from the trip.
Still, the popular bowl in the Sunshine State provided an opportunity for this year’s team to spend one more week together and for Penn State alumni and fans to unite in Florida, where Penn State finished their season 7-6 after a 24-10 setback to Arkansas.
The season’s final Roaring 20 showcases how the season ended, for Nittany Lions both on and off the field.
1. Essentially right after player interviews ended, Jesse Luketa announced that he’s declaring for the NFL Draft. Good for him, and congratulations. There’s been a lot of talk about opt outs, and what people consider to be right and wrong. My thoughts, which I’ve shared already: Any players who’s worked and put himself in the position to chase his dream of playing in the NFL should go for it. If that means forgoing the bowl game, so be it. To borrow a phrase from Luketa: Simple.
Now then, turning to the days leading up to the game:
2. Sometimes your backup plan is what should’ve been the No. 1 plan all along. We ran into some problems connecting onsite for our episode of Football Letter Live from the bowl tour welcome event, so instead, we recorded everything and posted it later that evening. In the end, it all worked out.
3. We chatted with former Penn State GA Matt Fleischacker, who’s a fast-rising college coach who’s currently the defensive coordinator at Hobart College in Geneva, New York; and with Alumni Association Vice President Kelley Lynch. We also threw in some season highlights, and you can watch the episode on our Facebook page. Additionally, here’s our 2021 playlist featuring all of this season’s episodes.
4. Our annual bowl service project remains one of our favorite times of the year, and more than 100 volunteers united at Gandy Beach on Dec. 31 to help clean up the area. Here’s a video of the day, and photographer Steve Manuel captured this group photo. Thanks to the Arkansas Alumni Association for partnering with us, and a special shoutout to the University’s cheer and band that kicked off the morning.
5. The Blue Band, Penn State Cheerleaders, Lionettes, and Nittany Lion transformed Tampa into a welcoming city for Penn Staters, performing at multiple events throughout the week. We live streamed their performances at the pep rally and the bowl tour’s pregame event, at Ybor City and George M. Steinbrenner Field, respectively.
6. Steinbrenner Field’s located diagonally across the street from Raymond James Stadium, offering a gorgeous backdrop. The 31-acre facility, named after the team’s former volatile owner, was built in 1996. In addition to serving as the Yankees’ spring training headquarters, it’s also home to the Yankees’ Class-A Advanced affiliate, Tampa Tarpons.
7. While we were in town, we caught up with Penn State grad Jill Beckman. She’s the social media coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and their Twitter account boasts a million followers. Our Q&A with her is well worth reading, as Beckman provided thoughtful responses. She has a lot of maturity and perspective for someone who’s been out of college for less than five years.
10. Blue Band drum major Ryan First nailed both pregame flips — what else would you expect? We had a great vantage position, right next to one of the goal posts. You can see the video here.
11. We happened to pass Sean Clifford as the quarterback walked off the field and into the locker room. James Franklin said it was a medial decision by the team’s trainers to pull Clifford out of the game. Franklin’s always said every spot is an open competition and that starting spots aren’t guaranteed. The next nine months are a critical time for this program, especially at quarterback. Does Clifford start next year? How close is the gap between him and Christian Veilleux? How soon can 5-star recruit and incoming freshman Drew Allar push for the starting job? One of Franklin’s biggest tests now that his contract extension is in place is to figure out who will lead the offense moving forward.
12. Parker Washington is ridiculous. In a very good way. We tracked his one-handed catch, though from looking through our viewfinder, I figured the ball was overthrown. Then I see Washington stand up with the ball. Absolutely incredible catch radius. That’s a created next-generation stat. Essentially, if you throw the ball near Washington, chances are he’ll catch it.
13. KeAndre Lambert-Smith will pair nicely with Washington next year to create a formidable receiving duo. Lambert-Smith pulled in a 42-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to tie the game at 7. He finished with three catches for 74 yards, both second-best to Washington (seven catches for 98 yards).
14. Ji’Ayir Brown collected two more interceptions Saturday, including one in the end zone to thwart an Arkansas drive in the first quarter. He finished with a team-high six interceptions and also tallied 73 tackles, good for third on the Nittany Lion defense this season. It’s entirely possible Brown is the best returning safety in the nation.
15. You can see additional sights from the game, including James Franklin’s pregame lap and the alma mater. During his lap, Franklin told the band standing nearby that they’re the best band in the land and photobombed a band member posing for a photo. Good stuff.
16. Brent Pry is a hell of a coach. As much credit as he got, I’m still not sure it’s enough. For most of the season, the defense played at a level that was good enough to compete for a Big Ten title. And for large portions Saturday, even with missing nearly half their starters, the Nittany Lions continued to come up with big plays.
18. All-American linebacker Brandon Short was in Tampa for the game, and he stopped by our welcome event Thursday evening. Everyone was happy to see him and wished him well. Good to see Brandon with his Penn State family.
19. Last month, John Black shared this will be his final season covering the team for The Football Letter, and Alumni Association members will his final column Wednesday, when we send the member benefit email.
20. See everyone April 23 at Beaver Stadium for the Blue-White game.
For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.
When Penn Staters think of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they have a connection with Super Bowl champions such as Chris Godwin, A.Q. Shipley, and Donovan Smith, among other Nittany Lions.
Jill Beckman should be included on that list, too.
Graduating in 2018, Beckman covered the Penn State football team for The Daily Collegian as a student, and then for the Philadelphia Media Network (Philly.com, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Daily News). She also spent a summer interning for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, covering the city’s three major sports teams.
She’s continued to build an impressive career, now serving as social media coordinator for the Buccaneers. She joined the organization in July 2018 as a digital and social media intern and was promoted seven months later to her current role.
Beckman has fond memories of her time at Penn State, both as a student and covering the football team. One example: her Twitter cover photo features the Nittany Lions singing the alma mater at Beaver Stadium.
We figured since we’re in town for the Outback Bowl, now’s a good time to catch up with Beckman. Check out her Q&A to learn how she captures those special Penn Staters-in-the-NFL moments, hear her perspective on taking care of your mental health, and more.
The Football Letter: Jersey swaps between players from the same school have become popular over the years, and you’ve captured plenty of those pictures. Do you coordinate that before the game, or ask afterward? Also, what’s the on-field vibe like when Nittany Lions can meet in the NFL and share a few minutes together? Any favorite memories from those occasions?
Jill Beckman: The Nittany Lions always seem to find each other after the game, and I’m just there to capture the moment along with other members of our media team! There is usually no coordination on my end — except for when we played the Dolphins this year and I had to chase down Donovan Smith to get in the photo with Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki. Each game, I go down to the field from the press box with a few minutes left on the clock when it looks like we’re going to win, which has thankfully been a lot lately, and I capture celebration content, which includes jersey swaps from many different players. If I know there are a good number of Penn Staters on the opposing team, or if it’s someone who played with one of our guys, I’ll keep that in mind and make sure to keep an eye out for that moment. It always seems to be the same few schools that have a ton of players in the NFL, Penn State being one of them.
TFL: From a mental health perspective: Whether it’s on a bye week or during a hectic Sunday in the NFL, how do you find a few moments for yourself to take a breather, relax, and refocus? Any lessons you’ve learned over the years that’s helped?
JB: This is something that’s very important to me because no one can perform at their best if they’re burnt out. Social media is 24/7, so we need someone on call every day, including holidays and weekends, and that can’t be all one person. It’s important to have a team you can trust so you can take time off, because social media will continue whether you’re working or not. When I have a day off, I turn off all my notifications so I’m not tempted to check anything. Also, whenever my Apple Watch tells me to breath, I’ve been trying to actually do that for one minute instead of getting rid of the notification! Things like that and meditation are key.
TFL: How did your time covering Penn State football in school help prepare you for your career path?
JB: I had never worked for a team before the Buccaneers, but I had all the experience and qualifications I needed from covering Penn State football and other Penn State sports for news outlets during my time in college. When I attended Penn State as a print and digital journalism major, I didn’t even know doing social media for a team was an option. But many of my skills from journalism transferred to this role. I’m still covering the team, taking videos on the field, live tweeting and writing copy all day, just for shorter posts instead of articles. My time at Penn State could not have prepared me more for my career in sports.
TFL: When you’re on the field (at a practice or during a game), what’s your approach to getting the best and most genuine moments you can? How do you cultivate relationships and trust with the players?
JB: I look for fun moments or anything I think fans would be interested in seeing. When working on the club media side, you still have to work to cultivate relationships, but you get the advantage of being in the building. Knowing the players’ No. 1 priority is not media (hint: it’s football) and being understanding of that goes a long way. It also helps that this is my fourth season with the team, so I’ve cultivated relationships over the years just like you do with any other co-workers. During the pandemic, our access to the team has been restricted, so it has definitely helped having that solid foundation.
For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.
For one final time for the 2021 season, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions as they face the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Outback Bowl.
Game Details: Penn State vs. No. 21 Arkansas. Noon ET on Jan. 1. ESPN2.
Venue: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, FL).
Weather Forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 69 with some overcast. 25 percent chance of rain.
The Line: Penn State -2 (via Action Network).
All-Time Series: This is the first-ever meeting between Penn State and Arkansas.
Last Meeting: N/A
Last Time Out: Penn State fell on the road at Michigan State, 30-27. Arkansas defeated Missouri, 34-17.
Throwback Classic: 2006. Penn State hasn’t played Arkansas before, but the Nittany Lions have played at the Outback Bowl four times before. The most recent win for Penn State down in Tampa was the 2006-2007 season, a 20-10 victory over Tennessee. Tony Hunt was named the game’s MVP, while the Nittany Lions used a Tony Davis 88-yard fumble return for touchdown to pull ahead in the fourth quarter.
Other Big Ten Bowl Games – Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Minnesota vs. West Virginia (Dec. 28 at 10:15 p.m. ET. ESPN) – New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Maryland vs. Virginia Tech (Dec. 29 at 2:15 p.m. ET. ESPN) – Music City Bowl: Purdue vs. Tennessee (Dec. 30 at 3 p.m. ET. ESPN) – Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Pitt (Dec. 30 at 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN) – Las Vegas Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Arizona State (Dec. 30 at 10:30 p.m. ET. ESPN) – Capital One Orange Bowl: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia (Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN) – VRBO Citrus Bowl: No. 17 Iowa vs. No. 25 Kentucky (Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET. ABC) – Rose Bowl: No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Utah (Jan. 1 at 4 p.m. ET. ESPN)
The Lead: Penn State will play in its 51st bowl game in program history against an opponent it has yet to face on the gridiron. Penn State is tied for fifth nationally with 30 bowl victories and No. 7 in bowl winning percentage with a 30-18-2 post-season record (62.0) among schools with at least 20 postseason appearances. Penn State is making its fifth Outback Bowl appearance with the last coming in the 2010 season, a 37-24 loss to Florida.
Penn State Wins If: The offense puts it all together. This hasn’t happened in quite a while for the Nittany Lions. Maybe since the first half of the loss to Iowa. Hopefully a completely healthy Sean Clifford and additional practice time will lead to a more consistent offensive performance. We’ve seen glimpses of great play all season, but have yet to see that wire-to-wire showing. As good as the Penn State defense has been this year, the Nittany Lions are going to need the offense to step up to beat an Arkansas team with a really potent rushing attack. A rejuvenated rushing attack and a healthy dose of Parker Washington (as Jahan Dotson has announced he will skip the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft) is needed.
Arkansas Wins If: The Razorbacks can control both lines of scrimmage. Arkansas has won four of its last five games, with the lone loss coming in a tight defeat at No. 1 Alabama. Sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson is as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm. If the Razorbacks win on defense with their three-man front and get home against a struggling Penn State offensive line, it could be a long day for the Nittany Lions. Head coach Sam Pittman has done a tremendous job with this program in just is second season in Fayetteville. Arkansas will play inspired football in search of its ninth win of the season.
Keep An Eye On: Parker Washington. As mentioned above, Jahan Dotson will skip the Outback Bowl to focus on his preparation for the NFL draft. Who steps up at wideout will be a big question mark for the Nittany Lions. Parker Washington was a good No. 2 option for Sean Clifford this season and will need to take on the role as lead receiver against the Razorbacks. Dotson has been nothing short of special this year, and frankly it’s a joke he wasn’t a unanimous Big Ten All-First Team selection. Penn State is 7-5, but without him in the lineup I’m not sure the Nittany Lions even get to a bowl game.
Trivia Tidbit: The Nittany Lions are 24-23 all-time against current SEC schools, having played 11 of the 14 teams in the league. The most recent meeting with an SEC team was a home win over Auburn, 28-20, on Sept. 18 this season. Arkansas also played Auburn earlier this season, but fell to the Tigers, 38-23.
Numbers To Know: 1. Penn State is No. 1 in the Big Ten in red zone defense (66.7; 4th nationally). 8. Arkansas secured its first 8-win season since 2011 with the regular season finale thumping of Missouri.
Honoring John Black: If you haven’t already, be sure to read our story on John Black’s lifelong service to Penn State as 2021 marks his final season covering Penn State football. Click here to read.
Alumni Association At The Outback Bowl: We’ll have plenty of activity and coverage down in Tampa. Visit our Outback Bowl landing page for all the info.
Predictions: John Patishnock: Penn State 31, Arkansas 30 Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 27, Arkansas 24
When the team travels during the regular season, there’s no time to see the local sights. You arrive, you play the game, and you get home. That’s the job.
Bowl games are different. The team arrives early, with numerous events scheduled for them in the community. For this year, the Outback Bowl’s website lists events at Busch Gardens and Clearwater Beach, and the 2019 Cotton Bowl trip featured a trip to a local hospital. In addition to the two photos embedded within this story, you can see a full gallery on the bowl’s website. Based on the good vibes in the photos, it’s time well spent for everyone involved.
With the College Football Playoff (seemingly) overnight changing what it means to play in the postseason, it’s easy to forget that playing in a New Year’s Day bowl in Florida would usually automatically qualify as a successful season and a nice year-end destination for all the offseason and winter workouts.
There’s a lot happening leading up to the game, with the local community looking forward to the contest every year, no matter which teams are playing. For some or many, this will be their first up close experience with Penn State, and like most other aspects of the football program, the coaches frame this as an opportunity more than an obligation.
“I think it’s very valuable,” Anthony Poindexter said of the off-field events scheduled. Poindexter will serve as the team’s defensive coordinator and call plays in the Outback Bowl, with new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz onsite and observing. “These kids worked all year starting way back when the season ended last year really, preparing for the season. We’re going to win the game, that’s the main goal. But it’s also a little reward for the kids to be able to go down to Florida, be as one, be like a family there, and spend our last days as a team together.”
Poindexter continued: “Be out in the community and show how we’ve been blessed with the opportunities we have. Maybe we can give back and give some light to somebody’s life that doesn’t have as much light or needs a pick-me-up while we’re there. I think it’d just be awesome.”
Let’s not get confused. As Poindexter mentioned, everyone — myself, fans, the players and coaches — acknowledges the game itself is the main priority. More specifically, winning the game. Winter in Happy Valley is more smooth following a bowl victory.
That doesn’t mean Penn State can’t have the best of both worlds. Meet new people, expand your network, and then go out and win the game on the field. When you say it like that, the metrics for a positive bowl trip mirror those of the college experience.
“I think that’s critical, that’s part of the bowl process really is to enjoy everything about the bowl, establishment some relationships — these guys get to meet certain people — and be able to market themselves and network,” offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. “I think that’s all part of it. And giving back to the community, honestly, it’s a great opportunity for these guys to take advantage of that.”
For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.
I’m really struggling to write something about Micah Parsons that hasn’t been written before.
To put it short, he’s a monster and the possibility of him winning the Defensive Player of the Year award grows by the game. He’s been a huge role in completely transforming the Dallas Cowboys defense into one of the better defenses in the league.
Parsons had three tackles in the Cowboys’ win over NFC East rival Washington on Sunday, with two sacks, including a strip-sack that led to a defensive touchdown for Dallas.
Chris Godwin, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Godwin and the Buccaneers held off a furious Buffalo Bills comeback with a 33-27 overtime win.
The former Penn State star hauled in 10 receptions for 105 yards to continue his Pro Bowl-caliber season.
He also displayed one of the better wide receiver blocking clips you’re ever going to see.
Shaka Toney, Defensive End, Washington Football Team
Shaka Toney makes his debut in our rundown after a good display in Washington’s loss to Dallas.
Because of COVID-19 protocols, Washington was without a handful of defensive lineman, meaning Toney had to play a bigger role than usual. He didn’t disappoint in his first NFL start, logging the most snaps on the team and totaling four tackles.
Toney has developed into a solid piece for a talented Washington front.
Penn State’s matchup against No. 21 Arkansas will be the program’s fifth appearance in the Outback Bowl, and the first since 2011.
Let’s take a quick look back at the previous four games in Tampa.
1996 vs. Auburn (Penn State won 43-14)
The 1995 season wasn’t quite as special as the magical 1994 campaign, but it still ended in triumph. The Nittany Lions blew out Auburn, 43-14, thanks to Bobby Engram’s MVP performance. Engram had 113 receiving yards with a pair of touchdowns.
The first half was controlled by the defenses, with Auburn taking a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter. After back-to-back Penn State field goal drives, a Wally Richardson touchdown strike to Mike Archie extend the Penn State to 16-7 going into halftime. From that point forward, it was a complete domination from the Nittany Lions.
Just five minutes into the second half, Richardson connected with Engram on a nine-yard touchdown pass. A drive later Richardson again passed for a touchdown, this time hooking up with Steven Pitts. Just like that it was 29-7.
The scoring wasn’t over, though. Curtis Enis plunged into the end zone from a yard out and then a minute later Engram snagged his second TD grab of the afternoon to make it 43-7. That was 40 unanswered points for the blue and white. A late Kevin McLeod rushing touchdown for the Tigers made the final score 43-14.
A complete effort for Penn State to earn its 17th bowl win.
1999 vs. Kentucky (Penn State won 26-14)
Just three years later, Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions were back in Tampa for the Outback Bowl.
Heisman trophy finalist Tim Couch got the scoring started with a touchdown pass to Lance Mickelesen and put the Wildcats up 7-0 early. Penn State answered back with a field goal, only for Couch to connect on another touchdown pass to put Kentucky ahead 14-3.
A Kevin Thompson found Joe Nastasi for the Nittany Lions’ first touchdown of the day in the second quarter, before another Travis Forney field goal closed the gap to 14-13.
Two more Forney field goals gave Penn State a 19-14 lead. In the fourth quarter the Nittany Lions took full control as Chafie Fields scored on a 19-yard touchdown run with four minutes left to give Penn State a 26–14 lead. That would prove to be the final score.
2007 vs. Tennessee (Penn State won 20-10)
A defensive struggle for most of the afternoon, Penn State and Tennessee traded field goals on either side of the first period. The Nittany Lions scored the game’s first touchdown on a 2-yard connection from Anthony Morelli to Andrew Quarless.
The Volunteers answered on the next possession with a LaMarcus Coker 42-yard touchdown run.
A scoreless third quarter saw the score locked in a 10-10 tie, only for a Tony Davis 88-yard fumble return for a touchdown to completely flip the game on its head for the Nittany Lions.
A stingy Penn State defense and another Kevin Kelly field goal secured the 20-10 win, the Nittany Lions’ third win in Outback Bowls.
2011 vs. Florida (Florida won 37-24)
The game started brightly enough for the Nittany Lions as Matt McGloin found Derek Moye for a 5-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter.
The Gators bit back with 14 unanswered, including a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Then, Penn State responded with 10 points unequalled of their own (a Michael Zordich TD plunge and then a Collin Wagner field goal). At halftime, the Nittany Lions held a narrow 17-14 lead.
The second half proved to be a different story, though. In what was Urban Meyer’s final game as head coach of the Gators, Florida rallied to outscore Penn State 23-7 in the second half. An Ahmad Black 80-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the win for the SEC outfit. It was Penn State’s first loss in the Outback Bowl.
So, there you have. A brief history of Penn State at the Outback Bowl. Let’s hope the Nittany Lions improve to 4-1 in the game in a few weeks.
John Black (center) has shared this will be his last season covering Penn State football, his 46th year as editor of The Football Letter. Prior to the home finale against Rutgers last month, John’s family joined him in the press box for a ceremony recognizing his inclusion on a commemorative plaque. Photo credit: Steve Manuel
John Black, legendary Penn Stater and lifelong ambassador for the University, has announced 2021 will be his last season covering Penn State football for The Football Letter, a member benefit of the Penn State Alumni Association.
Black, a 1962 Penn State graduate who served in the U.S. Marines, walked onto the Penn State football team and served as the editor of The Daily Collegian for two years after initially joining the student newspaper as a sportswriter. In his role as editor of The Football Letter, Black covered Penn State as the team rose from an eastern power to a nationally premier and globally recognized program throughout the decades. Notably, he authored Football Letter columns from Penn State’s national title wins in the 1983 Sugar Bowl and 1987 Fiesta Bowl — sharing a firsthand account with alumni and fans.
Black has covered the last 564 Penn State football games out of the 1,355 games in Penn State’s illustrious 135-year gridiron history, saying “I have always tried to write about the game For the Glory of Penn State.”
After graduation from Penn State in 1962, Black went to work for the United States Information Agency (USIA) in Washington, D.C., when Edward R. Murrow was the director. He covered the civil rights beat from 1962-66, when USIA sent him to New York to be a United Nations correspondent for USIA, covering meetings and actions of the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Human Rights Commission, and other international organizations headquartered in the United Nations Building in New York City.
Black accepted the position as editor of the Penn Stater magazine in 1970, then rose to become the deputy director of the Alumni Association. He formally retired in 2001 and stayed on as editor of The Football Letter in a volunteer role, assuring the continuation of the historic publication.
“John’s lifelong commitment to Penn State and her alumni is unparalleled having served the Alumni Association in an official capacity for parts of seven decades,” Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford said. “I count myself among the lucky Penn Staters to have had the chance to serve this great University with him. His legacy is in the lives he touched, the people he made feel special, and the countless stories he has told that live forever as part of the lore of Dear Old State.”
Black, the longest-tenured beat writer, has carried on the legacy and original mission of Ridge Riley, a 1932 Penn State graduate and longtime Penn State administrator. In 1938, Riley created The Football Letter, the longest-running publication of its kind in the country, to ensure alumni would remain connected to the football program. The week after each contest, alumni and fans across the nation read an eyewitness account of each game. Since this was before the invention of television and decades before the proliferation of media coverage, The Football Letter often served as the sole source for Penn Staters to follow the football team and learn in-depth details that Riley shared from being in attendance.
As Black began his first season authoring The Football Letter in 1976, he wrote the last chapter of Road to No. 1 after Riley’s death in early January 1976. Written by Riley, Road to No. 1 is the most comprehensive book ever written on Penn State football and includes a foreword from Joe Paterno. Riley and Paterno spoke often, with Paterno seeing Riley as a father figure and an integral part of the program as editor of The Football Letter. Black worked off Riley’s notes and consulted with Riley’s wife, Margaret, to ensure the book was finished and ready for publication.
Black has remained active with the Alumni Association since retiring from his full-time responsibilities, attending events and meetings, where he remains a popular conversationalist, speaker, and guest. Recently, he authored a column in the January/February 2020 issue of the Penn Stater, marking the 150th anniversary of the Alumni Association. In the article, Black shares:
“Writing The Football Letter has given me the opportunity to see every Penn State game since 1976, and to see it on a firsthand basis, where I’m concentrating on it and trying to absorb it as much as I can. It’s not just going for a big tailgate and walking in to see the game as something that goes on, and then going home. For me, it’s been an opportunity to really closely follow the exploits of the Penn State football team.” The full article is available to read online.
Black’s name was included on the groundbreaking installation of a commemorative plaque in the Beaver Stadium press box, recognizing him for serving on the press corps for 25-plus years. The plaque was unveiled prior to this season’s home finale against Rutgers, and you can see a video and photos of the ceremony on the Alumni Association’s Facebook page. Additionally, in 2020, Black co-hosted the inaugural season of The Football Letter Live, a weekly online show that’s part of the recent expansion of the publication.
The Football Letter will continue to remain an Alumni Association member benefit, with the game day emails, Football Letter Live, and additional components all returning next season.
John lives in State College with his wife, Veda Kay. They enjoy attending campus and athletic events, traveling, and spending time with their three children and eight grandchildren.
In the past few days, two Penn Staters were recognized for contributions that go beyond the playing field, exemplifying Success With Honor.
On Tuesday, former Penn State linebacker and current Detroit Lions fullback Jason Cabinda was nominated by his organization for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. The honor recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service activities, in addition to their success on the field.
“Guys like Jason Cabinda can change the world,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said in a statement released by the team. “He is a man of principle who sets such a positive example for our entire locker room. Since the day I met him, he has embodied what it means to be a leader on and off the field. With our platform in today’s NFL, it is our duty to help lift up the lives of others, and Jason carries this responsibility with dignity and honor.”
As a Nittany Lion, Cabinda totaled 283 tackles as a reliable linebacker from 2014-17. He stood out during his senior season in Happy Valley by making 88 total tackles, forcing two fumbles, and grabbing 6.5 tackles for loss.
Since joining Detroit in 2019, Cabinda has been devoted to the youth and community in Detroit through his various efforts with Davison Elementary School. This August, he hosted a Back to School Book Drive where he gave out more than 800 books in addition to school supplies for students to take home. Cabinda also held virtual weekly reading comprehension sessions with Davison students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic with the goal of eradicating childhood illiteracy.
Incentivizing students to invest in their education, he established the “Jason Cabinda Attendance Award,” given to students that maintain 100 percent attendance during the school year. His programming at Davison Elementary has garnered funding from the Ford Motor Co. Fund, Athletes for Charity and other donors.
“Walter Payton’s legacy embodies so many things. He was one of the greatest running backs on the field, and he truly looked out for people that didn’t have a voice and gave them a voice. I think within my character, I hope to embody Walter Payton in the sense of wanting to look out for others and wanting to be somebody who gives back and be somebody who remembers their roots and where they came from,” Cabinda said in the release from the team. “When you’re in this position, you can have such an impact on these communities. You can have an impact knowing that the person that is standing in front of them is a person that has been in their shoes and has been sitting in their seats.”
A current Nittany Lion also received recognition on Tuesday, as Penn State men’s basketball senior forward John Harrar was named a top 30 candidate for the prestigious Senior CLASS Award.
To be eligible for the award, a player must be classified as senior and have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition.
An acronym for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School, the Senior CLASS Award focuses on the total student-athlete and encourages athletes to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.
From the list of 30 candidates, a committee will select 10 finalists in February. Those 10 names will then be placed on the official ballot for a nationwide vote. Fan balloting will be coupled with votes from coaches and media to determine the recipient of the award.
Harrar has been actively involved in several community service initiatives throughout his time in Happy Valley, including the State College Area Down Syndrome Society Buddy Walk, Coaches vs. Cancer-Penn State initiatives, and volunteering at the Centre County United Way Day of Caring where he and the Nittany Lions have served breakfasts to the 1,500 volunteers.
Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry had this to say about Harrar in a recent press conference: “What that kid does every day – in practice, in the film room, in the locker room, on the court – that’s Penn State. When I got here and people started telling me about it – I’ve got people on my staff from Penn State, and people in the community tell me about Penn State – what I hear that Penn State is, I see it every day and I see it in John and what he does and who he is.”
In addition to his success on the court (he is currently in the top 10 in the country in rebounding), Harrar is a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree. He graduated in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in management and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in management and organizational leadership from Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.
Harrar is the well-documented leader for Penn State basketball. He was named a recipient of the 2021 Big Ten Outstanding Sportsmanship Award, one of just 28 recipients amongst all Big Ten student-athletes in every sport. He is known for consistently bringing a strong leadership presence and outstanding work ethic that has been praised by opposing coaches and national media alike.
Harrar is also a two-time recipient of Big Ten Sportsmanship Award that is awarded to one member of each Big Ten team.
With players granted an extra year of eligibility due to the Covid-19 pandemic, returning to Penn State for an extra season was never a hard decision for the sixth-year forward, even with the possibility of transferring elsewhere on the table.
“I have no regrets coming back,” said Harrar. “This is home for sure.”