As a member of Penn State’s 2018 recruiting class and one of the best high school tight ends in the country, Pat Freiermuth (above, left) knows his audience. So when he tweeted recently encouraging his followers to check out a short documentary film, he made sure to mention that the film’s subject, Mike Stella, is a Penn Stater.
Stella ’05 (right) is a strength and conditioning coach who works with young athletes in the greater Boston area. That’s how he linked up with Freiermuth, but it turns out the blue-and-white connections here run even deeper than the bond between one alum and one soon-to-be Lion.
Stella didn’t suit up for the Nittany Lions, but as a former student manager for the team, he’s an integral part of the Penn State football family. That’s all the more true considering what he had to overcome to get there.
Stella was born with right spastic hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy that limits the strength and motor skills on his right side. His mother, MaryEllen ’74, remembers being told that her son might spend his life in a wheelchair. “They said it would affect his speech, that he’d have difficulties in school, that he might not be able to walk,” she recalls. “They really made it sound like gloom and doom. But Mike just kept trucking.”
Stella’s childhood included corrective surgery and years of wearing a leg brace, but he never allowed those challenges to become excuses. With his father, Gus, often coaching his teams to ensure his son got a fair chance, Mike went out for sports from an early age, and he grew to love football. He also grew up loving Penn State.
That was no accident: MaryEllen is a co-founder and longtime board member of the Alumni Association’s Maine-New Hampshire Chapter. (She’s also a State College native and daughter of another alumna, Janet Soisson McMullen ’63, ’75g). Even in New Hampshire, Mike grew up bleeding blue and white.
“I grew up going to Penn State games, and I knew it was where I wanted to be,” Mike says. “Around eighth grade, I told my dad I was going to run out of the tunnel someday. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when, but that was my mindset.”
Not long after, he attended his first Penn State football camp. There, his attitude and determination in spite of his physical limitations caught the eyes of the coaches, particularly d-line coach Larry Johnson and strength coach John Thomas. “LJ was a huge mentor for me, and I feel like a lot of my coaching style is due to him,” Mike says. “And JT was instrumental in allowing me to train in his weight room, and gave me amazing guidance about life, training, and getting into the industry.”
Encouraged by the staff, and by team managers like Spider Caldwell ’86 and Kirk Diehl ’96, ’05g, Stella returned to camp summer after summer, even as he earned a spot on the football team at his high school, Pinkerton Academy. When it came time for college, there was never really a choice: “I remember telling my mom,” he says, “that if I didn’t go to Penn State, I wasn’t going to college.”
He was just as determined to be a part of the football program, where he would serve four years as a student manager. “I just wanted to be part of that team culture,” he says. “It was a dream come true.”
“He’s an amazing guy, and strong as an ox,” says Caldwell, who remembers Stella’s knack for catching footballs one-handed long before NFL wideouts made it fashionable. “He’s a unique guy.”
Stella was less certain what he wanted to do after graduation, but eventually figured out that his calling was helping kids maximize their potential. “Once I realized I was able to make a positive impact, I knew this was a job I wanted,” he says. “When I’m on a field, in the weight room, coaching kids, it’s where I’m happiest.”
With his own coaching and training business, Stella Strength, he pursues that happiness every day. He works with a handful of prep school programs as well as individual clients.
Married with two young sons, Stella juggles home life with a demanding schedule: We caught up with him in the midst of a typical summer day that started well before sunrise and included running three different training camps at two different schools. He manages that schedule while daily battling the challenges of his CP.
“There are times that my hand stiffens up, where even giving a handshake doesn’t really work too well,” he says. “But with all the physical activity, I’ve been able to manage my pain better and keep myself more able-bodied.”
His CP also gives Stella an advantage when looking to motivate his able-bodied clients. “An athlete came in the other day and said, ‘My left arm’s all screwed up today.’ I said, That’s great, my right arm’s all screwed up today,” he says. “I try to keep it light, but at the same time make sure they’re not selling themselves short. I’ve never sold myself short, and I don’t think they should, either.”
So yes, he says, “I will play that card when needed. I try not to overuse it, but they see what I battle through. There’s a respect there.”
Stella says he’s overdue to get back to Happy Valley, but he hopes to soon—to catch up with old friends like Spider Caldwell, and, he hopes, to connect with the current coaching staff. He’d love the chance to speak to Freiermuth and his soon-to-be teammates, to bring some of the inspiration he found in Happy Valley back for a new generation.
You can watch the documentary below — it’s powerful, inspiring stuff.
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