All in the Family

Organized, enthusiastic, and relentlessly dedicated, the Penn State Football Parents Association provides quiet but invaluable support for the Nittany Lions—and for each other.

*   *   *

The tradition started about a year ago, a few hours before last season’s game against Minnesota.

We’ll let Larry Buchholz tell the story:

“Before every game, my wife gives our son a hug before the team goes into the stadium. So we’re there by the south entrance, and there’s Coach Franklin. Usually he’ll high-five a few people and shake hands with recruits, and we happened to be standing right there. So I just reached out with open arms and said, ‘Hey, Coach,’ and we gave each other a big hug and a kiss.”

If you remember how things turned out, you’ll understand why Buchholz’s pregame smooch and embrace became a weekly necessity. “We won every game after that right up until the Rose Bowl,” Buchholz says. “Of course the players and the coaches were the main reason, but I’d like to think we had a little something to do with it.”

It’s a bit of good-natured superstition, of course, but also something more. As is so often the case when it comes to Penn State football, this moment was mostly about family.

Larry Buchholz is the father of Ryan Buchholz, the redshirt sophomore defensive end who was one of the stars of the Nittany Lions’ 52-0 shutout of Akron on opening day. But Larry is also president of the Penn State Football Parents Association, which plays an invaluable if unsung role in supporting the Lions—and each other—throughout the season.

And while it’s hardly surprising that the players’ parents would be involved in supporting their sons, it’s the level of organization, planning, and commitment that makes the PSUFPA something special—the literal embodiment of a program in which the idea of family is inseparable from success.

*   *   *

Dale Schwan gets most of the credit.

This goes back five years ago, to 2012, when Dale’s son Evan Schwan ’16 was a true freshman. In the tumult of that time, Dale was asked if he’d be willing to take the reins of a nascent organization of team parents. Dale Schwan thought it sounded like a nice idea—until he was asked by a departing parent if he’d be willing to run it himself.

“I said, I don’t want to be in charge, I’ve got a business to run,” Schwan remembers. The response: “If you don’t take it over, no one will.”

And that’s pretty much what happened, at least initially. With Evan redshirting that season, and given the program’s off-field challenges at the time, there wasn’t much motivation for the Schwan family to get more involved. “We got up for a few games, and there were some people like the Mangiros who were very gracious and invited us to their tailgates,” Dale Schwan says. “But it was very informal, maybe 10-15 people at most.”

That changed in 2013, when Schwan decided to approach Bill O’Brien about formalizing a parents organization. With O’Brien’s blessing, Schwan started making connections. “I made little fliers and business cards, then before home games, I’d wait by the will-call window, literally asking people if they were parents of players,” he says. “I remember meeting the Fickens that way, and sure enough, I got an email from them a few days later saying, ‘Hey, a parents association would be great.’”

The effort paid off. Over the course of the 2013 season, the list of a dozen or so names that Schwan had inherited grew to “maybe 50 or 60, so we had a little bit of a database.” He took that momentum into the offseason, creating a website for fellow parents and committing to taking the group “to the next level.”

The 2014 season opener provided the perfect opportunity.

For a lot of reasons, it was one of the most memorable season openers in Penn State history: The first game for new head coach James Franklin, and oh by the way, the Lions were playing in Dublin, Ireland. Schwan went all out: He worked with a travel agent to organize group travel for interested parents, and about 30 were able to make the trip. He also handled personal touches, jamming blue-and-white napkins and other tailgate necessities into his suitcase when he packed for the trip.

Once in Ireland, they set up at the Croke Park Hotel, right across the street from the stadium, and organized a tailgate that hosted some 150 people. And from the travel to the pregame festivities to the game itself, everything was just about perfect.

“We all just had a great time before the game, and in a way, that was the spark that really got the association going,” Schwan says. “And then of course we won, and everybody was just on Cloud 9. That was really the catalyst.”

They carried that over into the rest of the season, and soon it became a routine: For home games, a tailgate for all the parents and families that would grow to hundreds of people. On the road, coordinating travel plans so parents could be together in the same hotel, connecting with local Alumni Association chapters, locating a spot for pre- and postgame tailgating, and handling directions for where to pick up tickets and meet the team. For new parents especially, it was invaluable.

“Dale Schwan gets the lion’s share of the credit,” says Andrea McSorley. “He really spearheaded this, and I think it came from his desire to unite everybody.”

While her son, then-freshman backup Trace McSorley, was taking his redshirt season in 2014, Andrea and her husband Rick were doing what most first-year parents do, trying to ease their way into a new football family. “That first year, you feel like a fish out of water,” she says. “It’s just nice to have somewhere to go and have someone say, ‘Welcome, you’re one of us now.’ I know from Trace’s friends who play at other schools, that’s not always the case.”

Credit for that goes to James Franklin. Dale Schwan remembers worrying that, in the transition from O’Brien to Franklin before the 2014 season, the parents association would lose whatever momentum it had built. Instead, he connected with key members of Franklin’s staff, who said they’d had a similar organization at Vanderbilt and thought it was a great idea. The message: Tell us what you need to move forward.

“Coach Franklin is very receptive to the families being around the program, and I think they appreciate that we’re looking out for each other,” Andrea McSorley says. “When they talk about family, it’s not just lip service.”

Today, with full support from the program, the parents association is thriving. With Evan Schwan moving on to the NFL after last season, his father handed over leadership duties to Larry Buchholz, and they haven’t missed a beat. The home game tailgates are festive affairs, while the few dozen parents who are able to travel for road games come together for tailgates and postgame meals.

And while Larry Buchholz carries the title of president, he’s quick to point out that it’s a group effort: Among the parents helping organize week to week are Larry’s wife Becky, Ryan Bates’ mother Theresa, Garrett Taylor’s father Irving, Shane Simmons’ mother Jennifer, Connor McGovern’s parents Maureen and Jim, Michal Menet’s mother Sherry, Brandon Polk’s father Ed, and Andre Robinson’s mother Jennifer Mellinger.

And those parents who are too far away to be involved week to week are eager to help when they have the chance: At the Rose Bowl, Koa Farmer’s parents rented a motor home to serve as the home base for a tailgate that went 350-people strong.

That overlap of so many parents coming together is a huge part of what makes the association work—not just for the parents, but for the players and the program. “The parents grow to where they’re like parents for other kids,” says assistant head coach Terry Smith ’91. “We have kids from all over the country, and sometimes they need that parent figure, that love and support, or just a conversation or a hug. The parents do a tremendous job of supporting the kids, and they’re an extension of our family. They’re part of our success.”

And yes, the players see it, too.

As Ryan Buchholz says, “It kind of reminds me of high school: I knew my high school teammates my whole life, and the parents were all real close. I’ve only been here two and a half, three years, but I already know all the parents, we’re all really close. It’s been awesome.”

And while he’s no longer part of the week-to-week bustle during the season, Dale Schwan still feels like part of the group. That’s very much by design. More than anything, inclusion is the association’s primary goal.

“I always tell people, we want this to feel like a family,” Schwan says. “It didn’t matter if you were on scholarship or not. We have a number of parents whose kids aren’t on scholarship, and sometimes they view themselves a little bit differently. But I never allowed anyone to feel as if they were anything less. It’s one team, and your son is just as important as mine.”

As for that now traditional pregame embrace between Franklin and Larry Buchholz? It’s back on this fall, although they did miss each other before the Blue-White Game last spring—because Buchholz had a prior engagement. “I got a call from my wife saying Coach Franklin just came through the south end zone, and he’s pretty upset that you weren’t there,” Buchholz remembers. “When I saw him after the game, I went in for a hug, and he gave me a little punch in the chest. I said, What’s that for? He said, ‘You weren’t there!'”

Thankfully, Buchholz had a good excuse: Just this once, he missed the team arrival to attend the pregame tailgate, where the parents of incoming freshmen were getting their first chance to meet their new family.

For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

 

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