North Texas Chapter offers ‘something for everyone’

Pep band (group photo)

The North Texas Chapter serves an expansive geographic region with a wide variety of events, such as when the chapter’s alumni Blue Band played at the chapter’s sendoff picnic four years ago. All Penn State eyes have been on Texas this week, and the Dallas-based chapter has been ready. 

The North Texas Chapter’s watch party will feel different this week.

The chapter averaged nearly 100 Penn Staters per event this football season, though Saturday’s game will feature some new ambience. Mainly, Penn State football is coming to them.

Penn State is playing in Texas for the first time in nearly a decade, and it’s been a little longer than that (44 years) since the Nittany Lions last appeared in the Cotton Bowl.

Giving it some more thought, “different” might be an understatement.

Suffice to say, our Dallas-based chapter is excited. And beyond that, Chapter President Jeff Zawadzki ’97 understands the opportunity the game provides beyond football.

“What we try to get across to people is we have a broad range of events — you’re going to find something where you fit in,” Zawadzki said. “We work really well with the other Texas chapters and find something for everyone.”

Zawadzki moved to Texas three weeks after graduating from Penn State, and he joined the North Texas Chapter the following fall. As he said, not everybody is a football junkie, so a networking event or community service project will probably be more appealing to some folks. The chapter also hosts a holiday party that attracts local Penn Staters. 

Given the expansive geographic region that the chapter covers, Zawadzki figures the more options, the better. It makes sense.

More immediate, the chapter is hosting an event Friday evening in Dallas, and chances are board members will see Penn Staters who they haven’t met before. Even for new folks they meet during the season, Zawadzki said newcomers are surprised by how organized and produced their watch parties are.

Some games are so packed that there’s standing-room only space, and the chapter uses those Saturday afternoons to recruit new members and renew membership for current members. There are also raffles that support the chapter’s scholarship endowment, which has grown over the years and now exceeds $100,000.

Aside from a few folks who are out of town on vacation, most of the chapter’s board members will be in attendance at AT&T Stadium on Saturday; kickoff is set for Noon ET/11 a.m. CT between Penn State and Memphis.

Zawadzki’s keenly familiar with the area that the chapter serves, and he has nearly two decades’ worth of experience to draw from. He first got involved with the chapter in 2001, and over the years, has helped out with the chapter’s website and social media channels. Zawadzki also previously served as vice president in charge of technology, and this is his third year as chapter president.

He succeeded Craig Micklow, an alumni leader who served as North Texas Chapter president for 27 years. The chapter routinely earns Elm Level distinction, which current Vice President Kurt Heinemann proudly noted Friday morning as he represented the chapter during the Alumni Association’s community service project.

The new year promises more chances for folks interested in joining the chapter, or just learning more. Former longtime Penn State coach and administrator Joe Battista ’83 will visit with the chapter, and the group is also looking at attending a Dallas Stars hockey game.

There’s value in Zawadzki having served the chapter so long before stepping into the president’s role. You see and hear a lot over the years, what works and what doesn’t, etc. The chapter still employs a tactical approach, something Micklow started and which Zawadzki continues.

“I learned things from Craig: how you interact with different vendors and treat those people and build relationships,” Zawadzki said. “Craig is really good at building relationships, and that’s something I took from him. He approached the chapter from a business perspective, and that makes us successful. We want to have some procedures and processes, and it helps it run a lot smoother.

Zawadzki still talks with Micklow and his wife, Judy, who hosted the chapter’s annual student sendoff picnic at their house for nearly three decades.

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Alumni leader and former longtime North Texas Chapter President Craig Micklow gave an inspiring speech in 2017, as he accepted the Kay and Ernie Salvino Volunteer of the Year Award.

There’s a strong foundation with the chapter, which oversees an expansive geographic region. There are challenges with that, and chapter is maximizing its footprint by partnering with other chapters in the state for what Zawadzki called a “Texas throwdown.”

Here’s the plan: Each participating Alumni Association chapter in Texas will create a page for its THON fundraiser. Zawadzki said it’s a friendly competition to see who can raise the most money. Sounds like it’ll be a win-win for everyone involved, most of all Four Diamonds families and THON.

As is often the case, football is also a mainstay for the chapter, a connecting point for alumni to get together and catch up. Same plan this weekend, only with tens of thousands of more visitors.

“Dallas-area folks are excited to get out there,” Zawadzki said of Saturday’s game. “We have some alums who can’t make it back to Happy Valley, so it’s nice to see them here locally.”

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Tradition of Giving Back

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Nearly 100 volunteers from the Penn State Alumni Association and the University of Memphis Alumni Association teamed up Friday morning at I Can Still Shine, painting walls, organizing clothes, and building shelves. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel.

This is quickly becoming one of our favorite traditions.

That was the thinking Friday morning at the I Can Still Shine program, where the Penn State Alumni Association partnered with the University of Memphis Alumni Association to give back to the local community.

Nearly 100 volunteers from the two alumni associations painted walls, built shelves, organized clothes, and jumped in anytime something was needed. You can check out some photos here that showcase the spirit of volunteerism, as The Football Letter photographer Steve Manuel ’82, ’92g was on-hand to provide his usual great photos.

It’s the third straight year we’ve partnered with the opposing team’s alumni association at the bowl for a community service project, and it’s a good reminder that alumni and fans can make an impact beyond the field.

We all know Saturday’s game is important, and folks from both sides spoke proudly about their Universities and alumni, and how much fun their seasons have been. We enjoyed meeting Memphis alumni and fans, and some of our colleagues at their alumni association. And the program’s founder, Brenda Jackson, shared how the program supports battered women and their children. It’s an inspiring story, and we hope we helped in some small way.

Each alumni base provided plenty of volunteers, and you can hear from Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford and Memphis’ director, Kristie Goldsmith, on our Facebook page.

“Memphis is about giving back, and we love to do this type of volunteer work,” Goldsmith said, as volunteers hammered away and continued with the service.

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Volunteers enjoyed a busy morning, organizing clothes for local families that I Can Still Shine supports year-round. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

That selfless mindset was present on both sides, with our North Texas Chapter onsite, too. Vice President Kurt Heinemann ’98 was busy all morning, moving from one side of the building to the other, helping with various projects.

As you can imagine, he and the chapter are excited for the game, and really, for all week. “As I tell my friends, my family is coming down to visit me this time,” Heinemann said, smiling, and he added the chapter will host an event tonight in Dallas.

Just one of many examples of Penn Staters coming together this week. And sometimes, we even include some Tigers.

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Cotton Bowl Sights and Sounds

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Alumni and fans kicked off the Penn State Bowl Tour with a reception at The Rustic, in Dallas. The Nittany Lion, Penn State Cheerleaders, Lionettes, and special guests welcomed Penn Staters, who enjoyed a relaxing evening ahead of the Cotton Bowl. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel.

Texas didn’t disappoint.

Not that we’re surprised (we’re not).

The chances are incredibly high that you’ll have a good time anytime you gather with a bunch of Penn Staters, and that was exactly the scene that played out this evening about 15 miles from AT&T Stadium, site of this year’s Cotton Bowl. The Penn State Bowl Tour kicked off with a welcome reception, and the ambience was just what folks were craving.

A few hundred Nittany Lion supporters gathered tonight at The Rustic, a down-home restaurant that offered what most folks are craving after a long day of traveling: good food, cold drinks, memorable views, and most importantly, an opportunity to gather with fellow Penn Staters and enjoy performances from the Nittany Lion, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Lionettes.

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Cool moment: Penn State President Eric Barron sported some gear from Saquon Barkley’s line of Nike clothing, as he and Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour spoke with alumni and fans. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel.

Penn State President Eric Barron and Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour also attended, sharing insight on how the University and athletic department strive to be one of the leading educational institutions in the nation.

Both Barron and Barbour stressed how our student-athletes are excelling in the classroom while surpassing the competition in the athletic arena, with Barbour touting the student-athletes’ upcoming Academic Progress Rate (APR). You can learn more about the APR on the NCAA website.

Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford and President Randy Houston, meanwhile, welcomed travelers and spoke to the power that our alumni network flexes when thousands alumni travel every year to the bowl game. You can check out our archived live stream of Clifford and Houston on our Facebook page, in addition to a host of videos on our Twitter feed.

Stay tuned all week, as we’ll update the blog and our social channels and share how Penn Staters are bringing the roar to Texas.

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See you soon, Cotton Bowl

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We’re heading to Texas in a few days for the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, where Penn State will vie for its third 11-win season in four years. It’s been a while since the Nittany Lions have achieved that level of success, and with James Franklin recently signing a contract extension and bringing in another Top-15 recruiting class, this level of success very well could continue.

As Franklin often says, it’s a group effort, including alumni, fans, and lettermen, the work that goes on behind the scenes by the football coaches and support staff, and the incredible level of dedication that’s put forth by our student-athletes.

As usual, it’s an exciting time for the program and the passionate fan base that supports the Nittany Lions, and that level of bold enthusiasm will be on display this week in Dallas and the surrounding area.

Saturday will be the first time that The Football Letter stalwarts John Black ’62 and Steve Manuel ’82, ’92g will cover the Cotton Bowl. Ridge Riley detailed the last time Penn State played in the Cotton Bowl in 1975, in the next-to-last year that Riley oversaw the publication. We’ve uncovered a few Associated Press photos from the victory over Baylor that year; one is included in this post, and we’ll share a few others this week on our social channels.

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Joe Paterno met with reporters at a press conference on Dec. 28, 1974, prior to the Cotton Bowl. Also pictured: Baylor head coach Grant Teaff. Photo credit: Associated Press.

If you’re traveling into town for the game, you’re invited to attend a number of events that the Alumni Association is hosting, including a volunteer service project. You can find complete details on Penn State News.

Notably, the morning of the game, we’re hosting the official Cotton Bowl pep rally, from 8:30-9:00 a.m. It’ll take place right by AT&T Stadium, within the Goodyear Huddle Up Fan Fest located in the Miller Lite (West) Plaza. The pep rally will feature the Blue Band, Penn State Cheerleaders, the Nittany Lions, the Lionettes, and special guests.

We hope to see you there, and we look forward to meeting alumni and fans during our trip. We’ll have additional content on the blog later this week, including coverage of our events. Tag the Alumni Association and The Football Letter Twitter accounts, and let us know if you’re in town or if you see a cool photo or interesting story idea. 

We Are …

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Cheering with Dr. Barron: University President visits Chicago Chapter

 

Penn State Chicago-President Barron

President Barron enjoyed time with the Alumni Association’s Chicago Chapter earlier this season, when he stopped by to cheer on Penn State during their game against Michigan State. “Everybody was really impressed that he joined us,” Chapter President Caitlin Bencel said, noting that Dr. Barron made time to meet chapter members and pose for a group photo.

President Barron wanted to find a place where he could watch the Nittany Lions with fellow Penn State fans.

He found just the spot, thanks to our Chicago Chapter.

Barron was in the Second City during Penn State’s visit to Michigan State in late October, and he stopped by Smoke Daddy, one of the chapter’s designated restaurants for football watch parties. Letterman Mike Dunlay owns the place; he was an offensive guard on the 1982 national championship football team and has supported the Chicago Chapter in various ways.

Dunlay approached the chapter in the last year and expressed interest in hosting Penn Staters, and Barron joined the chapter during the second quarter of the Nittany Lions’ 28-7 victory over the Spartans.

In his customary style, Barron was low-key, not wanting to draw attention to himself; mostly, he wanted to meet local chapter members and enjoy the game. He was offered a table, though opted instead to sit with alumni and friends, with Chicago Chapter President Caitlin Bencel ’07 saying at least five people came up to her and said they couldn’t believe Dr. Barron was there and how cool it was that he shared the afternoon with them.

“So many people described him as being down-to-earth, they didn’t realize who he was until he approached them and was chatting everybody up,” Bencel said. “That was really cool that he was able to fly under the radar, and it wasn’t until he asked if it was OK for a group photo that I introduced him.”

Bencel added: “Everybody was really impressed that he joined us.”

You can check out the group photo at the top of the article, and the image indicates just how popular fall Saturdays are for the Chicago Chapter. The chapter added a third venue this year with the continued interest from local Penn Staters, and even though each one of the watch party locations provides a different atmosphere, Bencel said the goal is for members to have the same experience at each spot.

The chapter features 50-50 raffles that benefit either the group’s scholarship or THON fundraising initiatives, and occasionally local charities. Penn Staters from both the city and the suburbs frequent the chapter’s three locations on fall Saturdays, enjoying an opportunity to make new connections, and learn more about chapter events and volunteer opportunities.

And of course, there’s plenty of time to share in the camaraderie that naturally bubbles up anytime Penn Staters get together to watch football.

As a volunteer leader, Bencel understands how important it is to maintain that connection to her alma mater, and how the seemingly smallest things can transform an ordinary gathering into an upbeat occasion that transports you back to your college days.

That’s the beauty of game day, whether you’re cheering on the Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium or elsewhere across the country.

“Chicago is a long way from Happy Valley, so we aim to bring a bit of Happy Valley to Chicago,” Bencel said.  “We start with decorating the watch party locations with Penn State flags, pompoms we order from the Blue & White Society, and other items to evoke the atmosphere of being back at Penn State. We also play Blue Band songs and other hype songs you’d hear in Beaver Stadium, give away Penn State swag at halftime, and of course, bring out the cowbell!”

From The Archives: Penn State V. Rutgers (2015)

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Penn State’s inaugural Stripe Out was a huge hit with fans, who watched the Nittany Lions upend Rutgers 28-3. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Even if you’ve been covering Penn State for 40-plus years, as John Black has, you still have an opportunity to see something new.

That’s the beauty of college football, especially in Happy Valley.

Over the years, the pre-game theatrics at Beaver Stadium have intensified, much to the delight of fans. Recruits, also, have taken notice, with James Franklin bringing in highly ranked classes the last few years.

While the atmosphere for home games has always been one of the best in the country, the operations and marketing teams for football has elevated the environment at Penn State into something that is truly, to borrow a phrase, “unrivaled.”

All of this leads us back to Black, the dean of football reporters. As the 1962 Penn State graduated surveyed the scene at Beaver Stadium a few moments prior to kick-off against Rutgers in 2015, he saw something he never had before at Beaver Stadium.

That’s saying something.

Comebacks and blow-outs, amazing plays and unexplainable gaffs, spectacular shows from the Blue Band, weather delays, fans storming the field, and pretty much anything else imaginable.

But a stripe out? Nope. Never.

Meaning, on his way to writing more than 500 consecutive editions of The Football Letter, John Black scratched off another item on his seemingly empty Penn State bucket list in the first month of the 2015 season.

Black had seen a stripe out before, at Iowa in 2012, though this was the first such occurrence at Penn State — the annual game has grown to be one of the most visually striking images each football season.

Count Black among the many fans who’ve embraced the new tradition.

“It gave a very neat effect,” Black said this week, recalling the game at Iowa seven years ago. “I thought, ‘Gee, I hope Penn State does that soon,’ and they did.”

The Nittany Lion version debuted three years later, during a night kickoff against Rutgers in September. Penn State eased to a 28-3 victory with two touchdowns from Saquon Barkley, a score each from Akeel Lynch and DeAndre Thompkins; and a stout defensive showing.

Enjoying his customary view on the west side of the stadium, Black witnessed the stands fill up with coordinated fans intent on willing their Nittany Lions to victory.

“Sitting in their blue-or-white clad sections, the fans themselves were part of the first-ever Beaver Stadium Stripe Out Show, as the last sunset glow faded behind the press box,” Black described in The Football Letter.

PSU-Rutgers 2015 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Akeel Lynch broke away for 75-yard touchdown run before halftime. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Additional details he authored in that issue mentioned Blue Band Director Greg Drane leading the band’s pre-game routine for the first time (the previous week’s game against Buffalo featured heavy rain and the band didn’t have the opportunity to thrill fans before kickoff) and the drum major flips, along with performances from the majorettes and Lionettes.

The types of particulars that alumni and fans have read from Black since 1976. Perhaps overlooked by some, though always top-of-mind for the author of The Football Letter, who knows his audience.

“I don’t know that you would read that sort of thing in the standard commercial publications, but to me, it’s part of the whole experience and a significance part of it,” Black said. “That’s what I’m trying to convey, a special sense of the identity of Penn State alumni and their participation in the whole game day experience; have a part in it, have their presence mean something. So, to me, it’s an important thing.”

From The Archives: Penn State V. Ohio State (2008)

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Lydell Sargeant (10) rushed to recover the fumble caused by Mark Rubin in the fourth quarter of the 2008 game at Ohio State. NaVorro Bowman recovered the ball, igniting the Nittany Lions to a 13-6 victory over the ninth-ranked Buckeyes. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Some memories, you never forget. Just ask Lydell Sargeant.

The Penn State letterman and former defensive back for the Nittany Lions provided one of the defining moments for the Nittany Lions during their 2008 Rose Bowl season, when they won the Big Ten championship for the third time.

In the waning moments of the team’s slugfest against Ohio State, he “outleaped Brian Hartline for an interception in the end zone on Ohio State’s final play,” as John Black ’62 wrote in The Football Letter.

Asked about what continues to stand out to him about that game and if he still recalls specific details, he laughed, just slightly, in a way that suggest he’ll remember them forever.

“Oh, my goodness. I still remember plays from 14 years ago,” Sargeant said, referencing his freshman season at Penn State.

He then summarized the last drive, beginning with, “I can tell you every last thing that happened.”

Sargeant remembered Bowman tipping a pass as the Buckeyes were driving with less than a minute left: “NaVorro made a really good play up the middle. I think if he didn’t tip the pass, it would have drastically changed that drive.”

Then, Sargeant’s versatility shined through. Typically a cornerback, Sargeant would switch to safety when Penn State played nickel in the secondary. As he saw Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s pass sail toward the end zone, he saw he had an opportunity to catch the ball instead of knocking it down. The former was more attractive, since Sargeant didn’t want to let the receiver get in front of him.

The approach worked, as Sargeant hauled in Pryor’s lofty pass right at the goal-line to secure Penn State’s 13-6 victory.

“One thing Coach Paterno always said was, ‘Do you want your name in the paper? When it’s time to make big plays, make them,’” said Sargeant, who also broke up a pass earlier in the fourth quarter, thwarting a potential 30-yard gain for the Buckeyes to midfield.

Sargeant added: “To me, The Horseshoe is the next best thing to Beaver Stadium, with regard to their fan passion and how loud they get.”

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Anthony Scirrotto celebrated with fans after the third-ranked Nittany Lions seized the moment and claimed their first win at The Horseshoe since beginning Big Ten play. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Ohio Stadium was certainly loud for the Nittany Lions’ visit in the 2008 season, when Penn State (No. 3) and Ohio State (No. 9) met in a battle of Top-10 teams.

It was the first victory for Penn State in The Horseshoe since beginning Big Ten play, and the Nittany Lions shut down Pryor, explosive Buckeye running back Beanie Wells, and their offensive teammates. Ohio State scored 30-plus points in six other games that season, and 40-plus on four occasions.

“We had a rock star defense,” Sargeant said, pointing out teammates and future NFL stars such as NaVorro Bowman, Jared Odrick, Aaron Maybin, and others.

Sargeant was perhaps always destined to attend Penn State, though he had something of a circuitous route to Happy Valley. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and then moved to California in 10th grade, a result of his father serving in the military.

He returned to Pittsburgh the next few summers for a month or so, working out with childhood friend (and future teammate) Justin King, along with current Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who was coaching Gateway High School at the time.

There’s a lot of connectivity with that trio. Smith is King’s stepfather, with Sargeant and King serving as ball boys for Smith going back to his days at Duquesne University in the late 1990s. Sargeant originally committed to Stanford (Oregon was his other top choice, along with Penn State), before transferring.

As Sargeant tells it, he and King looked at each other and said, “Hey, do you want to play together?”

The incoming recruiting class helped elevate Penn State out of one of the few down periods in Joe Paterno’s coaching career, with Sargeant saying that guys like Derrick Williams and Sean Lee, who played AAU basketball with Sargeant, also played important roles in the process.

After graduating, Sargeant signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent, though retired from the NFL a few years later because of an injury. Then, he returned to Penn State for an internship that was facilitated by longtime offensive coordinator Fran Ganter, who transitioned into an administrative role after coaching.

Ganter mentored Sargeant, as the former defensive back learned what he was most passionate about in athletic administration. Sargeant earned his master’s in sports management studies from California University of Pennsylvania, then worked at Utah Valley University and Marquette University in development roles.

Currently, Sargeant serves as an assistant athletic director at UCLA, one of the most accomplished and impressive athletic departments in the country. UCLA is second overall in all-time national titles, with 118.

Even though he’s on the other side of the country, Sargeant returns to Happy Valley twice a year, for the Blue-White game and Homecoming. Additionally, he sits on the board of the Football Letterman’s Club and still is tight with King and Smith. He talks every day with King, who earlier this year accepted the position of manager of football operations for the startup XFL after previously working with Penn State football as a recruiting coordinator.

And Smith is as connected as ever to the program as cornerbacks coach after playing as a wideout for Joe Paterno in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Sargeant speaks passionately about his days at Penn State, and asked some questions of his own out of curiosity for how things are going back at his alma mater. Like Smith and King, he has an affinity for Penn State that’ll likely last a lifetime.

He cares, and he has a recognition for the importance that Penn State has played in his life, both during his playing days and now as he helps to oversee one of the most prestigious athletic departments in the country.

“I say all the time: nothing about what Coach Paterno taught was about football,” Sargeant said. “It’s fascinating, because he’s the most winningest coach in college football, and everything he emphasized were things outside of the game.

“As you get older, you start to realize he’s basically giving you the code to society. That shapes you, and you start to understand how successful Penn State guys are and how they’re able to navigate the professional world. There’s less of a deer-in-the-headlights look when you no longer have football. Coach Paterno was a huge factor in preparing us for life beyond football.”

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