Summer Reboot

James Franklin and the Penn State coaching staff met with the media in early June to recap spring practice, look ahead to fall camp, and discuss a host of other topics. One question we asked: How do coaches reset physically, mentally, and emotionally before the grind of fall camp and the season? Photo credit: John Patishnock

There’s an economic theory that suggests the less you have of something, the more valuable it becomes. So for football coaches, free time is pretty close to the top of this list.

In theory, it’s a simple question: How do you enjoy your downtime? However, it takes on plenty of significance when for all intents and purposes, you work seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

We recently posed this question to James Franklin and several coaches on his staff. Not surprisingly, family time became a theme. And Associate Head Coach Terry Smith, who’s passionate about world traveling, truly knows how to get away.

Check out the video clips below to hear directly from the Penn State coaches.

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The Roaring 20: Blue-White Game

The present and the future: Penn State senior quarterback Sean Clifford hands off to freshman running back Nicholas Singleton during Saturday’s Blue-White game at Beaver Stadium. Clifford, who ranks near the top in many Penn State offensive all-time categories, returned to lead the offense after being granted an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19, and Singleton earned Gatorade National Player of the Year honors for Pennsylvania in high school. Photo credit: Steve Manuel

Check out this week’s Roaring 20 to see, hear, and feel what it was like to be at Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon for this year’s Blue-White game. We’ve also added some info on our volunteer recognition efforts this week. And as usual, we’ve embedded videos, photos, and social media posts for you.

1. We started Blue-White Weekend with a reception Thursday evening at The Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, where we honored volunteers and a few dedicated Alumni Association colleagues. The acceptance speeches were memorable, not only because of the honorees, but also because they also recognized and gave credit to many around them. You can see photos and a thread on all the recipients on Twitter.

2. In some ways, the Blue-White game is more of a relief than anything else. It’s the conclusion of spring practice, which follows grueling winter workouts. The format has changed over the years, and for what it’s worth, I think that’s fine. Keeping options open is always a good thing, and either way, the tailgating lots will still open early.

3. Chatted briefly with Matt McGoin, who co-hosts a highly informative and entertaining podcast with fellow Penn Stater, Tom Hannifan, himself an impressively accomplished commentator. You can check out YouTube for more information and to see previous episodes. Wishing both of them the best.

4. Micah Parsons, Mike Gesicki, Pat Freiermuth, and Yetur Gross-Matos — these are just some of the lettermen who traveled back to Happy Valley for the game. Gesicki was around early on, and not surprisingly, fans noticed. We happened to be on the right side of the field to see the superstar tight end who’s now playing for the Miami Dolphins, and we shot this video. Every time Gesicki was getting ready to walk away, someone else, usually a younger fan, screamed out his name. Every time, Gesicki stayed.

5. Also in autograph news: Parsons was approached by a fan as the NFL superstar was walking off the field. Parsons stopped, casually signed his own jersey, and then gave the Nittany Lion a handshake. Pretty smooth.

6. Football Letter photographer Steve Manuel captured some gorgeous scenes from the game and pregame festivities. You can see a few on Twitter, and members will receive the full gallery in Monday’s postgame email. If you’re not a member, you can visit alumni.psu.edu/join to ensure you receive The Football Letter all season.  

7. CommRadio social media manager Emmy Vitali also got some beautiful photos of today’s game. We shared them on Twitter, and you can also follow the student account to stay updated on everything they’re doing. We’ve worked directly with the students in that organization, and everyone — students and advisors — are total professionals.

8. As the alma mater was about to start, James Franklin implored his team to get to the goal-line, perhaps so they could be closer to the fans and band? Even if that wasn’t a factor, no detail goes unnoticed with Franklin. You can see the full video of the alma mater on our Twitter page.

9. Today’s announced attendance was 62,000. Onward State shared this photo that gives a nice view of the crowd, with Mount Nittany in the backdrop.

10. In case you didn’t know (and why would you), standout safety Ji’Ayir Brown is a big fan of the Nittany Lion. Then again, who isn’t? We got, just in time, footage of him making eye contact with the mascot and sharing jump in mid-air, followed quickly by a photo opportunity, at Brown’s request. You can see the full video on Twitter.

11. Minutes later, Brown made time for fans in the South Tunnel, who yelled out his name, asking for autographs. We’ve got video of that exchange, too.

12. Speaking of the South Tunnel: James Franklin thanked fans on both sides, stopping for pictures and autographs. We changed the camera settings a few times to adjust for the difference in light — we learned that lessons years ago when I wondered why the tunnel footage was so dark, it is a tunnel, after all — so you can see the full celebration.

13. One cool moment from the video: As fans yelled “eighty-eight” over and again, Franklin said, “His name’s Jerry,” as in freshman tight end Jerry Cross. The young fans didn’t mean anything by it, and more than anything, it struck me as a teachable moment. The players are just like anyone else, humans with emotions, and not gladiators. Plus, you have to think players are more likely to stop when they hear their own name, right?

14. As much as Sean Clifford is considered “old” — even he’s joked about it, being a sixth-year player in the program — he’s still young and navigating plenty, including now serving as CEO of Limitless, a new company he’s founded to help student-athletes with name, image, and likeness. In the handful of minutes I heard him speak after the game, he displayed a level of maturity that even surpasses (I believe) what he’s shown in the past. While there’s lots of young talent in the quarterback room, having a steady veteran should help not only this year, but also in the future as Clifford mentors his teammates.

15. You can hear from Clifford directly, as we captured some of his postgame media availability. That video is available here.

16. After exiting the stadium Saturday afternoon, I immediately ran into Paris Palmer, a letterman from the 2016 Big Ten championship team and all-around good guy. Great seeing Paris and we chatted for a few minutes. Paris was on Football Letter Live in 2020, and you can check out his appearance beginning at the 9:05 mark. Paris is working in Penn State’s Strategic Communications Office and is also having an impact as GM of the newly formed group, Success With Honor Collective, which is focused on bringing clarity and opportunities to Penn State student-athletes in this era of name, image, and likeness.  

17. As I was driving away after the game, the sun shone brighter and warmer than it had all day. According to the temperature reading in my car, it was 73 degrees, an increase of about 20 degrees from lunchtime. So, it was good to see plenty of cars still parked, Penn Staters still tailgating, and flags whipping in the wind. The game may have ended around 4 p.m., though I imagine many of those folks are still tailgating as I write these words.

18. And for the record, the Defense bested the Offense, 17-13, in a scoring format that would’ve made Willy Wonka happy. Seriously, it made sense, as Franklin said afterward that what the team did today, pitting the offense against the defense in scoring, as opposed to two complete teams scrimmaging, is what was best for the program. For the scoring details, CNHI reporter Elton Hayes shared the breakdown provided by Athletics leading up to today.  

19. Tomorrow, the Alumni Association is sponsoring the Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run, an annual event which benefits Special Olympics Pennsylvania. Even if you can’t participate yourself, you’ll still receive a boost by going and cheering on the runners and walkers. Sue Paterno typically welcomes the crowd, as she’s a longtime passionate supporter of Special Olympics. You can learn more on the event’s website.

20. Hope everyone enjoys the rest of their spring and upcoming summer. Lots to look forward to once we get to the fall. Before then, a reminder that registration is open for We Are Weekend, June 17-18 at University Park. You can view our full listing of events on our website.

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Penn State Preview: Blue-White Game

This year’s Blue-White game is set for 2 p.m., Saturday, April 23, at Beaver Stadium. Penn State’s annual spring scrimmage will air on Big Ten Network. Photo credit: Penn State/Pat Mansell

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: Blue-White game, 2 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on Big Ten Network.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, the second-largest stadium in the country (third-largest in the world), and where the Nittany Lions boast an all-time record of 304-79. Beaver Stadium opened in 1960 and features a capacity of 106,572.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 67 degrees and partly sunny. In other words, ideal weather for tailgating. Let’s hope that forecast holds up.

The lead: For the first time in three years, the Blue-White game will be open to fans. And with it, comes everything else that transforms game day in Happy Valley into something other-worldly. As long as I can remember, there’s been chatter — perhaps from people with too much time on their hands — about what can be done to make the Blue-White game more interesting for fans. The most recent example I saw posited was that maybe the Nittany Lions could play an FCS opponent in the spring, an option that’s been thrown out for other FBS program, too.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I believe should change with the Blue-White game: nothing.  

Yes, it’s a practice. What’s wrong with that? An open practice with tailgating lots open all day, giving alumni and fans a reason to celebrate the exiting winter weather while seeing new faces and returning starters for the first time. Previous years have seen unexpected excitement in the form of a walk-on player receiving a scholarship mid-game (Dan Chisena), and local Special Olympic athletes scoring a touchdown in front of a roaring crowd.

Is seeing a certain offensive scheme or defensive formation really going to be more memorable than either of those examples? Is playing an FCS opponent going to make the day better? I don’t think so.

Other programs may have to resort to gimmicks to generate interest for their spring game. Penn State, however, isn’t in that category.

All-time series: Similar to other universities, Penn State’s annual spring scrimmage was a result of post-World War II life in the U.S. We recently came across this 2010 article from Penn State football historian Lou Prato, which details the history of the game and how it’s evolved over the years. One interesting nugget is the Daily Collegian dubbed the game “The Bucket Bowl” for a few years in the early 1950s, since an old fashioned water bucket was presented to the winning team as a trophy.

Count on: plenty of Penn State lettermen returning for the game. Breakout NFL star tight end Pat Freiermuth shared a video saying he’s returning to Happy Valley, and if history is a good indicator, expect a few dozen former players to join him.

Keep an eye on: all the new Nittany Lions. It’ll be harder than you think. True freshmen Drew Allar (#15, quarterback), Beau Pribula (#9, quarterback), and Nick Singleton (#10, running back) will appear in front of fans for the first time, as will senior transfer Mitchell Tinsley (#5, receiver). You also have fan favorites Jonathan Sutherland (switching to a new position at linebacker from safety) and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher back from an injury that forced him to miss most of last season.

It’s also worth adding redshirt freshman quarterback Christian Veilleux to the mix. He starred in last season’s win over Rutgers as a starter. And how many snaps will Sean Clifford see Saturday?

We could go on for a while. Point being: there’s a lot that should have fans intrigued this weekend.

Trivia tidbit: Per Penn State football: In 2019, an estimated 61,000 fans were in attendance for the Blue-White game. That’s typical, as the Blue-White game has drawn more than 60,000 fans in seven of the last eight years, which included crowds of 70,000 or more in four of the last six years.

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A LOOK BACK AT SOME UNEXPECTED STARS OF RECENT BLUE-WHITE GAMES

Penn State-Michigan State 2019 (Photo by Steve Manuel/The Football Letter)

Some Penn State players go into spring camp with little to no outside attention. Then, one day inside Beaver Stadium for the Blue-White Game they capture the attention of those watching in attendance and those watching at home.

For one day, they are the most talked about name on the roster.

So let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit some of the most unexpected spring game stars of recent Blue-White games.

Dan Chisena (2019)
A fifth-year senior at the time, Dan Chisena caught a 59-yard touchdown pass from then-freshman quarterback Will Levis in the third quarter of the 2019 game. Upon reaching the end zone, James Franklin announced to the crowd that Chisena had been awarded a scholarship in what was a really cool, and no doubt emotional moment for Dan and his family. Chisena was a walk-on for the football team in 2015 before joining the Penn State track & field team from 2016-18, where he was a scholarship and Big Ten title-winning sprinter. He returned to the football team as a walk-on in 2018. Chisena has worked his way into a special teams role at the NFL level, playing an important role with that unit for the Minnesota Vikings.

Colin Castagna (2016)
Colin Castaga’s last name always reminds of the legendary “Seinfeld” character George Costanza. Castagna recorded six tackles (three tackles-for-loss) and a sack in the 2016 Blue-White Game. He appeared in 20 games between 2016 and 2017, and elected to forgo his final season of eligibility at Penn State and try his hand at the NFL early. He had an impressive showing at Penn State’s pro day in March of 2018 with 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, a 10-3 broad jump, a 32.5-inch vertical and a 4.28-second pro shuttle. While an NFL career didn’t come to fruition, Colin has still had professional success, now working as Surgical Sales Rep at Smith & Nephew. The company supports surgeons in their Orthopedic Sports Medicine needs, ensuring products as well as guidance and advice on techniques.

Colin Castagna vs. Purdue 2016 (Photo by Steve Manuel/The Football Letter)

Cole Chiappialle (2014)
As far as spring contest standouts go, Cole Chiappialle is the gold standard. The 5-foot-8 fourth-string running back shined in the 2014 Blue-White Game with nine carries for 63 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 17 yards. His play captured the attention of everyone on the day and James Franklin even picked Chiappialle to lead the team’s post-game huddle in the locker room after the game. A true underdog success story, mainly a special teams contributor during his two seasons in Happy Valley, Chiappialle finished his time at Penn State with 22 carries for 68 yards. He transferred to Shippensburg University after his sophomore campaign. Cole now works in investment management and financial planning at LPL Financial.

Michael O’Connor / DJ Crook (2014)
While Christian Hackenberg was the unquestioned lead dog in the quarterback room entering the 2014 season, his backups Michael O’Connor and DJ Crook got all of the work in this game. O’Connor was 11-of-16 for 81 yards, while Crook was 10-of-17 for 68 yards. Unfortunately for the latter, by hook or by crook, he was also intercepted twice. Both players transferred out of the program after the season concluded. O’Connor ended up at the University of British Columbia, while Crook moved on to Albany.

Jordan Hill vs. Temple 2012 (Photo by Steve Manuel/The Football Letter)

Jordan Hill (2012)
Not a prototypical unsung hero because he went on to have a starring role at Penn State and a productive NFL career, Jordan Hill was the star of the show for the 2012 Blue-White Game. That stems from having an interception in the game and anytime a defensive lineman gets an interception, it is newsworthy. Hill’s INT here was no different. My only regret is I can’t find the highlight of the play to share with the masses. So instead, here’s former teammate Austin Johnson accomplishing the defensive lineman INT feat a few years later in a game against San Diego State.

Evan Lewis (2011)
A wide receiver by trade, Lewis had to handle the placekicking duties in the 2011 Blue-White Game. On a day that saw heavy rain turn Beaver Stadium into a lagoon, Lewis connected on his only field goal attempt of the game to open the scoring in the second quarter. Because the rain had gotten so bad, and with 19 Nittany Lion players held out of the game already with injuries, Penn State ended the game at halftime. The blue team came away with the 10-0 win. Evan is now the Co-Founder at Accelerate ACL and Founder/CEO at Premier Neuro Therapy.

Have a favorite unsung hero or surprise star from past Blue-White games that you have always remembered? Let me know who it was in the comments!

We Are!

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Accepting The Responsibility

During his time leading The Football Letter, John Black set an example — both on and off the field — that will last forever. Photo credit: Steve Manuel

A number of years ago, I enjoyed my first lengthy conversation with John Black. We’ve had many more since, though that first one I still recall in detail. We were at the Hintz Family Alumni Center, sitting opposite one another on seat cushions embedded into the stairwell, with a glass table between us and a nearby window that opened to the south side of campus, facing the Hammond Building.

We talked about Penn State football (of course), the Nittany Lions’ history with Maryland (a recent opponent), and the significance of John preparing to cover his 475th football game for The Football Letter.

It was 2014, James Franklin’s first year with the team, and for the final two home opponents, I mirrored John in the press box to get an up-close look at how he covered the games. He was the only one who jettisoned a laptop in favor of a legal pad and pens. Well, that was true for the first game, when I brought my laptop and felt foolish for that decision as I sat next to John. I learned my lesson and left my laptop at home the next time.

As we chatted at the Alumni Center, he said this about serving as editor of The Football Letter: “I think a tremendous responsibility comes with that, because you’re doing your job and following through on trying to be the eyes and ears at the game for all avid alumni and fans.”

John did just that for 46 years, admirably carrying on the legacy first brought forth by Ridge Riley in 1938.

John Black covered more than 500 Penn State football games as editor of The Football Letter, following the Nittany Lions as they rose to national prominence over the decades. Photo credit: John Patishnock

Here’s a story I’ll share that embodies John’s positive attitude, along with his love and adoration for both the football program and the University. It’s also an example that shows how the responsibility he mentioned is one that goes beyond covering the team.

During our stay in Tampa for Penn State’s recent visit to the Outback Bowl, the Alumni Association had our annual service project, one in which we partnered with the Arkansas Alumni Association to clean up Gandy Beach in nearby St. Petersburg.

It was early in the morning, well before lunchtime. Within a half hour of arriving, the sun’s warmth started to assert itself as volunteers picked up debris, carrying grabber tools and trash bags along a busy highway, over dry and rough sand, and in between thickets of brush. It wasn’t glamorous, which made the scene all the more inspiring.

Here were alumni who spent money and used vacation time to travel to Florida over the holiday to cheer on the football team. And here they were, early in the morning, under the hot Florida sun, giving back to a community in which they’ll spend only a few hours.

In the middle of the action, I noticed John walking along, pitching in the same as everyone else. I smiled to myself, slightly shook my head in disbelief, walked up to him, and said:

John, you don’t need to be out here.

The implication being that John didn’t have anything to prove, had already devoted his life to Penn State. He had rightly earned certain privileges, one being that he didn’t need to wake up early to take a 60-minute roundtrip bus ride and physically exert himself. His response will stay with me forever. He said, smiling of course:

“Why not? It’s a beautiful day. I’m getting some exercise …”

His voice trailed off, and he looked out at the scene of Penn Staters volunteering, and the expression on his face said everything I needed to know. In reality, what I already knew before I approached him.

When you’re a lifelong Penn Stater, you give back and get involved not out of a sense of obligation, but out of a sense of service, a sense of wanting to help, of wanting to be part of the team. Out of a sense of responsibility, one that you accept willingly. John did that for nearly half a century. And along the way, he set an example that will last forever.

When John learned that I’d be succeeding him as editor of The Football Letter, he told me that he hopes I break his record of 46 years. I’m not sure of the chances of that happening, though John’s positivity and optimism has a way of making you believe anything is possible.  

As I prepare for my first season, one thing I am certain of is that I’m ready to accept the “tremendous responsibility” that comes with serving as editor of The Football Letter, in no small part because of the example set by the Penn Stater I’m following.

Thanks, John.

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Spring Preview

Offensive line coach Phil Trautwein (center) leads his position group through drills during Penn State’s first spring practice on Monday, March 21, at the Lasch Practice Fields. Photo credit: John Patishnock

Even though we entered the spring season the day before, it sure felt like fall and football weather inside Beaver Stadium on Monday morning.

Late Monday morning to be exact. Temps were warm though not too warm. Slight breeze. You could almost hear the Blue Band in the stands and the roar of the crowd.

This was right before James Franklin met with the media to assess the program as the Nittany Lions began spring practice later that day. We enjoyed a few moments of serenity on the Beaver Stadium turf and exchanged greetings with Franklin, who was his customary confident self in previewing the team’s 15 spring practices that’ll conclude with the Blue-White game on Saturday, April 23.

One piece of news that Franklin shared was that Penn State letterman Danny Rocco joined the staff as a defensive analyst. Rocco played for Penn State in the late 1970s and early 1980s before transferring, and he’s since enjoyed a lengthy coaching career in college at the FBS and FCS levels. Most recently, he was at Delaware for five seasons.

Rocco is part of an ever-increasing contingent of lettermen who are back with the program. Among that group is all-time leading tackler Dan Connor, who returned to Happy Valley in February, also as a defensive analyst. We asked Franklin about the details of how Connor came onboard, and perhaps not surprisingly, another letterman on the staff, Alan Zemaitis, played a key role.

Here’s video of Franklin’s response to our question, which we’ve also included in the YouTube clip.

Sports Illustrated writer Mark Wogenrich wrote a nice column with more details on the lettermen connection, and the Daily Collegian goes in-depth with what happened Monday with its football notebook.

The media availability finished at the Lasch Practice Fields, and we have a photo gallery on our Facebook page, along with some photos below.

Monday was a busy day, as Penn State VP for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour also held a press conference in the afternoon. Barbour recently announced her retirement — an exact date is TBD, though likely sometime this summer — saying Monday that she’ll stay in the area until next year, when she plans to move to the West Coast. That’s home for her, and she also mentioned she’d like to enjoy teaching again, as a way to stay connected with student-athletes.

We asked Barbour her thoughts on the immediate future of Penn State men’s basketball and her perspective of the job done by first-year head coach Micah Shrewsberry. She sounded confident in saying she believes Shrewsberry will do great things at Penn State, and you can check out her full response on the Alumni Association’s Twitter page or below.

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