Minnesota Chapter expanding ‘Penn State footprint’

Emily Zuber

Minnesota Chapter President Emily Zuber visited the Nittany Lin Shrine on a recent visit to University Park. The 2004 Penn State graduated has served as chapter president since 2016.

You could say that this weekend has been 15 years in the making for Emily Zuber.

Perhaps, even longer.

Her story transcends football, or geographic regions, though everywhere along the line, Penn State has figured prominently in her story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Zuber started visiting Penn State at an early age, the result of having four older sisters who all earned degrees from University Park. Zuber followed, graduating in 2004 from the College of the Liberal Arts, specializing in labor and industrial relations.

There’s a 19-year difference between Zuber and her oldest sister, though the five siblings always had (and always will) have the Penn State thread connecting them. After graduating, Zuber moved to Minnesota, following the path already taken by two of her sisters, and having that family foundation eased her transition to the Midwest.

Also helping with her post-grad move was finding fellow alumni. Penn State was/is such a big part of her life, and her sisters were already familiar with the Alumni Association’s Minnesota Chapter, offering a natural segue for Zuber. She attended a few meetings, helped the board with some events, and then she became an at-large member before elevating to the role of vice president in 2014. Two years later, she stepped into the president’s role, with her term ending next year.

The last few weeks have been particularly interesting for Zuber, building up to Saturday’s anticipated football game between No. 5 Penn State and No. 13 Minnesota. Both squads are 8-0, a mark that Minnesota hasn’t reached since 1941.

Zuber laughed while saying she was disappointed that ESPN’s wildly popular show, College GameDay, passed on broadcasting from Minneapolis — the crew will instead head to Tuscaloosa for a matchup between the country’s two top teams, Alabama and LSU —though there’s a serious undertone in what the game means not only to the football teams, but also to the Minnesota Chapter.

There’ll be a large influx of Penn Staters coming to town, and Zuber hopes that alumni and friends see they have a presence in the state year-round.

“I want them to know that the Penn State footprint is far and wide and very involved,” said Zuber, an IT business analyst. “We’re making sure that Minnesota knows who Penn State is and the good that we’re providing in the community.”

Penn State at Minnesota (Photo/Steve Manuel)

The Minnesota Chapter welcomed alumni and friends prior to the Nittany Lions’ battle against the Gophers in 2013. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

This weekend represents a little bit of a Homecoming for Zuber, she said, with the chapter hosting a mixer Friday night. The event will feature the Pep Band, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Nittany Lion, with locals and visitors welcomed alike. There’s no fee to attend, with the chapter simply asking for donations for its scholarship fund; the scholarships are awarded to local students attending Penn State.

The scholarship fund continues to grow — now standing at more than $5,000 per year and recently awarded to two students — and Zuber proudly points out that’s just one way the chapter makes a difference, saying their impact goes beyond fundraising for their own school.

Group members annually volunteer at a local food bank, packaging boxes and stocking shelves, in addition to donating to help stop child abuse in Minnesota. The chapter also regularly supports THON through various events, with a focus on representing their alma mater with zest and devotion.

“We give back to the community, and we donate time and money,” Zuber said. “We’re making an impact in the overall Minnesota community, and it’s exciting to be a part of that. Penn State is doing that.”

People are recognizing the chapter’s impact, with the group partnering with Penn State legend Ki-Jana Carter, who now owns a marketing and merchandising company in Florida. Carter worked with the chapter on producing T-shirts, blankets, and bags, which will be available at the mixer Friday. Moyer’s Jeweler, meanwhile, donated a bracelet inspired by a Penn State alumna — she won a contest with her outstanding design — that’ll go toward the scholarship fundraiser.

These are just a few examples of the resourcefulness of the Minnesota Chapter, which is enjoying increased membership, resulting in 88 members and 77 households — the latter is just two off of the group’s all-time record. There’s concise and detailed information on the chapter’s website about the value in joining, along with some cool trivia.

There are over 1,800 Penn State alumni living in the state and Western Wisconsin, and there’s also a David Letterman-style Top 10 list outlining why Penn Staters should join the chapter.

For Zuber, the reasons are plentiful, and also personal. She began visiting University Park when she was 2 and attended her first football game at 3 years old. With four older siblings paving the way for her to become a Nittany Lion, you could easily make the argument she was born into the Penn State family.

And she doesn’t want to ever leave.

“It’s a part of who I am, and that’s a piece of me that I don’t ever want to lose,” Zuber said of her Penn State identity. “The connection, the tradition, it’s important.”

There are nearly 300 Alumni Association affiliate groups, spanning geographic regions, academic colleges, and shared interests. You can view a full list and connect with Penn Staters anytime at alumni.psu.edu/groups, and stay updated on the Minnesota Chapter by following the group on Facebook and Twitter.

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Special Commitment

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The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Jake Zembiec has been around the sport of football for half his life. Mostly playing, though the last few years have seen a shift to a coaching and mentoring role.

More on that shortly.

Only, football doesn’t tell his whole story. Really, not even close. There’s much more going on, and it’s important to Zembiec for fans to understand that.

He’s on a path to become a physical therapist and plans to attend graduate school next summer, most likely close to his parents’ home in Rochester, New York. He’s missed plenty of time with them over the last four years, playing football and studying at Penn State, and making up for those missed opportunities motivates that decision.

He completed two internships and shadowed an orthopedic surgeon over the last year, an example of his detailed preparation.

His mom, Maureen, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Or, as Zembiec said, she “defeated breast cancer twice,” an indication of his competitive mentality. His mom’s resilience inspired Zembiec to volunteer at local clinics, where he’d set up and tear down meeting spaces and conference rooms as a way of helping out.

The family also routinely gave back during breast cancer awareness walks, serving as road marshals. Nowadays, Zembiec returns to his former elementary school, speaking with youngsters who still view him as a superstar, even if he laughs while saying he no longer sees himself that way.

His legacy lives on back home through his playing days at Aquinas Institute, a Catholic high school in Rochester, and his name carries considerable weight. So, while football is the reason for most of the attention he’s received, it’s not how Zembiec defines himself.

“I take so much pride in academics and being a good guy in the community, and for people to only see you as a football player, sometimes that’s frustrating,” said Zembiec, who’s been selected as a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar at Penn State.

“As you start to move your way up in recruiting and you go to all these All-American games, people start to forget about the other stuff that makes you who you are. I want to get as much recognition for my grades in high school as I did for making the Elite 11.”

He added: “I think it’s special, the commitment you have to have to be successful in more than just football here.”

Excelling as a student-athlete at Penn State is perhaps the inevitable next step for Zembiec, who grew up surrounded by high expectations from nearly everyone who knew him.

He started playing football at age 11, training with his dad in the backyard — “that’s all you need really, if you’re willing to put in the work,” he said. He was bigger and taller than most other kids his age, and a self-described natural athlete.

As he matured and the playing field leveled out, Zembiec said it became about who was going to work the hardest. A fierce competitor on and off the field, Zembiec kept on grinding.

His father, Tom, is the one who put Jake on the map, he said, writing emails and letters to coaches throughout the region and country. His dad was his quarterback coach starting in middle school, and the two traveled quite a bit during Zembiec’s senior year in high school.

The hard work paid off with a scholarship at Penn State, and he enrolled early, always wanting to outwork everyone. Zembiec’s commitment garnered plenty of attention, as he was rated a four-star recruit by multiple outlets and the No. 1 player in New York and the No. 10 quarterback in the country by Rivals.

Shortly after he arrived on campus, he was introduced to a packed crowd at Pegula Ice Arena during a men’s ice hockey game, and the fans roared at the mention of his name.

Zembiec, now a senior, saw playing time in a handful of Blue-White games, though never during the regular season. He possessed a strong arm, though didn’t have the chance to fully display his skills because of one injury or another.

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Jake Zembiec (7) finished the 2018 Blue-White game 6-for-12 with 39 passing yards and a touchdown, and also added 36 rushing yards on six carries. Photo Credit: Penn State/Patrick Mansell

He missed his junior year because of complications with his wrist, and shoulder surgery further derailed his progress. Zembiec knew it’d be near-impossible to move up the depth chart because some days his shoulder would feel great, and other days not so much. Coaches couldn’t rely on him, and the nagging pain started to sap his enthusiasm.

Practices would loom, with Zembiec not knowing what to expect. He began to realize it’d be unlikely he could regularly throw the way he used to, when he was leading his high school team to state championships in his sophomore and senior seasons.

Zembiec’s rebounded from what he called a low point, to now feeling totally at peace. He looks forward to practice, where he can impart his wisdom of the offense. He knows the whole playbook and can give advice from a player standpoint, while Head Coach James Franklin and Offensive Coordinator Ricky Rahne verbally coach up his teammates, he said.

Guys on the team see Zembiec as a veteran and someone who can be trusted, so it makes sense that Franklin and Rahne wanted him to stay with the program.

When the pain and injuries persisted, the two offered Zembiec a medical scholarship, something which the quarterback didn’t even know was possible. He took some time to himself, making the decision on his own and informing his parents after.

That was a little difficult. He knew his parents wanted the best for him, though only he knew the amount of pain he was experiencing. So many folks from back home saw him as a football player first and foremost, and even he acknowledged that football had been nearly everything he knew to that point.

However, with the enjoyment gone because of the physical toll, Zembiec announced on his Twitter account in August 2018 that his playing career at Penn State was ending.

“It took a little while for us to all get comfortable with it and the change,” Zembiec said. “But I think everybody realizes now (it was the best decision). When I call home to my parents, they can just tell from the tone of my voice — I’m just a lot happier with how things are going now.”

The 22-year-old Rochester native carries himself and speaks with a maturity that most people don’t attain until their 30s or 40s, if ever.

It’s be easy (and understandable) for Zembiec to be bitter, frustrated, or even angry, but he isn’t any of those things.

As Zembiec said, he didn’t hold it against anyone when injuries curtailed his development, and he’s still very much a part of the team, as Rahne pointed out.

He’s still friends with a lot of his teammates and is at practice every day, serving as an example that you don’t have to score touchdowns—or even suit up—to help propel the team forward.

“He’s able to share his story of how he’s got to where he is and show guys that there’s more than one way to contribute,” Rahne said. “We preach that as a coaching staff, and our guys really buy into that. There’s a bunch of guys on the team who people outside of this building don’t know about, but we understand they help us score every point and win games without being on the field.”

Even though he’s no longer playing, Zembiec still attracts plenty of attention. Look for him on the Penn State sideline on game day wearing a headset (and sometimes a red hat), and plenty of gold chains around his neck.

The flashy look belies his humbleness, though it’s a good representation of what starting quarterback Sean Clifford calls Zembiec’s “swagger.”

More than anything else, Zembiec is comfortable and confident with the decisions he’s made, where his future is headed, and with his Penn State career — cut short by injury, though maximized everywhere else.

“I’m so happy with my whole experience, and it’s awesome getting to come out to practice every day,” Zembiec said. “Since taking the medical, I’m just so pumped to practice every day and see the guys and be around everybody. I have a whole new perspective on how lucky I am to be here, and how special of an opportunity I have to be around this program, and be part of this football team, and run out in front of 107,000.”

Lionhearted

 

Danny Connell is a hockey player, with all the passion and toughness that designation implies. He’s been on the ice since he was four. “It’s the love of his life,” his mother says.

This past summer, Danny was getting ready for a big step forward: At 14 and a freshman-to-be, he was going out for his high school team. Of course, that meant a comprehensive physical, of that sort that would be a formality for most kids. But his parents knew this was anything but for Danny: There was a family history of heart issues on his father’s side, including an uncle who died of an enlarged heart in his early 30s. It was a risk they had to take seriously.

“They did an EKG and a stress test, and at first, everything looked fine,” Nicole Connell said. “But then they did an echocardiogram, and the story totally changed.”

The Connell family was together in the doctor’s office when they got the news: Continue reading

Happy Birthday to Us

This season marks 80 years since Ridge Riley ’32 debuted The Football Letter as a way to keep far-flung Penn State alumni up to date with the week-to-week results of the Nittany Lion football team. It also marks a much more modest anniversary: Five years ago this week, we launched the online presence you’re reading now, expanding the Football Letter brand for the social media age.

While John Black ’62 gears up for his 43rd season as editor of the Football Letter, we thought it might be a good time to share some highlights from the blog. Here’s our pick of our five favorite stories from the past five years.

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The Legends of ’94

Our epic, five-part oral history of the unbeaten 1994 Nittany Lions features exclusive interviews with Kerry Collins ’94, Ki-Jana Carter ’95, Bobby Engram ’95, Jeff Hartings ’95, Tom Bradley ’78, Fran Ganter ’71, and many others. A fun and revealing look back at arguably the greatest offense in college football history. Continue reading

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.

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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. Continue reading

Mike Stella’s Rare Strength

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. Continue reading

First Time’s a Charm

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“Last night was my first Penn State game…”

The email hit The Penn Stater magazine inbox the day after the Big Ten title game, sent by a self-described “life-long PSU fan” and former Marine named Eric Norwood:

Last night was my first Penn State game. I took my dad — also a lifelong fan, also his first game… I feel so proud to be somewhat a part of this student body. Living and dying on each play with thousands of Penn State students, fans, and alums was definitely an experience I’ll never forget. I still have goosebumps and can’t stop singing Hey Baby 😂. Thanks everyone for a fantastic season and night!

Continue reading