Meet The Six Penn Staters Who Oversee NFL Social Media Accounts

Photo Courtesy of Jill Beckman
(From left to right: Kevin Kline, Julie Bacanskas, Darnell Brady, Dana Byrnes, Meghan Loder and Jill Beckman)

From the Philadelphia Eagles to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Penn Staters are shining everywhere in the National Football League this season. And it’s not just rookie sensation Miles Sanders or emerging superstar Chris Godwin demonstrating the star potential of Penn Staters, either.

These Nittany Lions are a bit more behind the scenes in the NFL set-up.

More specifically, they’re running the social media accounts of NFL franchises. Working long hours to bring their teams closer to their respective fanbases. There’s really no such thing as an offseason. 

In fact, six Penn Staters oversee or help oversee NFL team accounts for the 2019 season. 

We caught up with Julie Bacanskas ’15 (Philadelphia Eagles), Jill Beckman ’18 (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Darnell Brady ’14 (Jacksonville Jaguars), Dana Byrnes ’16 (Dallas Cowboys), Kevin Kline ’11 (New York Jets) and Meghan Loder ’16 (Washington Redskins).

They discussed what their Penn State experiences were like, how they landed their positions, what it’s like working for an NFL team, and much more.

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A Lifelong Fan

Photo Courtesy of Julie Bacanskas – Bacanskas (left) with Dana Byrnes

Julie Bacanskas, ’15 Advertising/Public Relations 
Digital Platform Manager 
Philadelphia Eagles

A lot of times, when someone takes a job working in the NFL, doing communications work or otherwise, they’ve got to put their previous rooting interests aside. 

Someone who grew up a Tennessee Titans fan isn’t likely to continue cheering them on (at least not publicly) if they land a role with say, the Houston Texans. 

For Julie Bacanskas, that wasn’t an issue at all when she joined the digital department with the Philadelphia Eagles in August of 2015, just a few months after she graduated from Penn State.

A native to the Philadelphia area, she was an Eagles fan to the core growing up. 

“I was watching every Sunday. Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, Donovan McNabb, all those guys, I was watching on TV,” Bacanskas said. “It’s kind of one of those things when I started working for the Eagles, it was surreal. But now, I’m in season five and it’s all kind of normal now.” 

Landing The Job
“I was like freaking out, sure it wasn’t going to work out for me. Pretty much what everyone kind of goes through right out of school, they overthink it! I got a LinkedIn message from the Eagles’ PR person, and they asked me if I would be interested in interviewing for a post-grad internship. I lept at the chance to do that. Timing wise, it worked out so well. Someone else in the digital department had put in their two-week notice and they were leaving, and it was around December of 2015 when they hired me on full-time as a content coordinator.” 

The Penn State Experience 
“I had a different Penn State experience than most. My freshman year was the Jerry Sandusky Scandal year, so I saw all the chaos that went around Penn State at the time. But overall, my experience was awesome. I wrote blogs for the GoPSUSports site, covering different Penn State teams. I think that internship really help me further my career in sports. That helped me in between my junior and senior year land an internship with the Philadelphia Flyers. It was also a big help in landing my job with the Eagles.” 

Super Bowl Dreams
*Bacanskas was working for the Eagles in 2018 when they won the franchises’ first Super Bowl over the New England Patriots*

“It was a whirlwind. I was in Minnesota with the team. I can honestly tell you, I don’t think I remember any of the game. I do remember as soon as the celebrations started I just looked over at my co-worker and was like ‘Did that just happen? Is this forreal?’ That whole season was a rollercoaster with emotions, given all the injuries we had. Looking back on it now, it was probably the most fun few months of my life.” 

Most Rewarding Aspects 
“I think it’s a lot of fun to connect to Eagles fans. We want to bring them content that they can’t see anywhere else. Our fans are definitely some of the most passionate. They always have an opinion on the things we are posting or how the team’s performing. It’s rewarding when you get to interact with Eagles fans that are all across the country, all across the world.” 

Six Penn Staters In NFL Social Media
“It’s kind of funny, I really had no idea there were six of us until we all went to the NFL social media meeting. It was one of those things where I just started to talk to different people there and we started to realize how many of us were Penn Staters. I didn’t know it before we were all talking about it. It’s really cool. It shows how successful Penn Staters are in this field.” 

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The Dream Job

Photo Courtesy of Jill Beckman – Beckman on the field inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Jill Beckman, ’18 Journalism
Social Media Coordinator 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

It’s safe to say that there weren’t many dull moments during Jill Beckman’s Penn State days. 

She was a member of The Daily Collegian for almost her entire time at University Park, including serving as the paper’s sports editor as a junior. She also covered Penn State football as an intern for two different internships and interned with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. 

Beckman served as the vice president of the Penn State chapter of AWSM (Association for Women in Sports Media), was a communications committee member for THON and got to cover two NFL London Games for an in-depth story on British fans of American Football for a class through the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

She turned the skills and lessons learned through all of that in to what she calls “a dream job.” 

“I wouldn’t have landed the internship in the Buccaneers’ digital and social media department right after graduation if I hadn’t had those experiences at Penn State,” Beckman said. “I really believe I wouldn’t have gotten those same opportunities at another school.”

Joining The Bucs 
“After working at the Super Bowl in 2018 (as a communications staff member), I kept in touch with my contacts from all the NFL teams, so I interviewed several different places, some for PR internships and some for social/digital ones. But when I got the offer from the Bucs, I knew that’s where I was meant to be. My internship ended in January of 2019, and three weeks later, a full time position opened up and I returned as the social media coordinator.”

Photo Courtesy of Jill Beckman – Beckman captures content of Bucs linebacker Devin White

The Day-to-Day Grind
“We try to be as engaging as possible while promoting our brand. We want to get news or fun content out to our fans in a way that gets them excited about our team.

Our creative team sends my department videos/photos/graphics, and it’s my job to post the content that comes in on a daily basis. On a typical game day, I post some content in the morning to get our fans hyped up, then I head over to the stadium and get video clips on my phone of the team arrival, then do the same with pre-game warmups, and during the game I’m up in the press box live tweeting. After the game, I’ll head down to the field to get some post-game content as well, and hopefully some good winning content!”

More Than Tweeting 
“Some people may think all a social media coordinator does is tweet, but a lot more goes on behind the scenes. We are constantly communicating with different departments in the organization to be sure we’re getting our message across accurately and paying close attention to detail. There isn’t much room for error when you’re putting something out for thousands of people to see.”

Penn State Connections
“I’m the biggest Penn State homer out there, and my co-workers always make fun of me since I’m always posting about the Penn State-NFL connections. It was great reuniting with more Penn Staters on opposing teams this season.”

Six Penn Staters In NFL Social Media
“There aren’t many people who do our job in the first place, so to know there are several Penn State alumni who share that in common makes it feel like a little community. ”

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Remember The Moments

Photo Courtesy of Bob Self/Florida Times-Union – Brady at a Jaguars practice

Darnell Brady, ’14 Telecommunications 
Social Media Manager
Jacksonville Jaguars 

The Jacksonville Jaguars had just lost a gut-wrenching 24-20 decision to the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. 

To add further spoils to the day – the bus designated for Darnell Brady and other staff members broke down before it even made it out of the parking lot of Gillette Stadium. So, Brady, on the Jaguars’ social media team, and others had to board one of the four remaining busses. 

He found a seat next to linebacker Paul Posluszny, a standout player at Penn State in the 2000s. 

The two had never really interacted much before. Scrolling through the news of the day on social media, Brady caught word that the widely popular Rathskeller (bar) in State College was closing. 

He instinctively turned to Posluszny and exclaimed, “Hey, did you see Skeller is closing?”

“(Posluszny) looks at me and he goes, ‘How do you know about the Skeller?’ I told him I went to Penn State and had just graduated three, four years ago,” Brady said. “He goes ‘You’ve been here the whole year. This whole season. And you haven’t once told me you’re a Penn Stater.’ I was just like ‘Well, I just never really had the opportunity to tell you.”

“Next thing you know, the next 30 minutes of the bus ride we’re talking all about Penn State and all the experiences we had. He ended up retiring a few months later. So, that ended up being his final post-game bus ride of his NFL career. That’s probably one of my favorite moments, even though we had just lost the AFC Championship Game. It really tied my Penn State background with my current job. It’s something I’ll always remembered. It’s moments like those that make it rewarding.”  

Penn State At His Heart 
“(That) goes back to when I was in kindergarten, pre-school even. My dad was in the Air Force, so they wanted to send him to get his Ph.D. in supply chain management, so that he could teach at their graduate school. They sent him to Penn State for two years. That was pre-school, kindergarten and first grade for me, so an influential time. I was just in love with Penn State, with the (Berkey Creamery) ice cream a bit too much.”

Photo Courtesy of Darnell Brady – Brady (left) with other members of the Jaguars’ digital/social team

The Penn State Experience
“There were just so many opportunities for involvement. I can’t put a value on how valuable those experiences were. Homecoming, Nittany Nation, Nittanyville, interning for THON, interning for Penn State baseball and Penn State Athletics as a whole. That’s all helped me understand how athletic departments work and how effective marketing works. It helped me understand how game days work for various teams work, understanding how to effectively communicate. All of that.” 

Meeting His Wife
*Darnell met his wife Brittany (Jones) Brady at Penn State. The two married this past summer*

“I think we bumped into each other when I was a Homecoming captain and she was on photography committee. But we really got to know each other more when I was on the executive committee, like in charge of distribution management, and she was on the production committee. We were both all about Penn State. That’s my true love of Penn State. We even had a bunch of Penn State stuff at our wedding.”

Working For the Jags
“It’s been an amazing experience. It’s been extremely demanding, but rewarding at the same time. There’s definitely days where I’m working from 5 a.m. to midnight, especially on game days where I’m making sure my final preparations are set. I get to the stadium early to capture the locker room being ready or the field being painted and stuff like that. I can be there until midnight after a game as well, scheduling posts for the next day or working on a highlight video to share.”

Working With NFL Players
“I do work with them directly quite a bit. They’re normal people. There are guys that are awesome to work with and they’re happy to help with whatever we’re trying to do from a social perspective. And then there are guys who aren’t really interested in social media. That’s perfectly fine. They do their thing and they want to stay solely focused on their job. You can respect that. Other guys, that’s part of their careers in their eyes, is to build their brand on social media.”  

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Grateful For The Opportunity

Photo Courtesy of Dana Byrnes – Byrnes poses in the tunnel at AT&T Stadium

Dana Byrnes, ’16 Advertising/Public Relations
Social Media Coordinator 
Dallas Cowboys 

Working on a THON committee as an undergrad, there was one introductory meeting that sticks with Dana Byrnes, even today.

Each member had to give a short presentation on their career goals. Share what they wanted to do, what they wanted to accomplish. 

But what did Byrnes want to do?

Pretty much what she’s doing right now.

“I said I wanted to work for a professional sports team,” Byrnes recalls while laughing. “It’s funny how it worked out. I’m now in my second season with the Cowboys. It’s been a lot of fun.”

The Path To The Cowboys
“Right out of college I was working for Princeton football, doing social media, marketing and some small operations stuff. I then applied for a job at North Carolina with its football team and ended up getting a social media position there in October of 2016. I worked for the football team for about two years. It was the first time they had someone specifically on staff doing social media. Before, it had been their recruiting coordinator doing social media. They saw the need to have a social media position. I did a lot of different things for them, doing a lot of graphics, taking photos for social and putting together mailers again for recruits. 

I ended up applying to the Cowboys, and ended up getting the job. I just took a chance on applying and it ended up working out. I’m so grateful. I can’t really believe where I am. I’m now in my second season with the team, so I’ve been here a year and a couple months. We have a larger social media staff. You can be really collaborative and work as a group. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Game Day Responsibilities
“I’m in charge of on-site coverage for game day and any team events that we might have. I travel with the team anywhere they go, home or away. Before kick-off I post to Instagram stories and share photos from the team photographer. During the game, I’m live tweeting from the press box.”

Photo Courtesy of Dana Byrnes – Byrnes with Jill Beckman

Favorite Part Of This Role
“The biggest thing that always stands out to me is when a player on the team comes up to me and says ‘Wow you guys have been doing an awesome job’ or ‘That video you guys posted was cool.’ When you get a compliment, thinking maybe the players don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff, you know they recognize your job and it’s really rewarding.”

When The Team Hits A Rough Patch
“As a social media team we can’t, obviously, control anything that happens on the field. So, you just gotta roll with things sometimes. You have to do the best you can. If you’re in a losing streak, you can’t just pretend nothing is going on and stop tweeting. A great example is when we’re going into the next game, even after a loss or a couple of losses, we do hype videos. And the best way to address the losses is to just include them. Put it out there front and center.” 

A Crazy, Awesome Job
“I’m so happy to be here, because that was my goal when I was graduating. I don’t wake up and say ‘Oh man, I have to go to work.’ I look forward to going to the office every day. What people might not realize, though, is how crazy and busy it is. Once the season starts up with training camp, there are so few off days between then and the start of the offseason. And even then, it’s not really an offseason. A lot of travel. You have to love your position. As cool as it is, and it is really cool, it’s a lot of work. You have to put the time and energy into it.”

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Empire State Of Social Media

Photo Courtesy of Kevin Kline – Kline on the Jets practice field

Kevin Kline, ’11 Journalism
Manager of Social Media
New York Jets  

When Kevin Kline joined the New York Jets in 2014, the team had a social media presence, but it was far different than what it is today.

Social media was popular then, but still growing into the mainstream news and connectivity behemoth it is today. 

In fact, when he was hired, he was the first person to be employed by the organization with the words “social media” in their official job title. 

“I think right around then, especially in the NFL, pro sports teams really started hiring full-time social media employees,” Kline reflected. “It was a growth opportunity for me and for the team.” 

Now, social media is a huge part of the communications strategy of the Jets and all 31 other NFL franchises. 

“Social media, people wake up in the morning and check social media before they check their emails,” Kline said. “That says a lot. They’re constantly going to their phones or computers all day to look at social media. It’s fun to figure out the best ways to get on the feeds and connect with fans.” 

That New York Market
“I love being in the New York market. I love the idea that people are looking at us a lot. We are the biggest market in the country. People, win or lose, they want to know what’s up with the Jets. What’s going on with this team. I think that’s awesome. For us, I feel like there’s always a lot of eyes on us no matter how the team might be performing. I love that.” 

Keeping Up With Penn State Football
“I still watch every game. I’m all about it. That hasn’t changed, probably won’t ever change. Even more so now than I ever have been. Whenever the Jets schedule comes out before the season, I always look at the Penn State schedule and cross-reference it to see which Saturdays we are travelling to road games. If we are travelling at the time of the game, I’ll be watching on my phone or follow on my phone and all that.” 

Role With the Jets
“I oversee all social media strategy and execution. It’s myself and a full-time employee working under me. He oversees the day-to-day to aspects. He’s posting and operating that way. I’m more in charge of making sure we’re steering the boat in the right direction, doing things we need to do to have success. I have to make sure we’re executing our sponsorship deals, that we’ve got the right messaging and promoting our internal initiatives. All that kind of stuff.”

When The Team Hits A Rough Patch
“Our big thing is we definitely want to listen to what the fans are saying. We want to understand how they feel. We’re not going to be tone deaf in the types of stuff we put out when we’re losing. There will always be opportunities to have fun and do a lot of creative stuff when you win. But when you lose, the fans don’t want to hear much from you. And when you do engage with them, they want you to be straight up with them. You don’t want to sugarcoat anything. You have to be honest about the struggles your going through as a team.”

Six Penn Staters In NFL Social Media
“It’s awesome. I think it’s a testament to Penn State and the real-world experience you get there. In a lot of ways, Penn State and Penn State football is like a big city or NFL environment on game day. It’s a professional team in how we, as fans, treat it and how the media covers it. You don’t necessarily get that at every school. That’s probably helped each of us have success with our jobs. These careers in professional sports, we probably weren’t as wide-eyed as other people when we just started out. We were prepared for it. We were used to that environment.”

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Share Who The Players Really Are

Photo Courtesy of Meghan Loder – Loder on the field during her time with the Pittsburgh Steelers

Meghan Loder, ’16 Journalism and English
Social Media Manager
Washington Redskins 

Meghan Loder has been working with football teams for quite a while now. 

As an undergrad at Penn State, she worked on “Unrivaled: The Penn State Football Story.” a weekly preview show that chronicles the Nittany Lions’ journey throughout a given season with exclusive video and game highlights.

Right out of school, she joined the New York Jets in their social media department – her boss was fellow alum Kevin Kline. Her role with the Jets landed her a position with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where she worked for two years. 

She then joined the Washington Redskins as their social media manager this past May, and credits her experiences at Penn State for a relatively smooth transition in working in professional sports. 

“I definitely use different aspects of what I learned with my degree in my job,” Loder said. 

With broadcasting, I am still editing and logging footage to create content. As an English major, it’s now using writing, editing and all that stuff all the time. I also think the Penn State environment, working around the football team, there’s an understanding of what big football is. I don’t go to an NFL stadium and feel overwhelmed, because I got to experience Penn State games.” 

Knowing Your Audience
“For me, coming from Pittsburgh, they’re a very rabid fanbase who eat up everything you do. Compared to Redskins fans, where they’re more waiting for success, they want success. And you have to understand the balance that’s required in what you’re posting. You can’t be too silly when the results don’t back it up on the field. But, you also have to understand, this is a business of entertainment. You want people to consume your content. You want them to engage with it. So, there’s always that fine line that you have to be aware of.” 

Unique Content
“The NFL is a copycat league, both on the field and with social media. And that’s not a bad thing to use what works, but you have to try and come up with original thoughts and content series.” 

Working With Players And Coaches
“They’re very aware that I’m there to do a job. They’re there to do a job. I understand their boundaries. I’m never trying to interrupt them in any sort of way. I’m not trying to take up too much of their time. If I want to do an Instagram Live with a certain player, I always make sure to run it through the appropriate channels and PR is aware. We always explain to the player that we’re a part of the organization. We’re player first. We’re not going to put anything out there that’s going to portray them in a negative light.”

Photo Courtesy of Meghan Loder – Loder captures some game day content of Steelers linebacker Vince Williams during her time with the Pittsburgh Steelers

Best Part Of The Job
“I think it’s being able to show the players in a different light. We can share their stories and their personalities a bit more. We can show fans things that they might not normally see. Give them an inside look into the organization. Being able to package all of that in such a way that is entertaining and informative. It’s also so much fun to be a part of an NFL organization. To be a small little part of that bigger operation is very exciting.”

More Than Tweeting 
“Doing what I do is very cool, and I’m forever grateful to be a part of this organization and this league. But it is a lot of work. A lot of long nights, long weekends. To stay on top of the trends 24/7, it can be a lot to take in. I love my job and working around football.”

How The Gilmores Gave Back

“Penn State is so near and dear to our hearts, we couldn’t think of a better place to have this scholarship at”

Deryk and Camille Gilmore are always eager to give back.

They don’t do it for special recognition or personal gain, though. It’s simply a byproduct of how they were raised.

Deryk, a Penn State football letterman (86-88), grew up most of his life in a single-parent home.

His father, Arthur T. Gilmore, an engineer and one of the first black men to serve in the U.S. Navy, died when Deryk was just four years old.

He looked to his mother for guidance and inspiration, as she instilled in him a deep sense of faith that he continues to carry today.

Camille lost her father, Dennis H.M. Chang, who once served as the personal bodyguard for the Jamaican prime minister, when she was a freshman in college. Her mother, a nurse, was tasked with raising and supporting Camille and her three siblings.

“I think one of the things we recognized is the blessings that we have now are because of those who came before us,” Camille, a 1991 Penn State graduate from the Smeal College of Business, said. “The best way to honor them was to give back. We knew how hard it was for our mothers to raise kids from New York by themselves, and we all ended up living pretty darn well.”

To further fulfill that mission of giving back, the Gilmores have recently donated scholarships to support students at three different universities across the country.

At Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where Camille served as a board of visitor’s member, the Gilmores provided funds for a scholarship to the school’s nursing program in honor of her mother, Pamela Chang.

The second scholarship created by the Gilmores went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Deryk and Camille both received their MBAs, and where Deryk was a football coach for the Fighting Illini. This scholarship was dedicated in honor of Deryk’s mother, Yvonne Gilmore.

For the third scholarship, the Gilmores wanted to accomplish two things: they wanted to give back to Penn State and they wanted to find a way to honor their fathers in the same mold as they honored their mothers.

“Penn State is so near and dear to our hearts, we couldn’t think of a better place to have this scholarship at,” Deryk, a 1990 Penn State agricultural business management grad, said.

When you talk further with the Gilmores, you learn quickly why Penn State will always remain a special place for them.

It is, after all, the place where the Gilmores met almost 29 years ago.

Visiting the McDonald’s on College Avenue to grab dinner one night, they each stepped up to their respective cash registers to place an order. 

“We were both at the counter ordering and we each asked for a coke with no ice and that was the start of it for us, I guess,” Camille said laughing. “I ended up going to a party of his later on.”

And just to prove how good of a businessman I am, even though I liked her, I still charged her five dollars to get into the house,” Deryk quickly responded in jest. “And we’ve now been together 29 years, married for 26. It’s always funny to look back on that.”

This past summer, the Gilmores committed $25,000 for a scholarship fund at Penn State, which will offer $5,000 in direct student support through the Penn State BLUEprint Peer Mentoring Program for each of the next five years.

It was the perfect way to honor their fathers, while simultaneously give aid to students at their alma mater.

“Our dads just worked so hard to help people and we wanted them to be recognized as the role models that they were in their own communities,” Deryk said. “They both worked in careers that were not common for men of color at the time. They worked and were deeply family men.”

The Gilmore/Chang Family Scholarship will be awarded to full-time undergraduate students who have demonstrated a financial need, meet the academic requirements, participate in the BLUEprint Peer Mentoring Program, and hold the values of mentorship, leadership and service.

Deryk said the ultimate goal of the scholarship is to try and make it easier for someone interested in Penn State to attend, particularly students of color. 

“Being black, we understand it’s hard for students of different backgrounds sometimes to be able to afford college,” Deryk said. “We want to help their path get a little easier. We didn’t want to make it all about grades but about upside. We want to help people who work hard to have a chance. Sometimes you just need that little bump. When students get into Penn State, it’s can be hard to stay there. If we can create avenues to help, let’s do it.”

During their time as undergrads, the Gilmores themselves were active student leaders and were particularly involved with several leadership programs for students of color.

In addition to her business degree, Camille was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She’s propelled her experiences at Penn State into more than 25 years of human resources leadership for various businesses.

She’s now the vice president of human resources and global chief diversity officer for Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices used in interventional medical specialties.

Photos courtesy of Deryk and Camille Gilmore

Having worked on promoting diversity in the workplace for most of her career, getting students from more diverse backgrounds to Penn State is important to Camille.

“The [BLUEprint] scholarship offers a level of inclusion to say, ‘Hey, we want you at Penn State. We believe in you and who you are. And we’re going to find a way to keep you here,’” she said. “To me, I hope Penn State can use this as a pull strategy to attract the best, diverse talent to Penn State. If this scholarship helps us to get the best and brightest from diverse backgrounds, that’s exactly what we want.”

Deryk started Incoming Black Athletes At Penn State (IBAAPS) — the first mentor education program for student athletes — and was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.

He was also a defensive tackle on the 1986-87 Penn State football team that took down the favored Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl to capture the program’s second national championship.

The Gilmore’s younger son, Deion followed in his father’s footsteps, and now plays at defensive tackle for Manchester University (Indiana), while their eldest son, Dantae’, is a theatre major at the University of Alabama.

“For me, my experience playing football was all about the friendships I created and the different skills I used to help me in life,” Deryk said. “You know, you learn time management skills balancing football and school. You must learn how to work with expectations, for yourself and for your group. It’s what helped make me so successful in business.”

As many of Joe Paterno’s former players are asked, Deryk gets questions all the time about what it was like playing under the legendary coach.

“You know, it was hard but rewarding playing for him. He definitely challenged me to be a better player and a better person,” Deryk said.

The biggest thing that’s always stuck with Deryk about Paterno is how much he cared for his players beyond how many sacks they recorded or touchdowns they scored.

He recalls the period when he had just graduated from Penn State and was in the process of looking for a place to start in his career.

Any time he interviewed or applied for a position, he said Paterno would call the employer and tell them that Deryk was the man to hire.

“He really helped me get my foot in the door, so to speak,” Deryk said. “He was always more worried about us as a person and the type of man we would become than he was about how great we were as an athlete.”

Deryk turned his experiences in business and football in to becoming the founder and owner of Day 1 Sports and Entertainment, whose clients include Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans — who Deryk helped negotiate a five-year, $82.5 million contract extension in March of 2018, the second-highest deal for a wide receiver in NFL history at the time.

Other Day 1 clients include La’El Collins of the Dallas Cowboys, Shaq Mason of the New England Patriots and Mitchell Schwartz of the Kansas City Chiefs — all of whom have recently negotiated new contracts or contract extensions.

“You know, I’d say one of the reasons I got into the agent industry was to impact these young men’s lives,” Deryk said. “We want to connect them to wealth and teach them the importance of ownership and being involved in their businesses. We don’t want them to turn it over to someone that can take advantage of them and lose the money. I always try to show players that they can be more than the employee. They can be the owner.”

As they each continue to excel in their careers, the connection to Penn State is as strong as ever for Deryk and Camille.

They believe in the impact of Penn State, Penn State students and Penn State alumni.

“I saw there was an incident earlier this season where someone had written an awful letter to a football player of ours (Jonathan Sutherland), and just seeing how well he responded to it and how we as a Penn State community rallied,” Deryk said. “We had each other’s backs. I think that culture is what makes us, Penn Stater’s, great. And that carries well beyond the student-athletes.”

And above all else, “We’re proud Penn Staters’, we bleed blue and white,” Camille said. “That’s for sure. That’ll never change.”

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