Spend time around the Penn State football program — even a few minutes — and you’ll run into legendary Nittany Lions. When they played is almost beside the point. Who they played for is what counts.
For example: Dan Connor and Jack Ham.
Connor, a linebacker and the program’s all-time leading tackler, returned in an official capacity earlier this year, as a defensive analyst and analytics coordinator. This was following an NFL career that spanned six seasons and three teams, with Connor having been selected in the third round by the Carolina Panthers.
At Penn State (2004-07), Connor was a force, twice earning status as a First-Team All-American (2006, 2007) and winning the Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player (2007). Why didn’t he also win in 2006, you may be wondering? Teammate Paul Posluszny claimed the honor.
Connor got into coaching immediately after playing, serving posts at West Chester University, Archbishop John Carroll High School, and Widener University — all located in Pennsylvania — in the time leading up to his current role.
Head coach James Franklin heard that Connor would be interested in coming back to Penn State if an opportunity was available, and in February 2022, Connor — who totaled 419 tackles as a Nittany Lion — re-joined the program where he’s still (rightly) held in high regard.
“That guy’s a Hall of Famer, I’m going to ask him as many questions as I can,” said sophomore linebacker Curtis Jacobs, who’s tied for third this season on the team with 17 tackles, adding a pass breakup and a fumble recovery. “I want to pick his brain as much as I can, because obviously that’s an all-time great, and you don’t get a chance to talk to many all-time greats when you’re playing this game.
“So obviously, every time I have a question, just having him in the room has been really important, because even if he wasn’t a defensive analyst, I’d be bothering him with questions when he came back. You should ask Jack Ham how many questions I ask him when he comes on campus. It’s just great to have a guy like that in the room. Obviously a great dude outside of his legacy, very humble guy, and it’s just been great having him.”
That shoutout to Ham shows that Jacobs understands the legacy he’s now part of. Teammate and fellow linebacker Tyler Elsdon similarly will seek out Ham when he’s around.
“It’s awesome to have someone (Ham) like that at Penn State, and every time I see him, I really do try to talk football with him. I even talk about life with him, too. He’s a great person, and he does have a lot of insight.
“He played at a different time, but football at the end of the day, it’s about tackling and blocking. The team that tackles best and blocks best usually wins. He has a lot of great insight and he’s built relationships with a lot of linebackers on the team, and I think he’s been huge. I look forward to seeing him, and I look forward to talking with him.”
The team has a tradition of regularly sharing inspirational and motivational quotes. It’ll be written on the board in a meeting room, with the quote attributed to the person, usually well-known or even famous. Franklin said sometimes players of this current generation won’t always know who the person is, though he said they’ve talked about Ham and his time at Penn State and in the NFL.
Ham is one of only two Nittany Lions who’ve been inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and NFL Hall of Fame — lineman Dave Robinson, who played at Penn State in the early 1960s, is also in that illustrious category — and Ham’s stayed connected over the years as the team’s radio analyst, serving alongside play-by-play announcer Steve Jones since 2000. And when walk-on redshirt senior Drew Hartlaub was awarded a scholarship last year, Ham made the announcement in the locker room, in an inspiring scene that the team shared on its Twitter page.
Franklin and Ham have a weekly tradition, when the Hall of Fame linebacker will stop by on Thursday and ask Franklin questions during a 30-minute walk before practice. Franklin joked that Ham took all of his material recently, when the broadcaster took all the answers from the coach and shared them last week on The Penn State Coaches Show right before Franklin followed him on the weekly broadcast.
That level of banter and mutual respect is one example of how Franklin has bridged the gap between himself and guys who played for the Nittany Lions prior to his arrival in 2014. Hiring Connor, and several other lettermen, is another. At a tradition-rich program like Penn State, making those connections is critical. And Franklin’s done that.
“He’s been great, as you can imagine,” Franklin said in describing Ham’s impact. “Both (him) and Steve Jones, they do a phenomenal job for us just all the time.”
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