Alan Zemaitis’ Sense of Service

Penn State letterman Alan Zemaitis is leading an inspiring community service initiative at Susquehanna University, called Season of Service. The former Penn State cornerback is an assistant coach at Susquehanna, which has had its season canceled because of COVID-19. Photo credit: Susquehanna University Athletics

Susquehanna University isn’t playing football this season, which means Penn State letterman Alan Zemaitis ’05 isn’t coaching this season, at least not on the field. But as Penn Staters know, coaches have an impact beyond the gridiron, and Zemaitis is embodying that sense of leadership with a community service project he’s spearheading.

The 2005 graduate who helped fuel the Nittany Lions’ 11-win season that year is an assistant coach with Susquehanna, which had its season canceled because of COVID-19.

He’s ensuring that the team stays busy, however, coordinating a town-gown collaboration with his players called Season of Service, which fans can read more about on Susquehanna’s website. One of the goals is to hopefully bridge racial divisions, and one of the early projects is to improve a nonprofit playground in the community and to engage with residents.

“The lack of football is an opportunity for us to get connected with the community,” Zemaitis said in the feature. “It’s the most diverse group at Susquehanna. We can be an example of what it means to work together. That’s how things get accomplished.”

The project is already underway, with Susquehanna sharing updates in a recent feature. We’ll be sure to ask Zemaitis about this project next month, when he’s scheduled to appear on The Football Letter Live.


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Penn Staters At The Next Level: Week 4

Penn State’s defensive line has been among the best units in the country in recent years. 

On Sunday, one former member of the “Wild Dogs” made his opening mark in the NFL. 

Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Carolina Panthers

Gross-Matos has been working through a minor injury early this season and had struggled to make an impact through the first three weeks.

But he flashed his potential in the Panthers’ upset win over the Cardinals on Sunday. 

YGM came up with a big sack/forced fumble in the third quarter with Arizona driving into Carolina territory, displaying a great burst off the edge to blow by Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries.

He would finish the game with that sack/fumble and three total tackles. 

Sam Ficken, K, New York Jets

Photo by Steve Manuel

Look, the New York Jets aren’t very good. They’re probably the worst team in the league and look a safe bet to pick No. 1 in the NFL Draft next spring.

One glimmer of positivity for the Jets, however, is former Nittany Lion place kicker Sam Ficken.

Ficken made all five of his field goal attempts — including a season-long boot of 54-yards — and his lone extra point try. 

He nailed a 36-yard attempt in the 4th quarter to give his team a 28-27 before the Jets collapsed late in the game. 

Donovan Smith, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Photo By Steve Manuel

Donovan Smith anchored the left side of the Tampa Bay offensive line as the group protected QB Tom Brady almost perfectly on Sunday.

The Buccaneers offense put up 484 yards of total offense in a 38-31 win over the Chargers and Brady stayed clean in the pocket.

The Chargers defensive line, one of the better pass-rushing groups in the league, didn’t bring down Brady for a single sack thanks to Smith and his teammates up front. 

After an up-and-down first few games, Smith and the rest of Tampa’s offense is starting to gel, even with injuries to former Nittany Lion Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette. 

Allen Robinson II, WR, Chicago Bears

We normally only highlight three Nittany Lions who had a standout week in the NFL, but Robinson II made that impossible. 

He’s now featured in our NFL recap three out of the first four weeks of the season. 

While Chicago’s offense was stagnant for much of the afternoon in its loss to Indianapolis, Robinson shined once more. 

ARob led his team in receiving yards again with 101 yards on seven receptions, marking his second-straight 100-yard game. 

He made a trademark leaping grab over a Colts defender late in the fourth quarter to give him his second touchdown grab of the season. 

Nittany Lions In The NFL
Baltimore Ravens (1): Trace McSorley
Buffalo Bills (1): Ryan Bates
Carolina Panthers (2): Yetur Gross-Matos
Chicago Bears (2): Jordan Lucas, Allen Robinson II
Dallas Cowboys (2): Sean Lee, Connor McGovern
Denver Broncos (2): DaeSean Hamilton, KJ Hamler 
Detroit Lions (3): Jason Cabinda, Jesse James, Amani Oruwariye
Green Bay Packers (1): Adrian Amos 
Houston Texans (1): John Reid 
Indianapolis Colts (1): Robert Windsor 
Las Vegas Raiders (2): Nick Bowers, Carl Nassib
Los Angeles Rams (1): Nick Scott
Miami Dolphins (1): Mike Gesicki
Minnesota Vikings (1): Dan Chisena 
New Orleans Saints (1): Blake Gillikin 
New York Giants (3): Saquon Barkley, Cam Brown, Austin Johnson
New York Jets (1): Sam Ficken, Chris Hogan, Ross Travis
Philadelphia Eagles (2): Miles Sanders, Trevor Williams 
Pittsburgh Steelers (1): Marcus Allen, Stefen Wisniewski 
San Francisco 49ers (2): Kevin Givens, Robbie Gould 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3): Chris Godwin, A.Q. Shipley, Donovan Smith 
Tennessee Titans (2): Jack Crawford, DaQuan Jones
Washington Football Team (1): Troy Apke 

Nittany Lions On NFL Coaching Staffs
Matt Rhule – Carolina Panthers Head Coach
Tom Bradley – Pittsburgh Steelers DBs Coach
Bobby Engram – Baltimore Ravens TEs Coach
Al Golden – Cincinnati Bengals LBs Coach
D’Anton Lynn – Houston Texans Secondary Coach
Mike Munchak – Denver Broncos OL Coach
Jeff Nixon – Carolina Panthers Senior Offensive Assistant

Face of the Penn State Community

James Franklin leads Penn State onto the field for the 2019 Citrus Bowl. Franklin has guided the Nittany Lions to a winning record and a bowl appearance in each of his first six seasons, in addition to being a visible figure in the community. Photo by Steve Manuel.

You wouldn’t think that a nearly half-a-million dollar gift would go under the radar, though in 2020, nothing should surprise us.

That’s where we are, and it feels like that’s what happened, when James Franklin announced in July that he and his wife, Fumi, raised $462,500 for The Franklin Family Educational Equity Scholarship, which the couple established in fall 2019.

This was before the 2020 season seesawed between being on and off, and back on again, and you can read Franklin’s message he posted to Twitter below.

A college football coach and his family raising such an impressive amount of money for such a worthy cause is admirable, and perhaps one reason why there wasn’t more attention paid to this is because this overwhelming generosity is who Penn Staters are and it’s what we do. In many ways, the high standard is the norm.

Still, it’s worth pointing out the message this sends: Yes, Franklin is the football coach, and at Penn State, that’s an awfully big deal, though his title doesn’t describe Franklin’s entire contributions to the University. In terms of showing that he’s committed to Penn State and the legion of alumni and fans who follow his team, this is a crystal-clear sign that Franklin is all in, and has been for some time.

Many of the football student-athletes have been showing an incredible level of maturity and leadership off the field, and it shouldn’t be surprising when you look at the model that Franklin sets. Just this week, he emphasized the importance of voting — without advocating for anyone or any particular party, just that it’s important to have your voice heard — when discussing the voting PSAs that the team has shared on social media recently.

With Franklin, you get it all. It’s a lot to ask for in a coach, though when you get it, the result is a ton of on-field success, impact off the field, and an ongoing legacy that hits home with players and recruits.

“Coach Franklin does a great job in this program of being a leader,” standout tight end Pat Freiermuth said Friday during the team’s virtual media days. “I think that he gives everyone answers that sometimes you don’t really like to hear, but I think that he does a great job of demanding excellence and demanding perfection. At the end of the day, he’s always going to love you.”

“I think that’s what you want as a head coach — and a guy who is at such a prominent university and who loves their football — to lead the whole community really. He’s the face of the whole Penn State community, and I think that he does it in a really great way. If you’re a recruit, I just don’t get why you wouldn’t come to Penn State, especially if you’re from around this area, because it has everything a recruit wants or a college student needs or wants.”


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The Football Letter Live: Week 5

The Football Letter Live rolls on this evening, with the season’s fifth episode focusing on the Blue Band and the Alumni Blue Band.

Alumni and fans can register online or tune in on Facebook at 8 p.m. tonight. Penn Staters can also watch all previous season episodes on our website.


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Penn Staters At The Next Level: Week 3

From Allen Robinson II muscling through defenders to help the Chicago Bears complete another crazy comeback to Jesse James’ first touchdown for the Detroit Lions, it was another productive day for Penn Staters in the NFL.

Let’s take a look at some of the standout Sunday Nittany Lions. 

Allen Robinson II, WR, Chicago Bears
There’s been a fair amount of trade speculation with Robinson II in recent weeks, but that hasn’t affected his performances at all. He leads Chicago in targets, receptions and receiving yards.

He didn’t skip a beat as the Bears transitioned from Mitchell Trubisky to Nick Foles midway through Chicago’s matchup with the Falcons on Sunday. Foles connected with Robinson for a big 37-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter to continue the Bears’ comeback. 

Robinson II finished with 10 catches for a 123 yards as Chicago pulled off the 26-23 win to become one of the more surprising 3-0 teams in the league. 

Trip Down Memory Lane: Robinson outmuscles Ohio State defender for leaping grab

Photo Credit: Steve Manuel

Adrian Amos, S, Green Bay Packers
Amos continues to be one of the leaders in the Green Bay secondary and despite New Orleans putting up 30 points on Sunday, the defense did enough to give the Packers a road win on Sunday Night Football.

With Aaron Rodgers playing at a terrific level, the Packers defense merely has to hold their own against opposing offenses. 

Amos recorded five tackles in Green Bay’s  37-30 win. 

Trip Down Memory Lane: Amos has impressive day against Ohio State in 2013

Photo Credit: Steve Manuel

TE Jesse James and FB Jason Cabinda, Detroit Lions
Cabinda has made the move from linebacker to fullback this season and its resulted in a significant increase in playing time for the Lions.

Cabinda’s sound blocking on this touchdown allowed fellow former Nittany Lion Jesse James to score his first touchdown with Detroit. 

Photo Credit: Steve Manuel

The Lions pulled off the eventual upset over the Cardinals 26-23. 

Trip Down Memory Lane: James tiptoes down the sideline for the score against Nebraska.

Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams

Chances are good Daryll Clark and the 2008 Penn State squad will find a place on our list of Penn State’s most memorable teams. The team won the program’s third Big Ten title and finished the season in the Rose Bowl, narrowly missing a chance to play for the national championship after a late-season loss at Iowa. Photo credit: Steve Manuel.

Kickoff for Penn State’s opening game against Indiana is still weeks away, though chances are this season will remain memorable for many reasons, most of which being the bizarre circumstances that the Nittany Lions will play under.

That’s one way to elevate to “memorable” status,” though there are many others. Success certainly is a good option, with wins being just one way to define that word. The 2012 team that finished 8-4 instantly jumps to mind for obvious reasons.

Starting next month, we’ll rank Penn State’s most memorable teams over the years, and we’ll include insights from the letters that Ridge Riley ’32 and John Black ’62 authored as the Nittany Lions rose to national prominence over the second part of the 20th century. As much time as we’ve spent browsing them, there are still many lessons and stories that are worth uncovering for new generations of fans.

We’ll also speak with some of the lettermen who can share insights about what stood out about those teams: talent, chemistry, off-the-field stories that created bonds.

Fans know all about Penn State’s storied tradition, so there are plenty of teams to choose from. Have a suggestion for who should make the list? Drop us a line in the comments or tag us on Twitter at @PSUFBLetter.


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The Football Letter Live: Week 4

This week’s episode — set for this evening at 8 — features a behind-the-scenes look with the duo that creates each memorable issue of The Football Letter: editor John Black and photographer Steve Manuel.

Tune in and hear about the creative process that goes into each issue along with some historical background and how Black and Manuel are building on the legacy started by Ridge Riley in the 1930s. Manuel will also share insight on some of his top images from over the years, with CEO Paul Clifford facilitating the discussion and questions from the audience.

Alumni and fans can register online or tune in on Facebook at 8 p.m. tonight.


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The Mental Cost

Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney (18) is hailed by coaches and teammates as having a high football IQ. That quality translates to off the field, too, with the standout bringing attention to the players’ mental health during relentless rumors. Photo by Steve Manuel.

Shaka Toney deserves a lot of credit. Let me tell you why.

First, here’s why Toney should already be on your radar. He’s distinguished himself as a standout along the defensive line, helping to create havoc with his wingspan, reach, and length. 

Toney has a ferocious drive, once registering four sacks in a single quarter, tying the program record in 2018 at Indiana. And coaches and teammates routinely mention Toney’s football IQ when describing why he’s so successful and so valuable to the Nittany Lions, both on and off the field. 

This is the quality that stood out recently, though you could easily argue that the sharp point Toney made goes well beyond football.

First, the background: Toney said this on what ended up being the day before the Big Ten announced that there’d be, after all, a fall season. And he said it amid an unrelenting media storm that featured nonstop inaccurate reports.

“Everyone only thinking about football. The rumors y’all keep putting out is destroying our mental health. Just let them announce it please. If you care about players in the B10 just wait for the answer.”

It’s not clear whether Toney was specifically referencing only the media or also fans, though either way, he’s absolutely right. And in line with his teammates who have participated in social justice rallies and marches this summer, or teammates who’ve promoted a safe return to campus on social media, Toney displayed an incredible level of leadership and maturity. 

No football this season would absolutely be devastating to a lot of individuals and businesses, many of whom are going to feel the effects anyway with no fans attending games, though the would-be impact would hit the student-athletes themselves the hardest. So, credit Toney for speaking up on an issue that some folks still are shy about discussing. Sometimes, it’s easy to recognize why. A quick scroll through the replies to Toney’s post reveals mostly positive responses, though there are a few that weren’t. 

Far and away the most thoughtful article I read during the past month was from Sports Illustrated columnist Matthew Stevens, who authored a selection titled, “The Big Ten Misinformation Campaign by ‘Content Creators’ Needs to End.”

Stevens threaded his column around the chaos caused by all the misreporting and general uncertainty surrounding the Big Ten’s final, not-so-final, decision to not play football this fall. That’s because when conference commissioner Kevin Warren said in August that the fall season was postponed and the decision wouldn’t be revisited, he meant the exact opposite. 

Give Warren and his colleagues credit in continuing to exhaust all options, though he could have said in August that’d be the plan. Here’s something I prepared in a few minutes. I think it would have worked:

Look, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. We’re learning new information every day — every hour in some cases — so please give us a few weeks. In the meantime, we’re going to do everything we can to get our student-athletes competing this fall in a safe manner. As soon as we know more, we’ll let you know, and we’ll be as thorough and decisive as the medical facts will allow us to be. We’ll be transparent to cut down on any rumors, and the only official announcement you should believe will come from the conference offices.

How hard would that have been? Not very. 

Instead, the sweeping statement that sports wouldn’t be happening left a whole lot of folks wondering what was next, and when it would be announced. This is the part of the play where all the writers and reporters rush in with their Twitter accounts. 

Never mind that these scoops everyone was chasing were details everybody would learn eventually. Or that the reports changed so often it was difficult to know which ones to take seriously, if any.

The media deserves the lion’s share of criticism, though the Big Ten deserves some, too, for creating the mercurial scenario in the first place.  

Here’s the point: We heard for weeks on end that at the center of all the discussions were the student-athletes and their well-being. As Toney astutely pointed out, the players’ mental health certainly falls into that category. 

In some ways, it’s pointless trying to blame the media for creating and feeding into a frenzy when expecting anything less is like expecting an undersized running back to protect his quarterback from Micah Parsons. But this situation is worth pointing out for no other reason than we might see a replay next month. 

Yes, Penn State and the Big Ten are scheduled to play a nine-game season. Emphasis on scheduled. Numerous college football games have been postponed because of COVID-19, most recently, Notre Dame’s Saturday contest against Wake Forest. And locally in Happy Valley, State College High School won’t play its Friday night season-opener against Central Dauphin East. The school is still employing remote learning and has approved athletic competitions for contact sports only when in-person learning is taking place. You can read more on WTAJ’s website.

So, if we’re in a similar situation next month leading up to Penn State’s season opener on Oct. 24 — and believe me, I sincerely hope we’re not — with reports swirling about a possible postponement or other changes to the football schedule, let’s remember to act responsibly and with measure. 

It’s for the well-being of student-athletes at Penn State and all across the Big Ten. And after all, that’s what matters most.



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Penn Staters At The Next Level: Week 2

Photo Credit: Steve Manuel

We start this week’s Penn Staters At The Next Level blog sending our best to Saquon Barkley. 

Barkley left the New York Giants’ loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday with a knee injury and it was confirmed yesterday that he had torn his ACL.

Like everything Saquon does, we know he’ll attack rehab with everything he’s got. We hope he can come back better than ever and we look forward to seeing him star on Sundays again soon. 

With that being said, let’s highlight which Penn Staters stood out in Week 2 of the NFL season. 

Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins
Following a strong finish to his sophomore campaign in 2019, Gesicki was a popular candidate to have a breakout season at the tight end position. After a quiet first week, Gesicki exploded in Week 2, putting up 130 yards on eight receptions. 

Photo Credit: Steve Manuel

He became just the eighth tight end in Dolphins history to record a 100-yard game and broke a franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end in a single game. 

He might have also had the catch of the season with this grab in the third quarter. 

Trip Down Memory Lane: Gesicki goes up high for a one-handed catch against Temple

KJ Hamler, WR, Denver Broncos
Hamler missed Week 1 of the season with an injury, but flashed why the Broncos drafted him in the second round of the draft against the Steelers on Sunday. He snagged three passes for 48 yards and also carried the ball once for nine yards.

Photo Credit: Steve Manuel

With Courtland Sutton out for the year with a torn ACL, Hamler’s role within Denver’s offense is sure to expand as the season develops. 

It was also nice to see a Nittany Lion reunion of sorts after the Steelers-Broncos game, when Hamler, DaeSean Hamilton and Marcus Allen caught up with one another and grabbed a photo together. 

Trip Down Memory Lane: KJ embarrasses Maryland defense on his way to the end zone

Photo Credit: Steve Manuel

Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
While the Eagles’ early season struggles continued, Sanders’ return to the lineup provided Philadelphia’s ground game a needed boost. Sanders carried the ball 20 times for 95 yards and a touchdown, and also recorded three receptions for 36 yards.  

Look for him to have another big day in Week 3 against a Cincinnati Bengals defense that gave up 215 yards rushing to the Cleveland Browns this past Thursday. 

Trip Down Memory Lane: Miles won’t be denied a score vs. Illinois.

Here. We. Go.

James Franklin and the Nittany Lions will begin their 2020 season on Oct. 24 at Indiana. Photo by Steve Manuel.

There’s a popular meme that’s been circulating on social media over the years, a GIF from Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, “The Dark Knight.”

Heath Ledger’s character, The Joker, looks out across the city landscape while his diabolical plan is underway, and he says with a wave of his hand, “Here. We. Go.”

That’s what this week has felt like for Penn State fans, with the formal announcement that Big Ten football would begin an abbreviated season in late October.

Earlier today, the Nittany Lions’ eight-game regular season was shared, with James Franklin and Co. starting with an Oct. 24 contest against the Hoosiers in Bloomington. The following week, Ohio State visits for a clash on Halloween (Oct. 31), and Penn State will also host Maryland (Nov. 7), Iowa (Nov. 21), and Michigan State (Dec. 12). The Nittany Lions’ other three road games are at Nebraska (Nov. 14), Michigan (Nov. 28), and Rutgers (Dec. 5). Penn State will then play a ninth game on Dec. 19 against an opponent-to-be-determined from the West Division.

Image by Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics

This is all contingent on COVID-19 test results staying within the accepted positivity rates, and you can learn more about the medical protocols at There’s optimism the Big Ten will get through its season, if for no other reason that there’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s gone into ensuring student-athletes have a chance of competing this season, even in a shortened schedule.

Penn State Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour joined this week’s episode of The Football Letter Live, and you can see her appearance on the Alumni Association’s Facebook page. She joins the show near the beginning of the episode.

One other noteworthy item from the week: Barbour said that the Big Ten has decided that they won’t allow on-campus tailgating, and fans are encouraged to cheer on the Nittany Lions from their homes or other places where they’re adhering to the local social distancing guidelines that are in place. 

Look at this way: This year’s cheering section will expand across the country. We’re looking forward to hearing everyone roar on Oct. 24.


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