UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The 23 seniors on the field for Penn State
Football in 2012 did not sign up to earn a degree and play football under the
circumstances they have had to deal with during the past nine months.
It's hard to even imagine walking in the shoes of the 23 players who began
their final season for the Nittany Lions on Saturday afternoon. The adversity they have faced isn't even
quantifiable, and no one said the road in 2012 was going to be easy.
But time after time after time, they stepped up as leaders of the program. On some occasions it was through their hard work. On other occasions it was with their actions. On July 25, it was with their words.
On the evening of July 24, just one day after the NCAA sanctions announcement, roommates Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich approached Coach O'Brien in his second story office inside the Lasch Building about their idea of a player statement to show the public, alums and fans their commitment to Penn State.
Mauti and Zordich then consulted with members of the squad, mostly seniors, to craft a statement. With some editorial assistance from the communications staff, the senior tandem led a collection of more than 30 players onto the grass practice field adjacent to the Lasch Football Building.
The statement had been written, but Mauti and Zordich addressed a small crowd of cameras without ever referencing it. With their teammates behind them, they spoke from the heart and uttered genuine words of commitment to Penn State University and Penn State Football.
Almost simultaneously, head coach Bill O'Brien was touching down inside a small plane in Hartford, Conn., for a trip to interview at ESPN. When notified of the news that the players assembled to record their message, Coach O'Brien could not have been prouder of his senior leaders.
"I was certainly moved by that," O'Brien said. "I felt pride, and I felt the same belief that I have had for the last six months since I have been here. It is about these players and this coaching staff. We have a bunch of great, smart, tough kids who couldn't wait to start playing football."
Since he arrived at Penn State, O'Brien has stated time and time again that he has been extremely impressed with the leadership from the seniors, and how can you argue.
Across the board, the 19 seniors have matured more in nine months than most college football student-athletes do in four years. They want to be at Penn State, and they want to play football in front of 108,000 loyal supporters.
"We are going to stick together through this, we are going to get through this, and we are going to do everything we can for the university," Zordich said. "We know it's not going to be easy, but we know what we are made of."
"We are playing for our team, we are playing for our coaches, and we are playing for Penn State this year," senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill added. "As seniors, this is our last year, and we are going out to work hard every single day."
In many ways, the senior leadership played a huge role in holding the locker room together as one collective unit. That group's leadership had an instrumental role in guiding the younger players in the locker room through the challenges.
"The senior class is a tremendous group of guys," sophomore Bill Belton said. "They kept us together when we needed them most. I can't express how much the seniors did for us and how much they mean to the team."
Belton is part of a small group of sophomores on the team that refers to itself as the "SupaSix". Belton, along with wide receiver Allen Robinson, cornerback Adrian Amos, offensive tackle Donovan Smith, tight end Kyle Carter and defensive end Deion Barnes make up the "SupaSix". They too, have stuck together and will remain loyal to the coaching staff, their teammates and the program.
"There are not many places in America where you can go out and play in front of 108,000 people," Robinson said.
"With everything we have been through, we know that we aren't going through this alone," sophomore offensive tackle Donovan Smith said. "The fans truly care about us, and we care about them."
The list of younger players committed to the program does not end with the "SupaSix". In total, 91 percent of the roster prior to the NCAA Sanctions remains in tact. The locker room is closer than it has ever been. Training camp practices were fiercely competitive between the offense and defense, but when Coach O'Brien's whistle ended each practice the team came together as one unit.
At no point during the process have the players viewed the situation they are in as a negative thing. They approached every practice during training camp and the season with the mindset that they have been given a unique opportunity.
"We take this as an opportunity to create our own legacy," Mauti said.
"This opportunity means the world to me," senior linebacker Gerald Hodges said. "Each and every day you wake up and you get to see your family. This team is a family...To run out of the tunnel and see the fans cheering for us no matter what; I wouldn't trade it for the world."
No one wanted to win more than the senior class on Saturday afternoon, but the Nittany Lions fell short in their opener. Nonetheless, the team will never lack the drive and effort necessary to compete every Saturday in 2012. The team is back to work preparing for another tough opponent in Virginia.
As their head coach says, the true measure of a man is how he handles adversity.
"Right now, we are going to put our heads down and go to work," Mauti said. "We are going to fight for Penn State. We are going to fight for each other. This is what Penn State is all about."
Before the team played a snap in 2012, and regardless of what the scoreboard says on Saturdays throughout the fall, the Nittany Lion players are winners. They stuck together, worked hard and forged a bond as one collective group through the most difficult time the program has ever seen.
"When we go out each Saturday, we suit up for our teammates, first of all, but we suit up for our fans, the students and all of the families in Nittany Nation who support us through all of this," Zordich said. "We are going to do everything in our power to make them proud."
The 2012 Penn State Football team is a special group with an unbreakable bond.
"We stand proud and we stand together," Coach O'Brien said of his team.
Heading into Virginia, they stand together as one team with one purpose on one mission as one family.
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