UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Loyalty means more to the small group of Penn
State seniors on the 2014 team than it would to just about any other class in
the program's iconic history.
Alongside its two predecessors in 2012 and 2013, the 2014 senior class will go down as a group of individuals who deserve more recognition than they have gotten credit for.
In July of 2012, this group, more than any other, had a distinct opportunity to leave the challenges following the NCAA sanctions announcement. The players in this group of seniors could have walked out the door and played three full seasons anywhere in America.
Anyone in the class could have left without any repercussions to attend a school that could compete for a conference title, post-season berth or a national championship.
The entire group faced open recruitment by dozens of schools across the country.
No student-athlete signed up for the challenges and scrutiny bestowed upon them starting in November 2011 and magnified the following July, so it would have been easy to leave. And some of their teammates and classmates did just that.
But knowing the road would be a challenge unlike any other student-athletes had ever faced, this small collection of men refused to leave their family behind.
A bond had been forged inside the locker room and in their residences, and this resilient group refused to break it.
The players knew they couldn't play in a bowl game. They knew they couldn't compete for a national championship. They knew the deck was almost insurmountably stacked against them.
They didn't care.
For this group, the sanctions, hurdles and hardships brought the group closer together. The situation reaffirmed their passion for the University they had committed to.
The Penn State community embraced the group of players with open arms,
and the group is forever grateful for the support from the thousands of Blue
and White faithful worldwide.
But for the past three years, their actions have spoken louder than any words. These seniors played for one another. They played for their families. They played for the players who wore the blue and white before them. They played for Penn State. And they did everything with class.
"You always want to leave a legacy with your peers where they remember you as a group that set an example," guard Miles Dieffenbach said. "We all tried to be a role figure, and it means a lot to leave here knowing we did that."
It's impossible to imagine what it might have been like to walk in the shoes of men like safety Adrian Amos, running back Bill Belton, linebacker Mike Hull, defensive end C.J. Olaniyan or running back Zach Zwinak. Despite the odds of competing in the Big Ten with a roster of limited scholarships, the group's confidence never wavered.
"I think we have been able to be so successful against the odds because Penn State is so special," Hull said. "Everyone understood the importance of upholding the legacy of this University and the football program."
This group's college experience has been unique to any other in the history of Penn State Football, which is why the group deserves the utmost respect from any supporter of the program or intercollegiate athletics. They worked hard for one another in the toughest of circumstances because that is the only thing they knew how to do.
"I just wanted to enjoy it and cherish every moment," Amos said. "This
process helped develop me as a person and made me stronger as a man. There were
a lot a chances to quit and get angry, but I came here for a reason."
It was clear two years ago that the current seniors weren't playing for accolades or a bowl game. The quest for success was far bigger than wins and losses on the field. The group saw the situation not as a challenge, but as an opportunity to grow together.
"Whether it is in life or in football, this is something that you had to adapt to," Belton said. "We found a way to make things work."
But that doesn't mean the 2014 seniors weren't more deserving of a chance at a post-season game than anyone else in college football. When the NCAA lifted the ban on post-season play on Sept. 8, head coach James Franklin called every member of the team who was on the roster in July of 2012 to the front of the meeting room to stand before the rest of the team.
Franklin and the underclassmen gave the collection of players standing in the front of the room a rousing, standing ovation and pleaded with the young players in the room to play the rest of the 2014 season for the men who had been through never ending adversity, especially the seniors.
"We are so appreciative of all the things you guys have done," Franklin said.
Behind a dominant defense, the Nittany Lions reached a sixth win and bowl eligibility with a 30-13 victory over Temple. And while the seniors never suited up for the right to play in a bowl game, they deserved the moment they shared with one another inside the winning locker room on Nov. 15.
"I think the bowl game is just a great reward because of everything we have gone through," Hull said.
"It's a sense of accomplishment that we stuck together," Amos said. "It's rewarding that we will have this opportunity that we have worked hard for."
Penn State's season will extend beyond the Michigan State. The extra practices and additional game will pay huge dividends for the nation's second-youngest team. But more importantly, this group of seniors will have an opportunity to be together as a family for one more month.
The 2014 senior class is a rare group that embodies loyalty beyond any words.
Prior to the season, nine members of the senior class had already earned their degrees. Amos and Tyrone Smith are on schedule to graduate in December, along with six redshirt juniors, for a total of 11 seniors and 17 players who have earned their degrees prior to Penn State's bowl game.
Despite all the obstacles, the 2014 seniors have been instrumental in the Nittany Lions earning a 30-17 record the past four years, with three winning seasons and an opportunity for a fourth during their careers.
"It's just a great group of people," Amos said. "This is a group that wanted to be a part of building something. I just love this senior class."
"We talk about it all the time as a group about how we stuck together as a family," Olaniyan said.
The seniors may not leave with all the victories and championships they had hoped to win when they committed to Penn State, but the group's battle through adversity gives success a far different meaning than wins and losses. In a situation that few thought would be possible for the program to survive, this group stood tall with dignity, class and an unrivaled work-ethic.
"The legacy we want to leave is that we kept fighting. We stuck together," Amos said. "There is always light at the end of the tunnel. If you keep fighting, you will find that light."
It's a group that let its actions set an example for individuals in all facets of life. It's a group that has earned the respect from everyone who supports the Blue and White. And it's a group summed up best in one statement from Mike Hull.
"I love Penn State so much."