By Mark Brumbaugh, Penn State Strategic Communications
Penn State and the Peach State? Not a very common pairing.
That's not to say the Peach State has not had an impact on Penn State.
Penn State prevailed over the University of Georgia in the 1982 Sugar Bowl to earn the national championship, while the two teams met again recently in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl. There are four Georgians on the current Nittany Lion roster and one of them is particularly well known for a couple of the plays he made last season.
Penn State fans know it by heart. Marcus Allen leapt for the stars, the field goal kick went off his left arm and Grant Haley, an Atlanta resident, scooped up the bouncing football and had nothing but beautiful green grass and crazed White Out fans ahead of him. The touchdown swung the game in Penn State's favor and the Nittany Lions crashed the national scene with a thrilling win over No. 2 Ohio State.
The victory propelled the Lions to the Big Ten Championship Game, where Haley's stop on fourth-and-1 against Wisconsin sealed the victory and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
A key asset since he stepped on campus in 2014, Haley's contributions have surpassed two big plays. For his position coach, cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, Haley checks all the boxes.
"Grant is obviously the leader of the cornerback room," Smith said. "He's not very outspoken, but he's a leader by example. He's a great student. He's a really smart, reliable and dependable player. You know exactly what you're getting from him. He's got a lot of experience. He knows our system as well as the coaching staff and he puts that out on the field. That is probably the main reason why his peers voted him captain."
The son of Brown University and Penn State alums who met while both were students at Pitt Medical School, Haley was born in Michigan but moved to Georgia before he can remember, when his father, Leon, got a job at a hospital in Atlanta. In fact, Haley was born into a legacy of education, as his maternal grandfather was a school superintendent and his paternal grandmother was a teacher.
"Every single thing since I've grown up has been 'academics first,' no matter what," Haley said. "My dad always talks about how with your degree, no one can take that away. Even when football goes away, you're still going to have your degree. It's always been important to me because it's been important to them."
However, sports have always been Haley's passion. He started with soccer and baseball as a young child, but had trouble getting on the football field right away, as his mom, Carla, who ran track for one year at Penn State, was concerned about injuries and did not let him play until he was in the seventh grade.
Inspired by his grandfather, who was also a high school football coach, Haley always knew he wanted to step onto the gridiron himself. Before he got his mother's permission, Haley honed his athleticism playing a variety of sports, adding basketball to his soccer and baseball repertoire.
Once Haley started playing football, it did not take long for him to excel.
"It was funny, my first game I didn't get tackled by anybody. I ran for like three touchdowns -- it was crazy, but it was exciting," Haley said.
Haley became a four-sport star at The Lovett School in Atlanta, particularly in football and baseball, and he also excelled in the classroom, earning a bronze medal on the National Latin Exam.
When it came down to deciding which sport to pursue at the next level, Haley was drawn to the excitement and camaraderie of football. He then looked for a school that could deliver it all.
"I always wanted a big college town and obviously my parents were high on the academic side," Haley said. "Going to school and getting a quality education is very important to me and setting myself up for the long run was one of the important things. Just finding a place where I could be comfortable and call home and be able to have trust and relationships with different people socially, athletically and academically."
One school that was not on his radar? Penn State.
"Honestly, the only game I remember watching Penn State was when they played Michigan in the White Out in 2013. My mom had pictures [of Penn State] all over the house, but I had never really thought about going there until Coach Franklin switched over."
Haley was already verbally committed to Vanderbilt and head coach James Franklin by then. While Vandy had all the attributes Haley was looking for in a school, Coach Franklin had stood out on the recruiting trail. He felt Franklin was someone he could trust.
"Growing up as a recruit, you can tell when people are real and when people are fake and you can tell he's real," Haley said. "He genuinely cares about his players and wants what's best for them on the field and off the field."
That trust and belief held when Franklin decided to depart Vanderbilt for Penn State in January 2014.
"It was a pretty crazy process because I was committed to Vanderbilt for a couple of months, and that quick switch -- I had to figure out what I was doing in a month," Haley said. "[Coach Franklin] gave me a call a couple days [after he went to Penn State] and he asked me if I would come up to Penn State and visit. I immediately did, and it was the best thing for me, getting a chance to visit Penn State made me love it even more."
Haley's mother helped ease any concerns about the still-intact NCAA sanctions.
"My mom always talked about Joe Paterno, the tradition and pride that Penn State has and how she felt about that," Haley said. "When your mom loves something, you kind of love it too. I'm a momma's boy. I never really put it in my mind about the sanctions. Everything fit perfectly: the college town, academically and athletically."
The family's faith in Penn State was rewarded as the bowl ban was lifted, allowing Haley and the Nittany Lions to take on Boston College in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl his freshman year. Fittingly for the former baseball star, he drew his first career start at cornerback in that game, which was played in Yankee Stadium. The Nittany Lions went on to win in overtime.
"I wasn't nervous, I felt prepared [going into the game], but just getting thrown in there like that, it was exhilarating," Haley said. "Saying your first start was in Yankee Stadium in a bowl game is something you'll always remember. When we were going into the stadium, I was looking at all the baseball everything and I was kind of in love with that and someday I can tell my kids, 'Yeah, I got to play in Yankee Stadium for the first start of my college career.' That's a pretty important memory for me."
In 2015, Haley moved into the starting lineup, relying on veterans and current NFL-ers like Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas to guide him. The season resulted in another personally meaningful bowl game, as the Nittany Lions took on Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville.
"I never got an offer from Georgia, so it was very personal for me. It was down in Florida, so I had a lot of people come to the game. [The result] was disappointing, but it was a special moment for me to get to go down and play close to home, and have a lot of people come out to support me."
Haley took another step forward as a junior last season, taking on a larger leadership role. Thanks in part to him, the 2016 Penn State football season was among the finest in program history. It ultimately ended in a bowl game special to any college football player, "The Granddaddy of Them All," the Rose Bowl Game.
Entering this year as a senior, Haley is looking to use the wisdom he has gained over the years to take the team to new heights.
"When I first came in, there was a lot of separation between the team and coaching staff," Haley said. "I think I'm a guy who's seen it all, so I'm able to realize if anything is going bad in the locker room and being able to help out with the guys and the coaching staff, be like a middle man almost. Being on the leadership council for the last three years, I've really understood what it takes to be a leader, becoming a vocal guy."
With the season just getting underway, it remains to be seen what the 2017 season has in store for the Nittany Lions, but if the upward trend of personally meaningful bowl games continues for Haley, the ending could be a good one.Just look up where the national championship game will be played.