UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In fifth grade, Jason Cabinda and his mother drafted a contract. Unlike most written contracts, this one doesn't have any signatures. It doesn't need them either. It's a contract between a mother and her son, one still in effect to this day, drafted to honor a commitment to education alongside an ardent love for the game.
For someone like Cabinda, the path from Pop Warner to "Linebacker U" isn't as simple as the straight shot on Interstate 78 from Hunterdon County, New Jersey to Happy Valley.
When the Cabinda family relocated to Flemington, New Jersey, he was a child, life was good.
"At at first my parents were together and between their good-sized incomes, we actually lived in a fairly big house," Cabinda said. "We had it pretty good for a few years there and when my parents got divorced, that's kind of when things went downhill."
Following the divorce, Cabinda spent a short period of time switching homes, alternating between one week with mom and one week with dad, until his father moved to Chicago.
Natalie Cabinda decided to remain in Hunterdon County though, moving Jason and twin daughters, Linda and Loretta, into a smaller townhome, where she would raise all three children.
"It was tough and it took big toll on my mom," Cabinda said. "That's why growing up, I wanted to be a good thing for my mom. I didn't want to cause her any stress, I didn't want to get in trouble or those types of things. For those first couple of years though, I was."
In school, Jason's grades plummeted. Struggling with anger issues, in third grade he was suspended for fighting another student.
At eight years old, Cabinda was 5-feet-3 inches tall and overweight.
"At that time, I was a very negative person," Jason said. "It was really, really hard for me growing up because my dad was my best friend.
As a single mother, Natalie knew she had to do something.
In fifth grade, Natalie signed Jason up for Pop Warner football with the Flemington Falcons.
"It was very, very hard," Jason recalled. "I was that kid, who, it was hard to finish the sprints, who came in last, who had asthma, who, when we had to do bear crawls, I would hide in the bathroom."
In week one with the Falcons, Natalie can remember watching her son and several of his teammates getting sick on the field during drills at practice. She considered taking him out of football all together.
"The coach said to me, 'don't worry that's how they all start out, they'll get better' and of course, Jason got better," Natalie said.
As the weeks turned into months, Jason improved. His body began transforming as the weight came shedding off his growing frame, while his passion for playing sports was only just beginning.
"It gave me perspective, I know how it feels to be at the bottom," Jason said. "I know how it feels to be last, to be that kid who is really struggling with workouts to being the kid who is leading because I've been there before. I don't think there are a lot of guys who can say they have been there. You see guys who always dominated workouts, they weren't ever really that kid, and I was."
At school, Jason started avoiding trouble and his grades started trending upward.
"Football saved me," Jason said.
Jason's love of the game soon expanded to more than just the football field, adding on basketball, AAU hoops and even lacrosse.
"It was a lot of work for me as a single mother because I was constantly running from one activity to the next, picking and dropping, picking and dropping," Natalie said. "When I look back, it was a very good decision, even though I almost died because it was so stressful. But it was a good thing for the kids, it was very good for him."
For Natalie, keeping up with Jason's schedule meant balancing games and practices in between working two jobs.
"All my life, my mom has been a teacher," Jason said. "Ever since I can remember."
Fluent in French and a pair of native Cameroonian languages, Natalie originally started her education career teaching French.
"When I moved to the United States, there weren't a lot of schools offering French, so I went in for the English certification," Natalie said.
Settling at Piscataway High School, Natalie made the nearly 40-minute commute so that her children could attend Hunterdon Central High School. Three days a week, Natalie also taught evening courses at Raritan Valley Community College.
"My mom put me in school at Hunterdon Central High School because the education was really good and her main thing when I was growing up was getting good grades," Jason said.
As quickly as Jason's life soon filled with football, Natalie's expectations for his performance in the classroom also grew. A poor academic performance was simply unacceptable and the tradeoff soon became football.
"Then there were multiple times when my mom threatened football," Jason said. "Anytime I would come home with a bad grade, mom would threaten football and that did it for me. I didn't need to hear anything else."
Together, Jason and Natalie forged a contract.
"He loves football and I love education and the only way he would play football was if he was doing well in school," Natalie said. "So I made sure that I never missed any practices or any of his games because he promised me that he would go to school."
A three-year letterman and starting linebacker and running back at Hunterdon Central High School, Cabinda put together an impressive high school resume, named a three-star prospect by all four major recruiting services.
During the recruiting process, his high school coach, Matthew Perotti, would often take him on campus visits.
"I'm lucky enough to be so close with my high school coach because a lot of those visits were during school days and my mom had to work," Jason said. "It was hard for her to take a day off of school unless it was a Saturday to go visit a school."
With a focus on academics at the forefront of the college football decision for both Natalie and Jason, mom's top choice quickly became Yale.
"We took a trip out to Yale and my SAT score was too low for Yale, so she made me take the ACT," Jason said with a smile.
Having successfully qualified to meet the academic requirements to attend Yale, Jason calls it his mother's proudest moment.
"Jason didn't want Yale because Jason wanted a big school," Natalie said.
Upon their visit to Penn State though, everything fell right into place.
"I spoke to one of the academic advisors and he presented some of the players who had graduated with their degrees and where they were," Natalie said. "They were all already working with companies, so that really encouraged me to see that Penn State wasn't only about football."
Walking through a year-by-year look at Jason's intended major, Penn State's academic staff detailed the path that he would take to earn a meaningful degree.
Flash forward a few years and Jason's in the midst of a standout career, now an All-Big Ten linebacker, a team captain and perhaps most importantly, on track to graduate with his degree in economics.
"I am most proud that he has stayed focused on his goal," Natalie said. "I'm also really proud because he's turning out to be this really humble, beautiful person that a lot people really seem to love. That love of humanity that he has, that makes me extremely proud."
For Jason, it all comes back to perspective - the kind that has time and time again defined his confident authenticity and magnetic personality.
"I have a lot of perspective because I've been around a lot of people and you can't really understand people unless you're around them and you hang out with them," Jason said. "I'm grateful for that because I think that's why I'm as social as I am because I've been around so many different types of people from all types of places who grew up in all different ways. From people who had a lot of money growing up to people who didn't have a lot of money at all, who were struggling."
It's Jason's radiant confidence, of course, that Natalie has instilled in not only her son, but all three of her children growing up."I believe that anything that you set your mind on you can achieve," Natalie said. "That was a statement that was very regular in my house. All you need to do is believe in who you are and the strength that you have."