Here is the college football experience as seen through the eyes of the young men who play the game. Sportswriter Ken Denlinger takes the reader on a fiver-year odyssey into the lives of one scholarship class and reveals their experiences at Penn State and in Coach Paterno's program.
Ken was given extraordinary access to the Penn State programsstarting with the recruiting process and then onto the field and in the locker room. He became friend and confidant to the players and found every plater had the same dream: to bring glory to himself and his school and then ascend to the NFL. In this gritty account, Ken sets moving stories of triumph against the stark realities of injury, disillusionment, and failure.
Here are the dreams, fears, and pressures facing young men who are exposed weekly to thousands of screaming fans. Here is a true picture of life in Division I college football. Anyone interested in Penn State, college football, or the larger issues or sports and society will find For the Glory an unforgettable experience.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)|
About the Author
Ken Denlinger is a sportswriter for The Washington Post and covers college football. He lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He is a Penn State alumnus, class of 1964.
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For the Glory
College Football Dreams and Realities Inside Paterno's Program
By Ken Denlinger
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1994 Ken Denlinger
All rights reserved.
The Parade Begins
Early December is, on the surface, the quietest time in college football. By then, the eleven-game season is over, and empty stadiums, such as Penn State's, resemble gray aircraft carriers in dry dock. Starting to focus on Christmas, alumni and student fans are either grumbling about what should have been or gloating over successes that have earned for their schools an invitation to one of the bowl binges that will begin in a few weeks and end New Year's night. For most players, the ones not involved in bowl practices, this is unrippled calm, a brief national time-out from hitting and being hit.
College coaches, however, are anything but serene, their considerable energies not being recharged so much as redirected. For them, December is the most important part of a very different kind of season, one that also demands the utmost in strategic planning and persuasion techniques: the recruiting season.
The hectic weeks between the final game and the middle of February will be the culmination of a wooing process that has been going on for several years, the gathering of the next fall's freshman football players. During what amounts to a kind of two-minute drill, college coaches spring about the land in not-so-polite competition to secure commitments from a couple of dozen of the most desirable high school seniors.
Since the mid-1960s, nowhere in college football has this recruiting campaign been waged with more zest and success than at Penn State, and no coach in any sport during the late fall of 1987 was held in more esteem than Paterno. Earlier that year his Nittany Lions had won their second national championship. Paterno himself was on a run of incredible good fortune that had begun the season after his elevation to head coach in 1965. During that twenty-two-year period, his teams had compiled a record of 207–48–2, which put him in a tie for sixth on the list of winningest all-time major college coaches. Only Bear Bryant, with twenty-nine, had more bowl appearances than Paterno's nineteen. Almost surely, no other school's Creamery had dedicated a flavor of ice cream, Peachy Paterno, to its coach.
For Paterno and every other coach, the recruiting process never ends. It occupies some of almost all days and almost all of some days. A half hour into his honeymoon on May 12, 1962, then-assistant Paterno left his bride, Sue, in the car while he pitched Penn State to a player who still ended up going to Miami. For the basketball program. Paterno one Easter put in a phone call to Danny Ferry, who later chose Duke.
If recruiting is a seamless and, at times, unseemly affair for coaches, it is a dazzling, once-in-a-lifetime experience for the recruits. Suddenly, during the final two-month frenzy, an enormously gifted teenager will find famous coaches seemingly walking right off the television screen to sit down beside him on the living room sofa. They will simultaneously beg and challenge him with a pitch that goes something like: "Son, you can help us win a national championship." In December 1987 this goal was for the 1992 season, at the latest, when the group of scholarship signees would reach full fifth-year maturity.
The final sixty days are the most hectic and disjointed for the coaches. They have whittled the recruiting list to about six dozen and done as much homework as possible about each prospect's football ability and his potential as a college student. Absolutely no one can predict what will happen when each breaks away from home for the first time, and the frightening fact for coaches, Paterno included, is that their livelihood rests on the whims of teenagers.
Elite schools, such as Penn State, are hopeful, knowing they will beat out at least 80 percent of the competition for the best players. It's winning those tense recruiting games with the remaining 20 percent that determines national championships. Beating Notre Dame in the living room leads to beating Notre Dame on the field.
The pace of recruiting increases dramatically as everyone approaches the home stretch. A coach might be in New York City one day, in an obscure Midwest hamlet the next, gliding through the corridors of an unfamiliar high school in the morning, and complimenting mom on her apple pie in the evening. If his sales pitch rarely varies, the areas in which he gives it almost always do. No telling from what roots the next Heisman Trophy winner might sprout.
Paterno was embarking not only on what was perhaps the most critical part of his year but also of his future. Four days before Christmas, he would turn sixty-one. Already, recruiters from the other heavyweight schools were using age against him, planting in impressionable minds the thought that Paterno might not be around for their entire collegiate experience. Speculation was adrift that this might be his last class.
And so for perhaps the first time as head coach, Paterno was not selling from near-total strength as he left his office the snowy afternoon of December 3. Dressed in a conservative suit, with a tie whose knot seemed too wide for current fashion trends, he flew in one of the university's two small jets from almost the geographic midpoint of Pennsylvania and joined assistant coach Tom Bradley in Pittsburgh.
He and Bradley then drove about a half hour to one of those otherwise obscure areas of the United States that become famous for their football sons: North Hills. What had drawn them there was a prospect off the charts academically and athletically, a recruiter's dream and the focal point of a parade later that evening that would end about an hour before Paterno was scheduled to make his pitch.
Of all the post-season high-school celebrations, the one for the North Hills Indians was especially significant. Unbeaten in thirteen games, having outscored the opposition by 435–20, North Hills had been judged the best high-school team in the country by the influential newspaper USA Today. North Hills's slightly partisan coach, Jack McCurry, who had won ninety-six games and three regional championships in ten seasons, solemnly said: "This is the best [team] that has ever been assembled in western Pennsylvania."
This was a statement to be savored, for western Pennsylvania is to big-time football what parts of the Midwest are to wheat. Many a college team has grown from marginal to majestic by recruiting players whose ferocity and manner of speech seem unique to their roots. Pro football's history starts in western Pennsylvania. One of the earliest for-pay players was a sixteen-year-old quarterback named John Brallier, who in 1895 accepted $10 to join the Latrobe YMCA for a game against the Jeannette Athletic Club.
So Paterno was in the familiar and rich territory that had produced Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and such renowned quarterbacks as John Unitas, Joe Namath, and Joe Montana. And much of this night belonged to the latest heralded western Pennsylvanian, a linebacker whose eyes could switch from twinkling to terrifying in an instant, Eric Renkey.
For the North Hills parade, more than a dozen fire trucks had been borrowed from nearby towns. Climbing aboard them in their red and white jerseys and letter jackets were eight players considered big-time college prospects. The center of attention on the lead truck, as always, was the 230-pound Renkey, who had anchored the North Hills defense during most of a glorious season that included a 21–0 shutout of arch-rival Mount Lebanon for the highest possible on-the-field honor: the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League AAAA title.
Renkey often got more space in the Pittsburgh papers than many of the professional Steelers and Pirates. That was mostly because, at his level, he had a far superior season. But he also had a sophisticated wit rare in a youngster who would not turn eighteen until December 31. About a key reception against Mount Lebanon as an occasional tight end, he had said: "It's the first anniversary of my last catch." Renkey was the North Hills player that college recruiters from coast to coast had come to visit. And for good reason.
On a very good team in one of the most competitive leagues anywhere, Renkey had become a starter at linebacker four games into his freshman season. As a tension-bursting joke before that first start, Mel Renkey had slipped a diaper into his son's equipment bag. "In case I wet myself," Eric explained.
Some 70 pounds heavier than the 160 that he carried as a baby 'backer, Renkey at 6 feet 3 inches tall still looked rather slender. To college salesmen, he provided these gaudy career numbers: more than 300 tackles, more than 30 quarterback sacks, and a combined score of 1370 (out of a possible 1600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The National High School Athletic Coaches Association chose him as defensive captain of its All-American team; that honor included a trip to Chicago, where he was joined during a television appearance by the offensive captain, a California quarterback named Todd Marinovich.
Earning such heady stature had not been easy, though Renkey early seemed to relish each step in the rugged process. As an eighth grader, he had read a magazine story in which Herschel Walker described an exercise that involved strapping a tire loaded with enormous lead weights around his waist and walking painful stretches with it.
Renkey quickly devised a similar contraption, with chunks of cement blocks substituted for lead weights. Mel, an executive with AT&T, obtained for Eric a strap that telephone repairmen used to attach themselves to poles. Routinely, Eric would lug the cement-stuffed tire down an incline behind the house, harness himself to it and stagger thirty or so yards across the lawn and then back. Again and again.
Pain, like any other opponent, was an obstacle to be played around. Or through. When he suffered a broken right shoulder playing basketball against adults, Eric said to Mel, "Why don't I play left-handed?" He did.
But Eric clearly was a football player. Though he played basketball, he once advised a Pittsburgh reporter inquiring about an upcoming basketball game, "Better get there early if you want to see me ... I've either fouled out or been thrown out of every game this year."
Such an ornery streak is much admired in football. That prompted Renkey's coach, McCurry, to say: "Eric is the most intense player I have ever had and probably ever will have. He's very intelligent and has that drive you just can't coach. Wherever the ball is, he'll be there. Will another Eric Renkey come along? I hope so, but I doubt it."
If Renkey had been the strongest magnet that had drawn Paterno to North Hills, he was not the only one. Not long before the parade started forming in the school's parking lot, Paterno had been to the home of the most versatile North Hills senior, Chris Cisar, who could play about every position available to someone slightly taller than 6 feet and slightly heavier than 180 pounds. Penn State wanted him as a defensive back, specifically for the strong safety position it called "Hero."
This double-dip trip, to see Cisar and his family before the parade and the Renkeys after, was significant because the head coach is allowed by NCAA rules only one home visit per prospect. Because this night was theirs and he could turn every head in the crowd his way, Paterno passed on the parade and remained for more than two hours at Carmassi's, where he and assistant coach Tom Bradley had dinner.
After dinner, Bradley left for the parade. At thirty, he was the most outgoing of State's stable of assistants and had been following Renkey and Cisar for more than three years. He had tried with letters, phone calls, and all the visits to games and schools that the rules permitted to develop a brother-like relationship with them. The closer a coach gets to him, the harder it is for a player to say no when he finally must choose a school.
Bradley's zest was such that an oil spill near Pittsburgh was reason to pitch Penn State at the expense of arch-rival Pitt. "He called one night," Renkey recalled, "and mentioned that Pittsburgh didn't have water. So he turned on some water at his place and put the phone by it. Then he took a big gulp of water and said: 'See, we always have water at Penn State.'"
During the parade, Bradley hopped from place to place, waving wildly each time the truck carrying Renkey and Cisar passed, making sure they noticed him and how much he still cared.
Even if the night had not been so nasty as to keep Marilyn Renkey back at school, she and Mel would have greeted Eric from separate locations along the parade route. They had divorced four years earlier. Ironically, Mel had come twice as far, from southern New Jersey, as Paterno had to see Eric. From the parking lot of a shopping center, Mel rifled a couple of snowballs toward his famous son.
The ninety-minute parade passed by most of the cherished spots for the North Hills players: the elementary school in the town of West View, where each week the name of a player would be strung along its six front windows, and Monte Cello's Pizza, the main hangout. The parade came within a block of the field where North Hills played its home games, which was appropriate because Renkey and the other seniors already were starting to distance themselves from high school.
"There's a house right by the field," Renkey said, "and the people who own it cut down all the trees in the backyard so they could watch the games. They put up signs with lights on them, called themselves the Rowdy Rooters. Maybe fifty fans would be there, with a couple of kegs. Rooting us on and insulting the other team. They'd also always be at school when we'd come home from away games. Our most loyal fans."
Still nearly a month shy of turning eighteen, Renkey knew this parade would be unique in his life. And while he enjoyed being the envy of men two and three times his age, he also was uncomfortable being the object of ceaseless attention. "I used to never go into Ross Park Mall," he said. "And especially if I had something that said North Hills Football on, because ten people would stop and ask me where I was going to college. Especially right after the season. A couple of times in West View I'd be getting something to eat and people would ask for autographs. All the kids know who you are."
He had not been that way as a kid. Mel coached one of the youth league teams, which featured the pass-and-catch combination of quarterback Eric Renkey and receiver Chris Cisar. But Eric had not been starstruck over the North Hills Indians, though it was obvious how special they were. "Friday night [youth league] practices had to be cut short," he said, "because everybody had to go see the North Hills game. People with no kids at North Hills would go. But my dad and I never got caught up in it."
"Caught up in it" would be a mild way of describing Eric's attitude once he became a North Hills Indian. Now and then he had been frightened by a nerve injury in the neck area. It was called a "burner" because burning was one of the immediate sensations along the shoulder area and down the adjoining arm. Worse, a good deal of the area would go numb. But the burners passed quickly, within twenty or thirty seconds, and he pressed ahead with near-fanatic devotion. "If you want to get really fired up, you have to start on a Monday to get ready for a Friday," Renkey observed. "By Friday, you're nuts. Then you calm down a little over the weekend."
Renkey's zest was matched by those who watched his game and followed his progress. Coach McCurry spoke of western Pennsylvania as others did about sizable regions of Texas and Georgia and smaller ones in most other states: "Football here is just a way of life." The player judged the best in such a place commanded immense respect, which meant that the parade for Renkey was both the end of one grand adventure and the beginning of another. Joe Paterno soon would be dropping by the house to try and coax this extraordinary linebacker to Linebacker U. And while Renkey was most important just now, he was not the only recruit on Paterno's mind. ... * * * Woodrow Wilson High School sends off conflicting impressions about one of America's sad cities — Camden, New Jersey. At times it seems so tranquil, sitting across Federal Street from a mostly grassy park that stretches for several hundred yards. Beyond the hallway inside the main entrance is a courtyard. A portrait of the school's namesake near the principal's office looks at banners encouraging achievement.
Uniformed men with walkie-talkies patrol the halls. Quickly, the quiet can be broken by three police cars coming to a sudden halt. Officers stream out of the cars, scurry past the billboard that announces future games, and up the wide steps. Soon, they return, often with several students invited to accompany them back to headquarters.
Excerpted from For the Glory by Ken Denlinger. Copyright © 1994 Ken Denlinger. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: In Search Of,
1. The Parade Begins,
2. Paper Tigers,
Part Two: Hello and Good-bye,
3. Little Pit,
4. Reading, Writing, and Sleeping,
5. Blue and the Blues,
6. Non-Football Gravity,
Part Three: To Have and to Have Not,
7. Wake Up the Echoes — In Happy Valley,
8. Tony's Time,
9. Inside Joe's Head,
10. Field of Reality,
11. Free Falling,
12. Spring Back, Spring Ahead,
Part Four: "This Is My Home",
13. Fleeting Fame,
14. Where Are They Now?,
15. Leaving Their Mark,
Part Five: The Clock Winds Down,
16. Hurricane Damage,
Also by Ken Denlinger,
National Acclaim for For the Glory,