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Dear Christian Hackenberg: Life Lessons From Penn State Football Quarterbacks

by on June 28, 2013 6:40 AM

Dear Christian Hackenberg:

Congratulations on completing your first week as a Penn State student. Only 715 days of classes or so to go until graduation. And that’s the goal, isn’t it?

You already know it’s not easy being a Penn State quarterback, going to class, learning Bill O’Brien’s offense, being in the national spotlight. And it’s even tougher doing it with class, facing occasional – or frequent – criticism, working hard and being a leader.

But many Nittany Lion quarterbacks have been successful at it before you.

In my 35 years of writing about Penn State football, I’ve gotten to know several PSU QBs and each has been special in his own way(s). I’m lucky to have broken bread with a starter from the 1940s (Bobby Williams) and one from six decades later (Michael Robinson). From my perspective, both have exhibited life lessons you might do well to emulate over the next four seasons, on and off the field.

So, I’m taking the liberty of passing some of them on to you. I’ve only included quarterbacks with whom I’ve had some personal experience, so a Wally Richardson or a Darryl Clark are not included. My guys are listed below in chronological order, with their seasons as a letter winner in parentheses. Good luck…

1. Bobby Williams (1942-43, 1946-47). One of the greatest Penn Staters ever, Fran Fisher, introduced me to Bobby, who was a left halfback. But, as Penn State historian Lou Prato points out in his “Football Encyclopedia” – required reading, by the way, Christian -- in Penn State’s Single Wing offense, Williams was the play-caller and passer. A former school teacher, Bobby is as humble of a guy as you’d ever want to meet and downplays his key role on Penn State’s historic 9-0-1 team in 1947. Lesson: Humility.

2. Jeff Hostetler (1980) – Jeff was the starter for the first few games of 1980, then lost the job forever to Todd Blackledge and transferred the next season. Jeff and I had freshman English together, taught by Jack Selzer, now the Paterno Family Professor of Literature. I’m not telling you to transfer, but after Jeff did he married the coach’s daughter at WVU and won a Super Bowl. Lesson: Keep chasing your dream.

3. Todd Blackledge (1980-82) – Todd was the same guy as a first-time starter at Missouri in 1980 as he was as the quarterback on Penn State’s first national championship team and a first-round NFL Draft pick, as he has been as the involved father of four sons, and as he has been in recent years, when he’s returned to campus to meet with students and accept the Distinguished Alumni award. Lesson: Be guided by your personal ethics and don’t let success change you.

4. John Shaffer (1984-86) – There’s probably not a quarterback in Penn State history who has been maligned as much as John. And he had his horrible moments. Like his 74-yard, three-pick performance in Penn State’s 25-10 loss to Oklahoma in the 1986 Orange Bowl, which cost the Nittany Lions the national title. Or his career line of 17 TD passes and 14 interceptions. But he was 23-1 as a Penn State starter and under center when PSU beat Miami (Fla.) to win the 1986 national championship, so he did something right. Lesson: Ignore the boos and criticism, and find a way to help your team win.

5. Jay Paterno (1989) – Yes, Jay was a quarterback – buried deep, deep on the depth chart in 1989. (There’s a great video of him getting crushed in the Blue-White Game that year.) What Jay lacked significantly in quarterbacking skills, he’s made up in embracing and succeeding at what’s important off the field and what you’ll need to succeed in the classroom. Lesson: Getting an education is vital, then use it to further ideas and ideals, and perform service to the community big and small.

6. Kerry Collins (1992-94) – Kerry was the lynchpin of Penn State’s greatest offense ever, with future pros on the offensive line, the No. 1 pick in the draft in tailback Ki-Jana Carter and an NFL-caliber receiving corps. He went on to have a long and fairly successful NFL career. But that’s not your lesson; this is: Kerry is the only Penn State football player among thousands to endow a full scholarship in support of Nittany Lion football. That impresses me most of all. Lesson: Give back.

7. Zack Mills (2001-04) – During his career, Zack was often pounded into submission while playing on teams that went 21-26. But he always performed with verve and enthusiasm and great spirit, no matter what the conditions. And along the way, he became Penn State’s all-time leading passer (7,212 yards). You need to see his 69-yard touchdown run in the 2001 Ohio State game where he hurdled a teammate and led PSU on an 18-point comeback that resulted in Joe Paterno’s 324th win to understand what I am talking about. Lesson: Enjoy the game, no matter what.

8. Michael Robinson (2002-05) – After shuttling around most of his college career, MRob settled in at quarterback in 2005 and in many ways single-handedly led Penn State to an 11-1 record and a win in the Orange Bowl. His love of the game was truly infectious. But it’s a passion that he’s always displayed, no matter what the challenges: As a college player unsure of his position, as a father, as the producer of his own web programs, as a NFL player playing fullback and special teams, as a guy who got traded but emerged as a leader and Pro Bowl player. Lesson: Be passionate in all that you do.

9. Matt McGloin (2010-12) – You know all about Matt’s hallmarks of perseverance and never-ending confidence. But most impressive about Matt has been his work ethic, on and off the field. He willed himself to learn O’Brien’s offense, and made it his life’s mission. But he could show the same determination in the classroom. In one summer-session class – a goof-off time for many students -- Matt finished his final semester-long project a week early. That's unheard of, Christian. But he wanted feedback and the chance to be the best he could be. His final grade reflected as much. Lesson: Study hard, both in the film room and the classroom.

10. Shane McGregor (2012) – Shane certainly could give you hairstyling and grooming tips, but he offers so much more – literally and figuratively. Shane was an honors student, winning a national journalism award and covering the BCS title game, dancing in THON and supporting campus chapters and organizations. He truly was a Renaissance man. He rarely played, but he made the football team and the university better in many ways. Lesson: Make an impact.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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