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Penn State Football: Derek Day's Journey to Nittany Lions Backfield

by on April 01, 2012 11:35 PM

Dwayne Day will never forget the night.

If you wanted to learn how his son could become the second-string running back for Penn State, how he could possibly have gone from preferred walk-on to on-field leader, you'd need only ask him about Nov. 16, 2007.

More than four years later, his voice is still on the verge of breaking whenever you bring up the night his son severely fractured his tibia and fibula during the first half of a 33-0 loss to Manheim Township in a District 3-6 Class AAAA quarterfinal football game.

That was when Derek Day, now a senior running back for Penn State, lay on the grass, unable to stand up, waved his dad down from the bleachers and onto the field.

A high school football career over, a college football career in doubt, the exchange between father and son could not have made Dad any more proud.

“So, you think you could go?” Dwayne asked his son.

“Dad, it’s hanging,” Derek responded, scaling over his broken left leg, one that used to help churn out more than 1,500 yards at Central Dauphin High School, near Harrisburg.

“Why aren’t we going to the doctors?”

“Because I won’t leave my team.”

***

It was Derek Day’s dream to play at Penn State. Accepting a spot on the roster as a preferred walk-on, Day worked his way to earn a full scholarship last season (he called his dad around his birthday last August to surprise him with the news). With Penn State under the 85-scholarship maximum for 2012, it would not be a surprise to see Day remain on scholarship his senior season.

He’s taking second-team reps alongside sophomore Bill Belton while Curtis Dukes sits out spring practice to focus on academics.

He made an impression during an open winter conditioning session by defeating safety Malcolm Willis mano-a-mano in “The Tug,” where two players yank a giant blue saucer, trying to pull the other five yards.

And, he’s been one of the Nittany Lions best special teams players.

Dwayne Day admits he had his doubts. Delaware and other smaller schools perhaps could’ve meant four years of playing time in the backfield. Penn State? Derek would be lucky to see the field before his junior or senior year, his father said.

“Dad, let me worry about that,” Dwayne recalled Derek saying. “Let me go and show them what I have.”

Dwayne got his answer in 2009, when Day was only a redshirt freshman.

Day did not make the first road trip with Penn State to Illinois on Oct. 3. So, he and his father traveled to Kutztown to watch a former teammate play.

At one point during the game, Dwayne turned to his son and said, “Wouldn’t it be neat to travel?”

“Dad, I’ll be traveling by the end of the year,” he said. Three weeks later, Penn State traveled to Michigan for its second road game of the season. On the Wednesday before the game, Dwayne received a phone call from Day saying he’d be going.

Dwayne has followed his son to every game since, including stops in Orlando and Tampa for bowl games and Tuscaloosa for a nonconference game at Alabama.

None meant more than that first trip to Ann Arbor, though. Tailgating on the golf course across from the Big House, Dwayne got a call from Derek an hour-and-a-half before kickoff.

Great, Dwayne thought. He must have broken an ankle.

“You better be in your seat early,” Day told him. “I’m starting on special teams.”

Tears welled in Dwayne's eyes, and he started to cry.

***

It’s been quite a journey for Day. His father works for UPS and was relocated six times across Pennsylvania when Day was growing up — the most recent was to Bellefonte, right in the middle of Day’s football recruitment.

Rather than uproot Derek and mess with that process, Dwayne purchased an apartment in Harrisburg for Day and his mother so he wouldn’t have to transfer out of Central Dauphin.

A year later, Day broke his leg in a high school football playoff game, a surgical process that left seven screws and a metal plate in his leg.

Unsure of his football future, Day made sure to call Larry Johnson, his main liaison to the Penn State football program, to tell him about the injury. Physical therapy did not last long, his father said, and by the summer, Day was able to play in a high school football all-star game.

Now, he's in the middle of spring practice, backing up junior Silas Redd in the Penn State backfield, preparing for his last season of college football.

“I can’t be any prouder of him, that’s all,” Dwayne said. "The kid is the epitome of what hard work does for anybody.”

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Nate Mink covers Penn State football and news for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @MinkNate.
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