By Mike Poorman
This column may be a conflict of interest. But I don't think so. See what you think.
It was the Tuesday after October 13, the Saturday when Penn State beat No. 19 Wisconsin in the 2007 season. Jerome Hayes walked into class that morning...well, he didn't actually walk. He stepped a bit shakily with left leg and then dragged his right leg, cradled in a Ironman-like contraption that extended almost entirely down his leg. It protected his right knee, which had suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. The injury came on a special teams play, the 224th and last play of Jerome's season.
Defensive ends come and defensive ends go, but his presence that day in the classroom in the basement of Carnegie Building, located along the mall between Willard and Sparks, just past the Pattee library, was much more noteworthy to me than what he did — or will do — on the field.
He came to class.
It would have been easy to blow it off that day. Sportswriting class, is what it was, a 400-level writing class in the College of Communication's John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. It was, without a doubt, a very difficult journey to get to Room 19.
But he made it.
I can't tell you what Jerome's grade was that semester (although I can look it up in my worn, spiral bound grading book). Even if I knew it, I couldn't tell you. That conflict of interest thing.
But the impression he made that day, coupled with the fact he missed nary an assignment as he went through surgery and rehab and what had to be a fair amount of frustrating tears, impressed me more than his 2.5 sacks that season or his 14 solo tackles and four tackles for a loss in his challenging career.
Over the offseason, one of my kids and I happened to see Jerome. He stopped. Gave me one of those shoulder hugs. Talked to my kid. (My acid test for determining if someone is a decent sort.) Grinned. A lot. And he was positive about coming back.
And the next season, he was indeed back. After a strong performance against Coastal Carolina in the 2008 season opener, Jerome earned his first career start against Oregon State on September 6. Then it happened again.
"It," as you probably know or have surmised by now, is another torn anterior cruciate ligament. This time to the left knee. Again on a special teams play. (Who's special teams decision was that?)
It wasn't drawn up this way when Jerome committed to Penn State in early 2005. Take his visit to Penn State's All Sports Museum when he was a senior at Bayonne (N.J.) High School. He was one of the top linebacking recruits in the country and also played running back.
Which explains the Franco Harris jersey he wore that was purchased by his mother. It just so happened that Franco (in person!) was at the museum that day. He signed Jerome's jersey (his welcome to Jerome was an immaculate reception). Penn State had to look so good to him that day.
But we now know that, unfortunately, he was wearing blue colored glasses.
It has been anything but wine and roses for Jerome since he came to Happy Valley, a misnomer if there ever was one. He got into a bit of trouble off the field early in his career, but straightened himself out. He earned his shot in 2007, then in 2008 and, now, in 2009. He'll start at defensive end on Saturday against Akron, playing a spot that is half-outside linebacker and half-end.
He's paid his dues even though the bills haven't stopped coming.
Joe Paterno is happy for him. The coach speaks in serious, yet sterling tones when discussing Jerome "Jerome's worked really hard," Paterno said at his weekly press conference at Beaver Stadium on Tuesday.
"Psychologically, it's hard to come off of two knee surgeries like that... He's anxious to get in there and I'm anxious for him to get in there."
In deference to Jerome's injury, Paterno and defensive line coach Larry Johnson have reduced Jerome's reps in practice and have tried to keep him relatively fresh, so he stays nimble. During the Big Ten Network's visit to the Penn State practice a few weeks ago, Jerome still moved with a bit of a hitch, but appeared quick and focused.
He's already a success in my book, in large part because he stayed on track and earned his journalism degree despite all the tribulations. And now he's a graduate student in telecommunications.
But we won't know how his knees are until he's out on the field at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. His heart? No question about that.
Hayes won't be the only one coming out of the Penn State locker room and onto the field for the first time in awhile. For Paterno, the return to the Nittany Lions' sidelines is like the swallows returning to Capistrano. Both Joe and the birds have been returning home at the same time every year for decades and decades.
That the birds return to that mission in California on St. Joseph's Day isn't lost on me. Or Paterno, I bet.
"Relieved?" he nearly shouted when asked about being back on the field. "And how!"
He hated being in the press box for most of last season's games. "Oh yeah," he said, verbally rolling his eyes. "I really enjoyed it. It was kind of fun, sitting there with the other coaches. I got to second guess them..."
His new hip in place, a lot of rehab behind him, Paterno looks fit and speaks of moving around in practice like he hasn't in years.
But the big question — and this is important, if only for its symbolism or, maybe, because of it — is will Paterno lead his players out of the south end zone tunnel, through the gauntlet of cheerleaders and onto the field?
"I don't know if I am going to be able to run onto the field," he said. "I do a little bit (of jogging) on the practice field. (The doctors) get a little nervous. I'm just looking forward to getting back on the sideline."
Jerome and Joe, back on the field together again.
Mike Poorman is a senior lecturer and director of alumni relations in Penn State's College of Communications. He teaches "Joe Paterno & The Media," and among the 62 students in that class is a kid named Jerome Hayes. Mike is reachable for comment at [email protected]