Editor's Note: This is the 15th of a 19-part daily series that seeks to answer the questions surrounding the 2010 Penn State football team. Check back every weekday until the Blue-White Game this Saturday to see the question of the day. Monday, we asked: "At 83, Can Paterno Give It Another Run?" Today, we ask: "Whatever Happened to Aric Heffelfinger?"
The easy thing to do is to make a joke of it, to trot out his big Blue-White day back on April 20, 2002, with a wink and a nudge. To make his time that day, and by extension his time at a Penn State, a punchline. To render them meaningless because what he did came in a game that is, on surface, meaningless.
Only thing is, the game means a great deal in the way that he himself represents a great deal. And making light of what Aric Heffelfinger did in Beaver Stadium that spring day exactly eight years ago would be one wrong eclipsing three rights.
Because without being too blue and white corny about it, Aric Heffelfinger and the 2002 Blue-White football game are what is right about Penn State. And what is right about Penn State football.
And, most importantly, what is right about Aric Heffelfinger.
Two minutes into a 30-minute cold call phone conversation with Heffelfinger, you can tell he's a decent guy. First, he didn't hang up. Second, he was a good sport and agreed to talk about the biggest game of his Penn State career.
Either he didn't know he was potentially the one-line set-up of some State College sportswriter, or he didn't care. Or, most accurately, he's just a trusting kind of guy.
The kind of guy who hails from Seward, Pa., "where there's no stoplight and you can walk from one end of the other in about 15 minutes," Heffelfinger said.
The kind of guy who marries a girl knew in Laurel Valley High School – "but we weren't high school sweethearts. We were just friends back then." They're newlyweds now, having married last summer. They live in Herndon, Va. Erin is a third-grade teacher, he is an architectural engineer.
He's the kind of guy who got his bachelor's and master's concurrently at Penn State, on a five-year plan necessitated by rigorous academics and not by all-state partying. Took chemistry, physics and calculus II -- his first semester. Finished with a 3.82 grade point average.
"You're too good to be true. Is your name Opie? Is your hair red?" I asked him, not realizing the Ron Howard reference from the 1960s Andy Griffith Show might be lost on someone born two decades after the show was cancelled.
"Uh, no. It's brown," he said.
I love this guy.
A Penn State kind of guy.
A Penn State football team preferred walk-on kind of guy.
Get this: Heffelfinger played golf his sophomore year of high school. "My brother is two years older than me," he says, "and I thought it would be nice if we were on the same team." Of course -- he's that kind of guy.
He did play for Laurel Valley as a junior and senior. He ran for more than 1,200 yards as a junior and 1,600 yards as a senior. He scored 25 touchdowns – in just his last season.
So Heffelfinger entered Penn State in the fall of 2001, guaranteed a spot in the locker room and a place on the scout team. Nothing more. Certainly not a scholarship. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, with 4.6 speed in the 40, he brought some strong physical tools to the table.
He didn't play a down in 2001, as the Nittany Lions did little right that season but get Joe Paterno his 324th's career win. Larry Johnson was the squad's top rusher, gaining all of 337 yards – for the season.
Heffelfinger didn't say so, but he had to figure that he was going to get some carries in 2002.
"I always felt that I could do it," he said. "I saw the type of success I had on the practice field, against the same players, and I thought I could do well."
So what happened on that third Saturday in April in 2002 didn't surprise at least one person. It did not surprise Aric Heffelfinger.
Heffelfinger carried the ball only five times that game – the Zack Mills vs. MRob Debate was in full bore. He ran for 92 yards, with a long of 51 yards.
"That was my first run," he said. "I broke three or four tackles on another run for 15 or 20 yards. I remember everything distinctly about that game."
He finished as the Nittany Lions' leading rusher that day, ahead of Johnson (seven carries, 29 yards), who had the starting job all locked up. He outperformed two other reserve running backs who had Penn State pedigrees -- Mike Gasparato, son of a former Penn State assistant coach, and Pete Gilmore, whose brother lettered for PSU.
PLAYING 'FOR REAL'
Heffelfinger hoped bigger things would follow. "People told me that game alone should have gotten me a scholarship or an opportunity to play," he said.
Neither happened. In the 2002 summer preseason camp, Heffelfinger hurt his ankle. He wanted to hurry back, but the reins were pulled in. Why rush? L.J. was just leaving the station on a 2,087-yard journey that left Heffelfinger on the sidelines.
Heffelfinger got his first – and only – chance to play in a for-real game 182 days after his performance in the Blue-White Game. A half-year later on the same stage, but under vastly different circumstances. And with agonizingly different results.
Before a Homecoming crowd of 108,853 in Beaver Stadium, Hefflefinger took the field late in a 49-0 thrashing of Northwestern on Oct. 19, 2002. L.J. already had his 257 yards, Gasparato his 56, Gilmore his 22.
Twice Heffelfinger carried the ball, losing a yard in the process. "The numbers weren't that good," he recalled.
Entering the 2003 season Heffelfinger hoped for more. But new that fall was a phenom at running back, and the coaches paid great heed to the great (Austin) Scott.
Heffelfinger's day had come and gone – on the football field. He couldn't compete with Scott's speed or newspaper clippings; Scott, as it turned out, couldn't match Heffelfinger's endeavors in a few other areas.
"I never got another opportunity. It was a real letdown for me," Heffelfinger said. "I don't know what I would have done differently."
No matter what, he still would have chosen Penn State.
"I appreciate having had the opportunity at Penn State," he said over the phone. "I saw some things and did some things not a lot of other people did.
"And I'm thankful for my education. I received the best education I possibly could."
Of course. Aric Heffelfinger is that kind of guy.