University of Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco grew up rooting for Penn State.
He attended football games at Beaver Stadium up until four years ago. He was an annual participant in the Nittany Lions’ summer football camps beginning in eighth grade.
And even though he outperformed 2010 four-star quarterback prospects Paul Jones and Rob Bolden at one such camp prior to his senior year of high school, Rocco, a two-star recruit, didn’t land a scholarship offer from Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
That was the same Joe Paterno who had signed Michael’s father as a quarterback recruit some three decades earlier.
“In the summer before his senior year, Penn State held a top prospect’s camp up there for seniors and they brought Mike up for that,” Frank Rocco Jr. said Tuesday from Lynchburg, Va., where he is the head football coach and athletic director at Liberty Christian Academy. “Paul Jones and Rob Bolden were both in that camp. As the story goes, Mike played better than both of them.
“Afterward (former quarterbacks coach) Jay Paterno said to Mike, `When you’re leaving town today, you and your dad stop by the football offices. Joe wants to talk to you.’ “
Frank remembers both he and his son sitting down with the elder Paterno in his spacious office at the Lasch Football Building.
“Joe said Jones already had committed (for 2010) and they had offered Bolden and expected him to accept their offer,” Frank said. “Joe said to Mike, `All the coaches tell me you had a great camp and we got to offer you, but I don’t have any scholarships to offer.’
“So he offered Mike a chance to grayshirt. We left town not knowing exactly what a grayshirt was. And that went into Mike’s evaluation process when it came to picking a school.“
Michael Rocco, a four-year starter while playing for his dad in high school, opted not to grayshirt at Penn State, which would have meant delaying his enrollment until January 2011.
After initially committing to Louisville, he changed his mind after coach Steve Kragthorpe was fired, and enrolled at Virginia.
Rocco, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior, will make his 15th career start for the Cavaliers Saturday against Penn State in Charlottesville, Va. Meanwhile, Bolden has transferred to LSU while Jones has yet to play a down in his third season with the Nittany Lions.
Rocco, who held off Alabama transfer Phillip Sims for the starting job at Virginia, said he is treating Penn State as he would any other game. That’s a little hard to believe.
After all, Rocco’s dad earned a national championship ring as the backup quarterback on the Nittany Lions' 1982 team and his grandfather, Frank Rocco Sr., was a one-time assistant under Paterno who later served as an athletic administrator and still resides in State College.
Michael's mother, Leslie, graduated from Penn State. His uncle, Dan, Richmond’s head coach, played two seasons for the Nittany Lions before transferring to Wake Forest. And his aunt, Sheri, is married to Chip Harrison, the strength and conditioning coach for Penn State’s Olympic sports.
"I've had so many affiliations with Penn State, it's crazy how it's worked out," Michael said earlier this week. "But my approach doesn't change based on the opponent. I really just come into it like it's any other game. But it's great to be able to play Penn State."
In the opener four days ago at home, Rocco completed 25 of 37 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown as Virginia hammered his uncle’s Richmond team, 43-19.
Saturday, he will face his dad’s alma mater in Charlottesville, where his sister, Jen, is a teacher and his uncle, Dave, is a high school football coach.
“It’ll certainly be an emotional, strange twist of events,” said Frank Jr., who led Penn State to a win in the 1979 Liberty Bowl and was engaged in a battle with Todd Blackledge and Jeff Hostetler for the starting quarterback duties in 1980. “My family, we’re obviously still all Penn State supporters, with all of our connections.
“Michael, himself, was brought up to be a Penn Stater, but the way things worked out, he became a Cavalier and we support him 100 percent.
“He’s way better as a quarterback than I ever was at this stage. He understands the game better than I did. He’s a lot stronger.”
Michael’s dad is convinced first-year coach Bill O’Brien has the Penn State program back on the right track – despite the harsh sanctions handed down by the NCAA in wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse allegations and the season-opening 24-14 loss to Ohio University at Beaver Stadium.
“I’m proud with what coach O’Brien has done and the players appear to be sticking together,” Frank Jr. said. “I really hope the best for Penn State. It has been such a big part of my family’s life.
“That being said, I’m going to be rooting for my son to take down the Nittany Lions this week.”
With that, he let out a hearty laugh. His son hopes to get the last laugh Saturday against Penn State.