The kid had given his word, but now the adults were swarming from afar, offering a perceived easier way out of a messy situation he had nothing to do with.
Those college coaches wanted Christian Hackenberg, then 17, to turn his back on Penn State and play quarterback for them. All he had to do was break a commitment with the Nittany Lions.
Hackenberg refused to listen to the suitors. He wouldn’t reopen his recruiting in July 2012, when the NCAA hit Penn State with sanctions, including a four-year postseason ban, in response to a child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
To do so would have meant going against the virtues of honor that Hackenberg learned as a cadet for three years at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, a Christian boarding school.
“He could have changed his mind,” said Micky Sullivan, who retired last year after 28 seasons as Fork Union coach but remains the school’s athletic director. “He said to me, ‘I want to go to Penn State. Nothing has changed.’ That says a lot about the kid and the way he plays. He has character. His word means something. He kept his word.”
Impressive statistics tell much about Hackenberg, a true freshman who leads the Big Ten in passing as he heads into his seventh career start on Saturday against undefeated and No. 4 Ohio State.
So does a signature drive, as Hackenberg’s clutch play late in regulation during Penn State’s 43-40 four-overtime win over Michigan on Oct. 12 fueled an already burgeoning legend for the 18-year-old.
Those plays and numbers, however, don’t reveal as much about the quarterback as does the loyalty that Hackenberg showed Penn State and coach Bill O’Brien at a dire time.
O’Brien mentioned that after Hackenberg became only the second true freshman quarterback to start an opener for Penn State since 1910, when he led the Nittany Lions to a 23-17 win over Syracuse at East Rutherford, N.J.
“Here is a guy, just like a lot of these guys in the freshman class, that could have gone anywhere,” O’Brien said last month. “He had scholarship (offers) to over 50 schools, and he committed to us before the sanctions came out, and he stuck with us when the sanctions came out. No matter what happens in his career, 10 years down the road, all of these guys are better men for having done that.”
Sullivan said that part of Hackenberg’s decision to remain committed to Penn State was because of O’Brien, a former NFL offensive coordinator whose pro-style system fits Hackenberg.
“From talking to Christian, they have a very, very good relationship,” said Sullivan, who coached Eddie George at Fork Union before the running back won the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State.
Hackenberg has been named Big Ten freshman of the week three times and leads the conference in completions (132) and passing yards per game (278.7). He has thrown for at least 300 yards in half of his six starts and completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 1,672 yards and 11 touchdowns.
His stoic demeanor hasn’t wavered, either. Hackenberg shook off two early interceptions against Michigan to later drive the Nittany Lions 80 yards in 23 seconds to tie the score in the final minute. He completed passes of 14, 29, and 36 yards and capped the march with a 1-yard touchdown run.
“What sticks out for me is the way he handles himself,” said Matt McGloin, the Penn State quarterback last year and current reserve for the Oakland Raiders. “You can’t teach that. He’s relaxed out there. Look at the Michigan game. The lights came on, and he led them down the field.”
Hackenberg now must go into Ohio Stadium, where more than 100,000 fans will be screaming for the Buckeyes to increase the nation’s longest winning streak to 20. Three years of structured, disciplined life at Fork Union should help.
“You have to get up and drill, wear a uniform, shave, cut your hair, shine your shoes,” Sullivan said. “They’re not treated special by anybody when they’re here. When they go on, they don’t feel like they’re owed something. We want it to be tough for our athletes here so when they go to the next level it’s easier. Christian bought into it.”
Just as he bought into Penn State and never wavered when an easier path beckoned, Hackenberg is expected to bring the same mental toughness against Ohio State.
“I think he’ll handle it like he handles everything else,” Sullivan said. “Good or bad, he’ll stand tall in there and say, ‘Let’s go guys, we got to do this.’ You’ll see that no matter who wins.”