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October 1, 2013This story appears in our latest edition of Blue White Illustrated magazine.
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By Tim Owen
Blue White Illustrated
On Sunday mornings before leaving State College, all Erick Hackenberg wants to be is just another parent, dealing with the fact that his firstborn no longer lives at home. When it's time to make the long drive back to Palmyra, Va., his son Christian won't ride along in the backseat, like he had for the previous 18 years. His home is here now. That, alone, is an adjustment for a parent. Never mind that Christian is a five-star freshman who has been the Penn State football team's starting quarterback since the season-opening snap, and that on Saturdays, he plays in front of more than 90,000 fans. With every deep pass he throws and with each polished interview he conducts -- ready or not -- Christian Hackenberg is rapidly becoming the Nittany Lions' biggest star.
Erick likes to grab breakfast with Christian before skipping town. This particular Sunday, there are mixed emotions. The night before, Christian played the best game of his young career, but his Lions lost to UCF, 34-31. "It hurts," he said afterward. "I feel like I could have done some things better."
They drive a mile or so out of town to avoid the Sunday morning bull-rush breakfast lines. The Waffle Shop? Yeah, right. That might have been an option on a recruiting visit last year, or even a few weeks ago. But anymore, quiet is better.
So they find a restaurant out on South Atherton Street where they can enjoy an unrushed meal with a few friends and one of Christian's three younger brothers. They talk about pretty much everything except football. These are the moments Erick cherishes.
But after finishing their eggs and orange juice, they stand up to leave, and sure enough "Excuse me," say two guests at the neighboring table. "Think we could get a picture?"
With a smile, Christian of course says yes. Although the sting is still fresh from the loss, he poses for the shot, still smiling, then leaves to go about his day.
Hackenberg and his family don't make much of occurrences like that anymore. They're used to the requests, which have become even more frequent in the past few weeks. After the quarterback's closely watched recruitment, publicity has become a fact of life for the Hackenberg family. And in all likelihood, it's only going to increase, given his performance in Penn State's nonconference season, during which he threw for at least 250 yards and a touchdown in each of his first three starts as a Nittany Lion. He also earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors twice in the season's first three weeks.
"You're living in a fishbowl if you want that success," said Micky Sullivan, the longtime Fork Union Military Academy head coach who retired after Christian's senior season. Sullivan also coached a number of college and pro greats, including former Ohio State tailback Eddie George. "In today's world, Christian Hackenberg has more publicity than what Eddie George did when he won the Heisman."
Long before arriving at Penn State, Hackenberg was a familiar name on the recruiting circuit, the recipient of offers from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Stanford, Virginia and just about every other school in the country. But as he reached his senior season, the national spotlight began to shine its brightest.
A year ago, Fork Union's season opener was broadcast on ESPN, and it wasn't out of the ordinary to see television cameras inside the locker room throughout the season. He attended camps in college and NFL stadiums, with droves of photographers capturing every muscle twitch. He's been interviewed. Oh, has he been interviewed. Since his junior year of high school, he's conducted more local and national media interviews -- face to face, over the phone, on camera, postgame, pregame, during game -- than most of his current teammates, including the seniors. Said Sullivan, "Somebody had a microphone or camera in his face all season long."
Some families might recoil in the face of all that attention, but the Hackenbergs knew how to cope with it. As former college athletes themselves, his parents understand the media's role in sports.
Erick was a star quarterback at Marian Catholic in Tamaqua, Pa., and he developed into a Division I recruit himself -- albeit in 1988, a decade or so before the Internet transformed recruiting into the media fixation that it is today. Christian's mother, Nikki, was a standout volleyball player at Marian and went on to make her mark at Lehigh University.
So when the media first began taking an interest in Christian, his parents set limits so that he didn't end up talking to every reporter who called. When he began making regular appearances on national television, they advised him to stay humble. They knew that if big-time football was truly his dream, there was no running from the press. Use the coverage to your advantage, they told him, but don't lose perspective.
"It's about understanding that the responsibility has to be taken seriously," Erick said. "There are little eyes looking up to you and watching you all the time. You have to really understand that the situation you're in is a privilege. That's something we've always talked about - how to handle [publicity] from a maturity standpoint. There are times when you can tell that he's frustrated, but he'll continue to do the right thing -- and he'll smile."
In his perfect world, Hackenberg would probably face fewer video cameras, voice recorders and flash photography. "Publicity, whatever," he said. "At the end of the day, I'm just about playing football, and it's more about the team to me than any of that type of stuff."
But he has worked his entire life for this exact opportunity. He's wanted to be a Division I football player since he first tossed the pigskin, and as he, his parents and high school coach have pointed out, the media trail is -- and will continue to be -- part of the package.
On a campus like Penn State's, which includes the second-largest stadium in college football, that media trail turns into a fan club sooner or later. And some of its most loyal members could be sitting next to him in Econ 002, or at the adjacent breakfast table. Anyone who remembers their freshman year surely knows that the first year away from home can be stressful enough. And few of us were public figures.
Coach Bill O'Brien is well aware of the scrutiny that Hackenberg has received on campus and beyond and has worked to ease his transition into the major-college spotlight. "It's something I think about a lot," O'Brien said. "Eighteen years old, being the starting quarterback at Penn State, that's a big deal -- everybody understands that."
When he's on campus, though, Hackenberg likes to keep to himself. Maybe the headphones will be plugged into his ears, and the hood up, especially as the weather grows colder. He is there to take care of his classwork. Academics are a priority, he said, but football is the incentive.
"People understand that I usually just try to keep my head down," Hackenberg said. "I just want to be recognized as a regular student during the day. I'm here doing the same thing that everyone else is, just trying to get an education, but I just play football as well."
He's enrolled mostly in general education classes as he waits to officially decide what his major will be. He gives credit to the academic support staff inside the Lasch Building for making his first couple semesters a little more manageable.
But as he lightheartedly admitted, dealing with the academic workload, the scrutiny that comes with the starting QB position, and a small bout of homesickness has been the most complicated part of his first few months as a college student.
Reading a cover two defense or checking out of a run play and into a pass on fourth down -- which he seamlessly did against Eastern Michigan when he threw a 5-yard quick hitter to Brandon Felder for a first down in the third quarter -- is simple by comparison.
"Finally away on my own, it's been kind of difficult at times, just getting myself acclimated in the classroom," he said. "Football is the easy part."
Easy, maybe, but no college transition ever goes flawlessly. Although he began the opener vs. Syracuse with six consecutive completions, he admitted to being nervous before the game and finished with two interceptions, one of which proved costly. In his second start, on the first play of the third drive, the football squirted out of his throwing hand. An Eastern Michigan defender recovered the fumble, shook loose Hackenberg's attempted tackle and trotted into the end zone for the first points of the game.
But Hackenberg rebounded on the following drive with a tight 43-yard spiral that landed in Allen Robinson's outstretched hands. Three plays later, the Lions were in the end zone.
Hackenberg continued his upward trajectory against UCF in week three. It was his first game without a turnover, and he threw for 262 yards and a touchdown, although it wasn't enough to stave off a loss. Following the game, after locker room and media room obligations, Hackenberg wandered out of the stadium and into the parking lot to find his parents, who were awaiting him at their postgame tailgate.
He arrived and was greeted by his mom and dad. Coach Sullivan was there, too. As his family and close friends were saying hello, they noticed a group of fans who had followed Christian to their parking spot. It was just a few college-age kids stopping by to chat and, of course, to get a picture with the starting quarterback. But on this occasion, it was time for his father to intervene. You get three or four minutes, he politely said to them, and then we need our time.
"We're family, and this is my son," Erick said. "I have a limited amount of minutes with him on this weekend and I want to spend as many of them with him as I can."
No matter what kind of stats he posts, or how many touchdowns he scores, or how many Freshman of the Week honors he garners, Christian will always be Erick's firstborn. And underneath that white helmet and No. 14 jersey, behind that cannon of a throwing arm, Hackenberg is simply a college freshman getting used to his new home.
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