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January 14, 2014

Column: Lucas leads the way

The game is a delicate one.

No, losing a head coach to the NFL isn't a life or death proposition. In the context of the varied lives of Penn State's football players - some privileged, some not - the transactions that captivate the daily attention of sports media and fans often register very differently for the athletes directly impacted.

So it went Tuesday afternoon, then, that a handful of Penn State football players answered questions from the media for the first time since a month-long span of events effectively changed their lives.

From Bill O'Brien's flirtation with a possible head coaching opportunity in the NFL, to the intensifying talks and his eventual departure before the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, to Penn State's closed-lipped search for a replacement, to James Franklin's naming as the Nittany Lions' 16th head coach in program history, to - finally - Larry Johnson's announced departure from the staff Monday night after a storied two-decade career, the happenings were a picture of instability to the fans and media following every step.

For the 18-to-22-year olds actually living it, one imagined, the transitions must have been excruciating - especially considering the two years of storybook twists that have led to this moment.

By the time Jordan Lucas picked up his cell phone to speak to reporters, a dramatically different picture started to emerge, though.

Reporters danced carefully around the potentially harsh feelings that one would expect from a youth experiencing more disappointment from the adults he'd come to rely upon. (Editor's Note: Hacking up a lung for every three words spoken, this writer abstained from participating in the call, choosing to listen only.) As Lucas spoke, a sweet dose of perspective finally presented itself.

Namely, these kids handle this crap with more grace and perspective than the adults.

The reality that became evident to me two years ago - the night I watched as Penn State players threw footballs into trashcans outside Beaver Stadium as their 84-year old head coach was getting publicly fired to a chorus of boos - popped back into sharp focus.

Take Lucas' thoughts on O'Brien's departure for the Houston Texans, for instance.

"When Coach O'Brien was leaving, I wasn't mad, I wasn't any of that. There was no anger going through my body at all," he said. "I was actually very happy for him. I figured there was going to come a time where he would leave to the NFL, and this was just his time.

"I'm happy for him. I'm happy for his wife and his two sons, and I wish him nothing but the best in the NFL."

Or, say, Lucas' reaction to Johnson deciding to move on from his career with the Nittany Lions for another opportunity:

Said Lucas, "As far as Coach Johnson, I understand exactly why he left. That's his decision, his family's decision, and I can never be mad at him for that. I understand.

"I understand Coach Johnson. He was a great coach here. As players and students, we can't dwell on the past. We have to keep moving forward, so the next guy who comes in, the defensive line is going to be under him and work just as hard. That's where I stand."

None of this is to say that there aren't hurt feelings among the players in Penn State's locker room.

Certainly, the relationships that are built through work more grueling than I'm likely to ever know do not crumble easily. In fact, as any Nittany Lion who has now lived through one or more coaching changes, the good relationships between coach and player are maintained and developed as life inevitably proceeds.

Which, of course, brings us back to Lucas and the message he shared with his teammates in the midst of the past month's turmoil for the Penn State football program.

Though directed at kids still in their teenage years, the message is no less true for walks of life far different than his own. Adults in the room would be wise to take heed.

Said Lucas, "Long story short, I told them, 'Whoever our coach is going to be, we're going to be fine.' We're going to come back in January, we're going to work hard, we're going to train like we've never trained before and we'll be fine because there's nothing we haven't been through before.

"I told them, 'Whatever happens, as long as we stick together and remain one family, then we'll be fine throughout it all.'"





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