Making an Impact
Four men. Four lives in football. Four futures still left to play.
(page 5 of 9)
By now he’s acclimated to the über-intense Penn State program. But that first workout is etched in his mind. On a scorching July day, coaches whipsawed the squad through a series of shuttle runs and dashes, starting at 300 yards and working torturously down to 20 yards. Two freshmen passed out. Szczerba survived, but it shook his confidence.
“I was thinking to myself, What am I doing here?” he recalls. “They’re all about mental toughness at Penn State, so they were trying to break us down, especially the guys who had a little bit of ego, to show them it’s going to be a tough journey before you start to get on the field.”
Having made it through the most arduous workouts, he says, “Now, I know whatever they throw at me, I’ll be able to handle.”
During the season, players arrive for practice at about 2:15 p.m. to get dressed and taped. At 2:45, they separate according to position for breakdown meetings, to watch film of the previous practice or most recent game. The meetings end around 4. Practice starts at 4:30 and ends at about 6:30. Dinner at 7. All this is in addition to a 12- or 15-credit class schedule. Following dinner, freshmen have the added obligation of a two-hour study hall monitored by academic advisers and graduate assistants, who also check on class attendance daily.
Miss a class, says Szczerba, and your position coach will run you until your lungs are on fire—after practice. Missing two or three classes earns you an audience with the 82-year-old Paterno. “He’s really into your education,” says Szczerba, “and we have a lot of depth, so if he wants to sit you for a game to teach you a lesson, he’ll sit you.”
Like all major football programs, Penn State demands year-round commitment. Szczerba has spent the past two summers in State College with most of the team’s upperclassmen. A criminal justice major with a business option, he took nine credits this past summer, but mostly he was there to lift and run six days a week and practice pass routes with other receivers and the quarterbacks.
Football, he says, “sometimes feels like a job,” but he’s enjoying the experience, especially game day, with its ceremony and tradition—the bus ride with teammates to the stadium, passing the countless tailgate parties, coming out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel to the screams of 110,000 fans.
A redshirt sophomore, Szczerba has three more years of eligibility—time enough to earn a starting position. As for his NFL potential, he’s realistic. “I would have to get more significant time on the field to see how I match up at the next level. That’s obviously every player’s dream, but for me right now, that’s a lot of plays and a lot of hard work away.”
Page 6: A Super Catch