Listen,” says Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, tossing his shaggy brown hair off his forehead, “I spent three years cutting my hair and shaving, which I still don’t have to do.” He rubs his hand across his chin, feeling for a beard he can’t grow. “I’m free now.” He runs his fingers through his feathery mane, does his best hair flip, and laughs. This is his form of rebellion.
Some 275 miles away in Palmyra, Virginia, Erick Hackenberg rolls his eyes. Minutes before the November 9 kickoff between Penn State and Minnesota, Christian’s dad is talking about how his oldest son really needs to cut his hair. I mean, look at that. You can see it peeking out the bottom of his helmet. What kind of look is that? And for crying out loud, can he stop patting the ball before he throws? It’s messing up his rhythm. Erick is a former Division I quarterback, a backup to Shawn Moore at Virginia in the late 1980s, a fundamentals junkie and forever a coach. Nikki Hackenberg is Christian’s mom, a former all-conference middle hitter at Lehigh, the type of athlete who understands the strain of playing college sports. Nikki can’t sit still during the game. She fidgets around her kitchen, dumping chili contents1 into a Crock-Pot, desperate for a distraction.
This is the first game that neither Erick nor Nikki will attend since sending their son off to Penn State. With three other boys at home in the small central Virginia town, it has become impossible to make every sporting event for each child. Reinforcements were sent to Minneapolis in the form of a grandpa and an uncle. Erick and Nikki watch from home as Christian, a 6-foot-4 220-pounder, trots onto the field for the ninth time this season, a rosy-cheeked rookie who has become the face of a storied college football program trying to rehab its image following the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.
In the wake of that horrific episode, which unfolded in the fall of 2011 and left Sandusky in jail, legendary and since-deceased coach Joe Paterno out of a job, and the university on the hook for $60 million in payouts to the victims, the NCAA handed down crippling sanctions. It was an unprecedented move; many horrors took place on Penn State’s campus, but no NCAA violations were committed. Significant scholarship reductions, a four-year postseason ban, and instructions to vacate all wins from 1998 to 2011 scared away a handful of then–Penn State players and a couple recruits.
Hackenberg, a five-star prospect who could have gone anywhere, didn’t bail. “There’s still an aura around this program,” says Hackenberg, who will play his final Beaver Stadium game of the season when Penn State hosts Nebraska on Saturday. “What they built, you can’t take that away. Of course the initial reaction was, ‘What is going to happen?’ But I think when the guys decided to stick around, and when our class decided to stick around, I think that made a statement that we’re not going to let it die.”
This place, Hackenberg says, still means something. And evidently, so does the word of a 17-year-old.
Erick and Christian were at Elite 11, an invite-only national quarterback showcase in California, when word surfaced that the NCAA was going to announce sanctions on Monday, July 23, 2012. Shortly after committing to new coach Bill O’Brien in February, the Hackenbergs started to hear chatter that sanctions might be on the way. At Elite 11, Christian didn’t waver, wearing his Penn State hat all week and ignoring questions about why he would want to go to a school that had such a black eye. “He could have crumbled mentally,” Erick says, “but he didn’t even flinch.” When Erick and Christian landed in Richmond, Virginia, at 9:11 a.m. — 23 minutes later than they were supposed to — they scrambled to find a radio station with an update. As the news filtered through the speakers, Erick watched as Christian’s jaw set and his expression hardened.
“He had this look in his eyes,” Erick says, “like he was standing in the face of adversity and saying, ‘You still have to beat me.’”
Months earlier, when he was a junior, Christian had whittled his list of finalists to Alabama, South Carolina, and Miami. He wanted to “shut this whole thing down.” Then Penn State hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator O’Brien. It was a hectic few weeks, with O’Brien working on Patriots stuff during the day and Penn State stuff at night. “I didn’t sleep much,” O’Brien admits.
The day Penn State announced O’Brien’s hire, an email popped up in running backs coach Charles London’s inbox. “It was my third day, I’m moving into my office, there are all these boxes, and I get this email saying, ‘You should look at this kid,’” London says. “It’s late at night, I’m watching this film, and after three plays, I sit up in my chair. This kid could make all the throws, he was big, he had a strong arm.2 It was 15 minutes of everything you’d want in a quarterback. I emailed Coach, ‘You gotta see this kid,’ and I remember it was 11 p.m. He called me 20 minutes later and said, ‘Call his high school coach and if everything checks out, let’s offer him.’” Hackenberg’s film was the first to cross O’Brien’s desk.
Though Hackenberg did not grow up rooting for a specific college or pro team,3 he had long admired Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whom O’Brien had coached. The Hackenbergs wondered if O’Brien would be like Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who comes across as gruff and standoffish on TV. They met O’Brien at a junior day in mid-February and were pleasantly surprised to find him warm and personable.
Hackenberg was equally impressed on his visit to State College. “I had visited a few different schools and there’s always that awe factor, when you walk in somewhere and see the Heismans, the national championships,” he says. “At Alabama, you walk in and there’s four of them [trophies] sitting right there and there are rings in the trophy case and you’re like, Hey, these guys want me to come here. That’s pretty cool. But when I got here [to Penn State], I just had that gut feeling.”
He heeded the advice of Micky Sullivan, his high school coach, who told him to answer one question before committing: If you got hurt and couldn’t play football anymore, where would you want to be? Christian knew. Erick approved. Christian called O’Brien and pledged his loyalty, and a handful of other top prospects followed suit. Five months later, O’Brien and his staff would have to re-recruit the lot.
Recruiting, coaches say, is all about the mamas. If you can sell the moms and assure them that you’ll take care of their babies, the dads will usually fall in line. So when Garrett Sickels called O’Brien and committed, the new head coached responded with, “That’s great. I’m really excited. All right, let me talk to your mother.”
Sickels was a two-time All-American defensive end at Red Bank Regional High in New Jersey, a 6-foot-4 254-pounder with “at least 25 Division I offers,” according to his father, Stan. Like Hackenberg, Sickels wasn’t originally thinking too much about Penn State. But the same junior day hooked them both.
When the sanctions became official, Stan Sickels, Erick Hackenberg, and other committed players’ fathers started trading emails. They were concerned, and they had questions that needed immediate answers. As O’Brien and his staff went to work re-recruiting all of Penn State’s then-current players, they also invited all 19 commits and their families to campus on July 28 for an unofficial visit and meeting.
That day, players filed into the team film room, sitting in front as parents grabbed seats in the back. O’Brien and his staff lined up, and the parents proceeded to drill them with questions.4
How will you deal with limited numbers, and will you still be able to recruit highly skilled players? Is there a chance of losing television rights? Do our boys need a plan B? Will they be penalized if they take other visits? Will they be eligible for a bowl game their senior year? How important are bowl games, anyway? Is the Big Ten going to impose sanctions of its own? Is anyone at Penn State trying to get the NCAA sanctions overturned? What’s being done to promote the fact that those responsible are gone, and people here now are part of the recovery process? And the hardest question of all: If my child commits to you, can you honestly say you’re going to stay here and see him through all of this?
The meeting lasted almost two hours. O’Brien answered everything. He spoke at length about being a parent and understanding the fear of wondering if your child will be taken care of. Though O’Brien did not touch on it at this particular meeting, everyone in the room already knew about Jack, the O’Briens’ oldest son, who was born with lissencephaly, a rare brain formation disorder. Jack is a blessing, O’Brien says, but his condition is a struggle every day, one that provides the coach of 21 years with tremendous perspective.
“Sanctions, fourth-and-1, overtime games — they’re hard, but they’re not life-and-death,” O’Brien says. “I tried to explain that. I’m a parent, too, and I wanted them to do what was right for their son.”
When O’Brien and his staff left to let the parents and kids talk, Stan Sickels stood up and took a deep breath.
“It felt like we had all been shot in the heart,” Erick Hackenberg says. “As a parent, you feel so helpless, but when Stan stood up, he said what all of us were thinking: ‘My son wants to be here. One guy is not tearing this all down. There’s too much tradition, too much history. This place stands for more than one person.’ We were all crying.” Up front, Christian Hackenberg huddled with the other recruits.
“You have to understand that during that week, coaches from all over the country are bugging the hell out of these kids, calling them and texting them, offering them an out,” Stan Sickels says, his voice catching. “But that day, that group of guys just bonded. They all knew they could split up and be that class, the one that left. But they also knew if they stayed here, if they hung around, they could be those guys. The ones that still believe in Penn State.”
Up in O’Brien’s office, players lined up and took turns shaking the coach’s hand, telling him they wanted to stay at Penn State. “That,” says O’Brien, staring off into space, lost in the memory, “was an emotional deal.”
Back home in Palmyra, Nikki Hackenberg is losing it. She started the Penn State–Minnesota game sitting on the edge of the couch, rocking back and forth nervously. But when the Nittany Lions fumble on the opening handoff, she gets up and starts pacing. Next, she’s hiding halfway behind the doorway, trying to shield herself from a Christian incompletion or a blown defensive assignment. Then she’s crouched behind the couch on her knees, almost assuming a prayer position.
“You would never know,” says Erick, “that my wife was an outstanding volleyball coach who went something like 178-17 in nine years of coaching. She is always like this. During the Illinois game, I sent her to the other end of the stands.” Though she was a standout athlete in her own time, she is a mom, through and through.
“I’m done,” Nikki declares, throwing her hands up in disgust when Minnesota scores right before the half to go up 24-10. “How would you handle this if we were ranked?” Erick teases her. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t want to know.” She retreats upstairs, where she might read a book or fold clothes or do anything to keep from having a full-on nervous breakdown. Moments later, Brandon, the second-oldest boy, stomps downstairs. “These guys couldn’t catch a cold!” he cries, referencing all of Penn State’s receivers. Then, when Christian overthrows an open receiver, Brandon scoffs, “I could throw a better ball than that, and I’m a soccer player.5 I’m gonna text him that.” Nikki can’t stay away for long. She walks downstairs while on the phone with her father, telling him, “I’m about to pack it in, personally.” Later, she says she wishes she were more even-keeled, like her oldest child.
Christian and his siblings were born in Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania, a small coal-mining town near Lake Hauto where “there’s this blue-collar attitude that is so predominant, where you get it done, whatever it takes,” Nikki says. The family comes from a long line of athletes. Erick’s dad coached — Erick’s earliest memories are of tagging along on the sideline or in the locker room — and Nikki’s brother played lightweight football at Penn. Nikki’s dad had an Uncle Whopper, Uncle Umper, Uncle Pussy, and Uncle Ginter, who were all coal miners and big, brooding athletes. Uncle Pussy — given name: Michael Paslawsky — played for one of the first documented professional football teams, the Coaldale Big Green.
Christian grew up on the sidelines of Nikki’s high school volleyball practices, where she would often get down in a stance to demonstrate something and lose Christian in her peripheral vision. Players would scatter to find him, and he was always easy to spot, running around in a diaper and football helmet, investigating the orchestra room or exploring under the bleachers. The Hackenbergs moved to Palmyra when Christian was in the third grade, and with four aspiring athletes in the house, everything turned into a game, which led to a competition, which led to wrestling matches and fights and tears.6
That competitive spark served Hackenberg well at Fork Union Military Academy, a small private school known more for its postgraduate program than prep team.7 Christian transferred to nearby Fork Union after one year at Fluvanna County High. Though he was initially turned off by the idea of a military school, where you shine your shoes, shave every day, wear a uniform, and respond with “No, sir” or “Yes, ma’am,” he lived at home and thrived in Sullivan’s disciplined system. Hackenberg threw for 5,473 yards and 55 touchdowns in three seasons at Fork Union, leading the Blue Devils to a state title in 2010 as a sophomore. Along the way, he attracted the attention of every major football program.
A good quarterback is the blueprint for success in O’Brien’s system, but Hackenberg’s value to Penn State extends far beyond what he can do on the field. While O’Brien might not have proclaimed Christian the savior of Penn State’s football future, Christian’s decision to honor his commitment was a linchpin moment for the program.
O’Brien first had a feeling Hackenberg could be “the guy” and beat out junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson for the starting position in the first week of fall camp, when O’Brien watched the true freshman lead the first-team offense downfield in a two-minute drill. Beaver Stadium might have been empty that day, but it’s still an intimidating, often overwhelming environment for a first-timer.8 Hackenberg’s Fork Union games were typically in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday or Saturday, often in front of a sparse crowd on a true grass field that could use some watering. This kid wasn’t raised in a Friday Night Lights culture, which stood out to O’Brien.
O’Brien hesitates to compare Hackenberg to Brady, but acknowledges, “Good quarterbacks have some things in common: They’ve got good poise, they’re smart, and they’re good team guys, buddies with everyone on the team. Christian has that. Brady does, too.” O’Brien has an expansive playbook, though he’s been leery of overloading Hackenberg during the quarterback’s first year. “A guy like Tom Brady, who’s been playing 13 years, you can call a play that maybe you didn’t practice during the week and he’s going to be able to handle it. Whereas a freshman in college, maybe he wouldn’t be able to do that. So with Christian, right now we’re calling plays we’ve practiced.”
Against Minnesota, O’Brien calls a handful of plays they practiced, but the Nittany Lions can’t connect. Christian completes 14 of 25 passes for 163 yards and no touchdowns in the game, and a crucial fumble on the center-quarterback exchange at the 1-yard line costs Penn State a chance to score late in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions lose 24-10. Back in Palmyra, Nikki aches for her disappointed son, pulling her head out of her hands long enough to text him a heartfelt, crucial message at a time “that I know he’s just beside himself.” “I love you,” she writes to him.
Erick offers a different perspective. “We are so young,” he says, adding that 29 of the 70 Penn State players who traveled to Minnesota are true or redshirt freshmen. While the coach in him will tell Christian the fumble was “inexcusable” as the quarterback, “I’ll save that for Monday. Tonight, when he calls, I’m just Dad.” And though Erick and Nikki are both frustrated, they know that, along with O’Brien, three years of postseason bans sets up a potential storybook ending when Christian is a senior and the Nittany Lions are loaded with experience, talent, and a hunger to drop the stigma that comes with scandal and sanctions.
“Whether he likes it or not, he’s that beacon of light for a passionate, hard-core fan base,” Erick says. “People think he can be the one to lead them back to prominence.”
The core of the situation, Christian says, is simple: He honored his commitment to Penn State because he was raised to be a man of his word and to stick around even when things get tough. He believes in the program and the team and the coach. And he remembers numerous conversations with his parents in which they talked about balancing football and basketball and baseball, a complicated web of overlapping practices and games that stretched everyone in the family.9 Christian learned not to let anyone down then, and he won’t start now.
It’s a lesson Nikki and Erick are now working to teach Drue, the youngest of their boys. Drue Hackenberg is 11 years old, the jokester of the group and the chatty one, the sixth-grader with a mischievous smile. He wants to be the next quarterback in the family — junior Brandon holds down the soccer role, and freshman Adam is a linebacker — and recently asked Christian, who was home on a bye weekend, if he could teach Drue the three-step drop. Drue hasn’t started playing football yet, but on a recent car ride home from Richmond, he and Nikki talked about staying committed to soccer and baseball, two sports with schedules starting to bleed into one another. Nikki told Drue this was a battle Christian also fought, learning to make sure he could follow through on everything he promised. And then, in a desperate tone that can only be delivered by a younger brother idolizing his older one, Drue turned to his mom and said, “I want to be just like Christian.”
He means that in every way: the cool hair, the athletic success, the commitment to finishing what you started. Maybe Drue won’t help save a program. But because of what his oldest brother has done for Penn State, maybe he won’t have to.
Lindsay Schnell (@LindsayRae19) is a staff writer at The Oregonian.