When the Penn State Nittany Lions take the field on Saturday, they will be facing a big challenge.
This has nothing to do with the triple-option offense that the Navy Midshipmen run. That could be an entire article in itself, but the real story here is abut minimizing distractions that surround facing a team like Navy. After all, who really wants to root against the Naval Academy?
Saturday is Military Appreciation Day at Beaver Stadium, and several service branches of the military will be honored. Bill O’Brien has faced Navy before as an assistant coach. The display on Saturday means a lot to him, but the coach and his players know that they desperately need to win a football game, and this is one of their better chances to do so.
Still, for a few Nittany Lions, a single game means something more.
P.J. Byers and Brent Smith are not your typical college football players. Start with their age. Most guys aren’t playing college football at age 27 or 26. That’s not what makes them different though. Their background before they arrived at Penn State does.
Nowadays, high school athletes are graduating early in order to enroll at a college football program. Back in 2004, Smith, a current freshman defensive end, graduated six months early so he could enroll in the Marines. He did two tours in Iraq, and was there for some of the most violent times during the war against terrorism.
Byers remains an active duty member of the Navy’s officer program. He has been many places including Marietta College, the Pearl Harbor Naval Station, and Naval Base San Diego. Now, Byers is at Penn State, fulfilling a dream of running through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium, but he has bigger plans in his future.
Two days from now, he will wear blue and white, but unlike some of his teammates, he will not audition for NFL scouts after his college career is over. After his Penn State days, Byers will join his opponents on Saturday in serving his country, where he aspires to be a Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal Officer. To make the title sound a little simpler but no less intense, he will be disarming and disposing of explosive devices on the frontline.
Right now, he’s acting as the scout team fullback, trying to simulate the Navy offense to get his team prepared. He knows his role. He knows that senior fullback Michael Zordich is the unquestioned starter, and behind Zordich is Pat Zerbe, but one can certainly dream.
Byers has only a single career carry to his name. It came in garbage time last September against Eastern Michigan. The Nittany Lions were leading 34-6, and Byers took a handoff from Garrett Venuto up the middle for one yard. Adding another carry to his career statistics on Saturday would mean the world to him.
Being from Philadelphia, the Army-Navy game was part of growing up for me. After one installment, I remember a sideline reporter asking a senior on one of the teams what he would be doing at this time next year. Actions spoke louder than words as he pointed skyward at a plane flying high above.
In the not so distant future, Byers will be doing similar heroic tasks. Right now, he just hopes to touch the ball when he plays against his future teammates.