Staff Picks: Who’s Your Favorite Penn State Football Player?
There’s no doubt that Penn State football is a powerful, unifying force. As James Franklin noted after Penn State’s double-overtime loss to Ohio State in front of 107,000+ fans dressed in white, “when we all come together as a family, we have a chance to do some special things.”
But there’s one question that seems to divide the fan base, time and time again: Who’s your favorite Penn State football player?
We asked our staff members to tell us about their favorite player from the past two decades of Nittany Lion football. There are obviously hundreds of players to choose from dating back to the school’s first team in 1887, but we decided to limit our choices to players we’ve seen with our own eyes — whether it be on television growing up, or in person as a student.
Without further ado, here’s a few of our favorite players to don the iconic blue and white uniforms.
by C.J. Doon
Photo: Jenna Seco/OS
Like many students that have proudly strolled through campus at University Park, I grew up watching Penn State football.
Some of my earliest memories are crowding around the television with my Dad to watch the Nittany Lions, a Saturday tradition that continues to this day.
When I was six years old, barely old enough to sit still for a few minutes, let alone understand the complexity of football, I loved watching LaVar Arrington play. You have to understand, I had no appreciation at the time for statistics like tackles or sacks. I only cared about the excitement I got from watching Penn State play, and nobody was more exciting than LaVar Arrington.
Standing at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Arrington was often the biggest player on the field. He also wore an old school neck roll that elevated his pads, making his shoulders and torso appear gigantic. “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin was published only one year prior to Arrington joining the team, so I think it’s fair to compare his stature to that of Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane.
Now, as you can imagine, a six-year-old such as myself loved nothing more than to see this giant of a man sprinting around the field and tackling everything in sight. He would leap over defenders, bull-rush helpless offensive linemen, and on one occasion, time the snap count perfectly and jump over the entire offensive line to stop the ball carrier in the backfield, also known as the “LaVar Leap.” In the storied history of Penn State football, there’s never been anything quite like it.
I wanted to be just like him. I wore an oversized Penn State helmet around the house and would try to tackle every member of my family. On Christmas morning in 1999, I awoke to find a Penn State locker with my name on it by the tree. Underneath my name appeared my favorite number: 11.
The sheer ferocity with which Arrington played the game was astounding. Sometimes it would push the boundaries of clean play, like the time he was almost ejected against Pitt in 1998 for pummeling a helpless punter. But he always seemed to channel that rage into his performance. On the last play of the game against Pitt, with the Panthers lining up for a game-tying field goal, Arrington leaped high in the air, using all of his nearly 40-inch vertical, to get a hand on the ball and knock it down. Penn State held on to win, 20-17.
When he left Penn State after his junior year to declare for the NFL Draft (he and fellow Nittany Lion Courtney Brown were selected first and second overall), Arrington had been named a two-time first-team All-American, and received the Butkus, Bednarik, and Lambert Awards for his spectacular defense. He graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated 1999 College Football Preview, and finished ninth on the Heisman ballot the very same year.
Although Penn State never finished ranked in the Top 10 in the final AP poll during his tenure, LaVar Arrington is still the most exciting player I’ve ever seen, and one of the best in Penn State history.
By Kevin Horne
No, he wasn’t the greatest I’ve ever seen in my 15 years of fandom. That distinction goes to Larry Johnson. Nor was he the fastest I’ve ever seen (Derrick Williams), nor the most athletic (LaVar Arrington), nor the greatest comeback story (Matt McGloin). But he was my favorite, and I’ll put on his No. 3 jersey — it was the first Penn State jersey I ever bought back in 2005 — until the stains and the rips become too unsightly to wear.
How could a Penn State fan who truly found his love for the university and the team in 2005 NOT love Deon Butler?
It’s a quintessential Penn State story in many ways. Undersized and underrecruited, Butler came to Penn State in 2004 — after two of the worst seasons in program history — as a defensive back without a scholarship. It took only one year as a redshirt to prove his worth and rise to the top of the depth chart with Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood; the trio would prove to be the most reliable receiving corps in Penn State history. That 2004/2005 class would lead Penn State to 40 wins in four years, including two of the most magical seasons in program history (2005 and 2008). Butler would quietly (if that’s possible) set Penn State’s all-time receptions record, becoming Daryll Clark’s most reliable target. As a 14 to 17-year-old growing up in Central Pennsylvania, the memories of those teams will forever be with me.
He represented a true throwback Penn State mentality. Never showboat, take care of business off the field, lead by example. It’s a testament to that character that one of the best Penn State-related videos ever recorded was not a marketing ploy or a pump up bit, but a shaky handcam shot capturing Butler’s unfiltered leadership that was never meant to be seen at all. That’s a level of authenticity #OneTeam or #PSUnrivaled can never hope to touch.
I found myself going back to those words often in the dark days of 2011 and 2012. “We are not normal…we are legends…we are Penn State.” In our darkest hour, three years later with Deon Butler somewhere far away, through the tears, he reassured me.
And he’s right about one thing. I will tell my kids about him.
by David Abruzzese
Photo: Bobby Chen/OS
For me, no player has been more exciting to watch than Allen Robinson.
Unlike most students, I did not have a strong connection to Penn State during my childhood and high school years. Being from Upstate New York and the first from my family to attend Penn State, I was never immersed in its incredible culture. I am an avid sports fan, however, so naturally I had heard of Robinson and the immense potential he possessed.
It wasn’t until last year, my freshman year here at University Park, that I was able to witness the sheer brilliance of Allen Robinson firsthand. I played football throughout my middle school and high school years and love to study the game, so I have developed a solid understanding of how this sport works. I have never seen a wide receiver run and play quite like Robinson. There was simply no comparison. He stood out from the rest of the athletes on the field. He would make even the most athletic cornerbacks look foolish while trying to cover him. The way he caught the ball in traffic and played the position absolutely fascinated me.
It was not simply Robinson’s feats that captivated me, however, but it was his story. Besides Penn State, Robinson’s only other scholarship offers came from Buffalo, Minnesota, and Toledo. Robinson was never handed anything, and had to outwork everyone else ahead of him to achieve his goals. That resonated within me, because although Robinson and I are far different, I too had to work tirelessly to achieve success during my football career. I was never a starter, rather an athletic kid who was just smaller than the rest of the receivers who started over me. Robinson’s road to success was inspirational to me, and watching him succeed as he went from two-star prospect to second round pick filled me with joy.
Robinson also impacted me in another way. It was around this time that I had decided to write a feature on Allen Robinson. Being just a freshman, I was still relatively new on staff. I was very proud of the piece I wrote, and decided to share it with Robinson on Twitter. Robinson was the equivalent to a God on campus, and was very popular on Twitter, so I really didn’t think that he would respond. Instead of just favoriting my tweet, he responded, saying that he enjoyed the piece and appreciated that I wrote it. I was overjoyed, but what would happen the very next day will stick with me for the rest of my life. I realized that Robinson was enrolled in my Comm 180 class, so I decided to approach him to express my gratitude for his acknowledgement on Twitter. He remembered me, dapped me up, and said what I wrote was awesome. To some, that may seem like a small gesture, but to me, it meant the world.
My lasting memory of Allen Robinson’s time as a Nittany Lion is probably shared by everybody on campus, but I will never forget standing in the student section on a chilly October night, witnessing Penn State beat Michigan in what is the greatest game I have ever seen in my life. I will never forget watching that magical play develop, pointing to Robinson as he streaked down the sideline. I remember the still silence of the stadium as Christian Hackenberg launched a prayer his way, and the hot tears flowing down my face as Robinson came down with what Penn Staters now refer to as “The Catch.”
Allen Robinson has been a lot of things for me, but he will always be my favorite Penn State player.
By Doug Leeson
Photo: Bobby Chen/OS
I’m not gonna sugarcoat it — I’ve been watching Penn State football for less than a year. I was accepted to this great university last December, and have been seriously following college football since then. While I’m aware of the popular players in our recent history (Matt McGloin, Allen Robinson) and from Penn State lore (Franco Harris, Larry Johnson, John Cappelletti), my favorite player who I’ve actually seen play has to be Christian Hackenberg.
Let me lay this out for you guys: if he keeps up the statistical pace he’s on from his first 19 Penn State games (and plays every game in this season and the next two), he’ll destroy Zach Mills’ career record passing yards (12,166 to 7,212) and McGloin’s career touchdowns (66 to 46). He’ll have a great young cast of receivers helping out, which should only increase his production after an apparent slight sophomore slump. It’s a bit early in his career to make any outrageous claims like I’m about to, but he might just end up being one of the best Nittany Lions ever.
I didn’t do that math up there just for fun, either. Hackenberg is my favorite player not only because of his undeniable talent, but the energy on campus that he generates. No. 14 jerseys dominate University Park on Saturdays, and outside of maybe James Franklin and the Willard Preacher, he is the most recognizable celebrity around.
Christian Hackenberg is one of the heroes of this generation of Penn State football. If all things were equal in college football (read: he had an offensive line), he’d showcase his Heisman potential and first-round NFL talent every week. Beyond that, he’s the centerpiece of the post-sanction bowl-eligible Nittany Lions, and will be beloved for a very, very long time.
By Ben Berkman
It was the best game I’ve ever been to, and the best play I had ever seen.
Two hours earlier, Tamba Hali had just sacked Troy Smith, forcing a clinching fumble recovery that had sealed the game for No. 16 Penn State over No. 6 Ohio State. The monumental win – number 349 for Paterno – put Penn State at 6-0, and atop the Big Ten once again.
Outside the stadium, a ten-year-old me waited near the players exit with a football and a pen. Once Hali emerged and slipped away, I caught up with him and asked him to sign my ball. He graciously did, and asked me if I enjoyed the game, speaking with me for several minutes. Mere hours after winning Penn State’s biggest game in years, I was impressed to see him take time from his Saturday night to converse with me.
Oh, and he was also a pretty good football player. The lineman was a finalist for numerous national awards, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and a first round draft pick. Now with the Chiefs, Hali is using his influence to help fight Ebola in Liberia, his home country.
By Noel Purcell
My love affair with Penn State and its football team is a relatively recent part of my life, and it didn’t truly start with a team, but one player and a projection of my own angst and anger at the college admissions process on to him. Evan Royster is my favorite player ever, not just for who he is and how he played, but for what he represented to me as a senior in high school.
Unlike most people here, I didn’t grow up “Penn State.” I grew up on Long Island, where people picked college football teams by parents’ alma maters, favorite players, or even mascots. Hofstra, Syracuse, UConn, and Rutgers all either sucked, were too far away, or had their programs dismantled before they could take off. So I followed season-by-season, picking a team I liked each year.
I had no real allegiance, especially not to Penn State. Beaver Stadium was a place I had watched on TV once or twice. Kerry Collins was the former Giants quarterback. Joe Paterno was some distant monolith who had no impact on my upbringing whatsoever. I had no connection to this school or this team prior to the fall of 2010, when I began following the football teams of some of the 27 — yes, 27 — schools I applied to. It wasn’t that this was a great year for Penn State by any means. The team went 7-6, none of their losses particularly close. But for some reason, I loved that hideous offense. The first year of the miserable Rob Bolden/Matt McGloin timeshare at QB led to a mostly ineffective passing game, but Evan Royster never faltered. He averaged five yards per carry, and had nearly as many rushing attempts as McGloin and Bolden would combine for passing. Everyone knew the rush was coming, but Royster would not be denied. Evan Royster, for all the offense’s flaws, was an absolute monster, just like he had been his whole career. I followed him and his Lions religiously.
Eventually, I got denied from my top eight schools, but I got in to Penn State a little before winter break. It was my first acceptance letter from a school I truly considered. After a series of crushing rejections, Christmas came early. Whether it was rage or love, never in my life had I cheered for a college football team like I did the one that played Florida in the Outback Bowl. Matt McGloin played like abject shit, but there was Royster, chugging along. He ran for 98 yards and caught four passes for another 51. Penn State lost, and a storied career ended in an unloving stadium in Tampa. In some ways, I felt Royster that year paralleled the year I was having: a boat against the current.
When I visited Penn State in February, I walked the campus on a Lion Scout-led tour, and sat in Findlay Dining Commons on a rainy, miserable day. For whatever reason, I looked my dad in the eye and said, “I’m home.” The decision was made. Miami, Fordham, Villanova and all the rest be damned, I was gonna be a Nittany Lion. We walked to the old HUB book store and my dad looked for shirts and hats for my brothers. I picked out a navy blue No. 22 jersey and wore it the whole way home.
Evan Royster, weirdly enough, represented a dream on what Penn State could be for me. He was a bit of a beacon of hope at a time when I wanted nothing more than to get the hell off Long Island. By the time I got to school, one of my best friends was two floors below me. For anyone who knows Anthony Shorey, you know just how similar he looked to Evan Royster at the time. I’d be lying if I said, as unconnected freshmen, we didn’t pretend he was the star running back returning to campus to get in to parties. It worked more often than it didn’t. Royster even became his nickname for some in our building.
Even after he graduated, Evan Royster became this sort of strange symbol of hope to me. Evan Royster helped me a hell of a lot more than I ever thought he would. Sure, he was a great football player, but nobody picks a favorite athlete solely based on their on-field exploits. I projected a bunch of ideas I had onto a great player, because that’s what a favorite player really is. He wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but he represented a lot to me as a misguided high school senior, and it’s hard to forget that.
I still wear that jersey to every game.
By Zack Rickens
Growing up just a short drive up Route 322, I saw my fair share of Penn State games as a child. The one that sticks out in my mind was the 2001 home opener against Miami. It wasn’t the actual game that would remain in my memory for years to come, but the pregame. As they had done for decades prior, the Blue Band took to the field to warm up the crowd of 109,000. The band got into formation and a familiar face emerged from the tunnel and did something that most people thought he’d never do again – walk.
On September 23, 2000, while starting in the fifth game of his Penn State career, Adam Taliaferro recorded a tackle just as he had done hundreds of times before. Only this time he didn’t get up. That day, Taliaferro suffered a life-altering spinal cord injury and became paralyzed from the neck down. He was given a three percent chance of ever walking again.
Years of football experience taught Taliaferro hard work and determination, two characteristics he would need to persevere through intensive rehabilitation. After three months of therapy, Taliaferro walked out of Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
Five years after that fateful day in September, Taliaferro graduated from Penn State. He later went on to earn his law degree from Rutgers and practiced personal injury law in Philadelphia – a specialty that is all too close to his heart.
Taliaferro now serves on the Board of Trustees and works at Bristol-Myers Squibb.
by Alex Robinson
Photo: Bobby Chen/OS
I’ve watched Penn State football for 10 years now (the first game I remember watching was “6-4,” unfortunately), and I’ve seen a pretty good amount of special players don the Blue and White. But despite watching All-Americans, a Heisman candidate, and program legends, Sam Ficken is my favorite Penn State football player.
After the sanctions hit in the summer of 2012, Ficken was thrust into the starting role due to then-starter Anthony Fera’s transfer. He struggled to start the year, missing four field goals and an extra point in a one-point loss at Virginia, but rebounded to make 10 straight field goals, including the game-winner in overtime against Wisconsin, to end 2012. His hot streak continued into 2013, where he started 7-of-8 including a Beaver Stadium-record 54-yarder against Kent State, but struggled at the end of the year, missing an extra point and a field goal in a three-point overtime loss to Nebraska. He finished 2013 15-for-23.
Coming into this season, I had doubts about Ficken’s ability to bounce back from an up-and-down 2013. But he immediately proved to me, and to everyone else, that this season was his. He went 4-for-4, including a game-winner as time expired, in the season opener against UCF, and has only missed two kicks so far this year — they were both blocked. The same people that covered their eyes when he kicked in 2012-13 now celebrate when he trots out, because they know it’s a guaranteed three points for the Nittany Lions.
I feel goofy putting someone that I’m classmates with up on a pedastal; I was a cheerleader freshman year, and involved with the team in some way every year since then, so I’ve been around the players enough to realize that they’re normal people, just like you and me. But Ficken has always been someone I admire. He personifies what being a Penn Stater is all about. He was thrown into a shitty situation, but now has developed into one of the most reliable players on the team.
During the ESPN Training Days: Penn State series that aired last summer, John Urschel said about Ficken, “A lot of kids, after that [Virginia game], would just pack up and go. They’d say, ‘Football’s not for me, maybe I should stop playing football.’ But he toughed it out, and we really supported him on the team.”
The fact that Ficken stuck with this program after the sanctions, persevered through tough times and didn’t give up, and is now playing well enough to earn a team captain spot makes him a symbol of Penn State in my eyes. When I grow up and tell my kids about my college career, players like Matt McGloin, Bill Belton, and Christian Hackenberg will obviously come to my mind. But who is the first player I’ll mention?
Sam “Mr. Automatic” Ficken.
by Greg Schlosser
Michael Robinson is pretty much the reason I’m a Penn State fan.
Growing up in Colorado and Oklahoma, I was never really attached to one college program. Sure, both my parents are Penn State graduates, but they don’t show too many Nittany Lion when you’re in the middle of Sooner and Cowboy country.
Anyways, I was in 7th grade in 2005 and Penn State got off to a quick 4-0 start that year. I decided to watch the next game against No. 18 Minnesota because my parents were getting into the team.
Boy, was I hooked.
Penn State throttled the Gophers 44-14, and Robinson was the player that stood out to me the most. He had 112 yards on the ground in the win, and was an absolute blast to watch. He embodied everything that was Penn State football: He was tough, talented, and never backed down from a challenge.
The next game was the iconic 17-10 win over Ohio State, which officially sealed my Penn State fandom for good.
Of course, everyone knows the story from here on out. We got screwed versus Michigan the following week which pretty much ruined any shot at a national championship. However, Robinson went on to have one of the best seasons in Penn State history and finished fifth in the Heisman voting. So while there may have been other Penn Staters who’ve put up better numbers or had better careers, I’ll always remember Michael Robinson as the player who made me a Penn State fan.
by Zach Berger
Photo: Dave Cole/OS
I’m not going to dive into the tale of Michael Mauti in detail, because everyone who watches Penn State football is aware of what he did for the Nittany Lions, both on and off the field. Mauti sat with Bill O’Brien to call up and convince just about every player on the team to stick around after the sanctions were handed down. Mauti was the heart and soul of the 2012 Penn State football team, one that was forever enshrined on the inner walls of Beaver Stadium despite no championship victory. But above and beyond all of that, Michael Mauti is one of the most inspiring men I have ever seen step onto a football field.
When you think about Penn State football, you likely run through words like grit, heart, and determination in your head. These are abstract terms that don’t really mean all that much on paper, but they are embodied by a guy like Michael Mauti. He had a gritty attitude was featured on a national scale when the team filmed the famous us against the world video. He put all of his heart into every down of football. His determination could be seen when Mauti spent a whole game jumping up and down on the sideline in celebration with a torn ACL.
Though his senior season was cut one game short by that ACL injury, Mauti earned honors including first team All-Big Ten, first team All-American, and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Award, which goes to the best linebacker in the conference. He racked up 95 tackles, forced three fumbles, caught three interceptions, and finished with 2.5 sacks on his senior season. In short, when Penn State needed a game-changing Nittany Lion more than ever, Michael Mauti was by far and away that guy. He represented a beacon of hope for the university at a time when it seemed like things would never get back to normal in Happy Valley.
The more I go along, the more that I realize just how difficult it is to put Mauti’s contribution to this school into words. He is a fan favorite who will be a part of the Penn State family forever. But on a personal level, Mauti is my favorite player to put on a blue and white jersey because he’s the guy who made me forever fall in love with Penn State football.
Who’s your favorite Penn State football player? Tell us in the comments below!