An Ode To Trace McSorley And My No. 9 Jersey
Although it was far from the exultant victory lap he deserved, the Citrus Bowl might have been the most perfect way to send Trace McSorley off after one of the most accomplished and highly regarded careers in Penn State history.
His final game as a Nittany Lion brought his collegiate career full circle from our first glimpse of the man whose moxie, big arm, and grit would change the course of Penn State football forever.
As a redshirt freshman, McSorley relieved Christian Hackenberg after he injured his shoulder during the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia. After the Nittany Lions fell behind 24-3, McSorley engineered a valiant comeback attempt by throwing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He even moved the ball into Georgia territory on the final drive of the game and was one miraculous jump ball catch away from forcing overtime.
It would have been perfect for McSorley to end his career by finishing the job he had come so close to in 2016…almost too perfect. But that’s not his legacy.
McSorley’s legacy is imperfect, which is why a disappointing loss like Tuesday’s might be the most fitting way to say goodbye to one of the most impactful players in program history — not because he left anything to be desired, but because he was perhaps as human and as relatable as a big name starting quarterback can be.
McSorley departs with ownership of nearly every program record for quarterbacks. He was 31-9 as a starter and unforgettably led a comeback to win the 2016 Big Ten Championship. However, he never came close to winning a national championship or a Heisman trophy, nor will he be the highest drafted player from any of his teams. He might not even be drafted at all. And as Penn State continues to rise as a consistent national power, there will inevitably be better quarterbacks who accomplish McSorley’s unfinished business for the program.
Unlike Alabama quarterback and Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, who emerged as his team’s starter similarly by stepping up during bowl season, McSorley didn’t have a Hollywood start or finish to his career. He didn’t go out by winning a national championship or playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. He didn’t even get the vote of confidence to have his moment in the sun and try to win the game. Instead, all he got was a possibly broken foot and a play call to kick a
no-balls conservative field goal instead of giving him a chance to do what he does best.
Just the fact that McSorley suffered some type of serious injury in the first half and proceeded to return and almost complete an all-time great comeback speaks volumes about what he means to the program — much like how he played the last month of the regular season with a bulky brace on his knee.
But it’s not just McSorley’s performances on Saturday afternoons that allowed him to become the cornerstone of Penn State’s football team. That all started long before the jubilant touchdown celebrations and the legend-building accolades.
In case anyone accidentally let you forget for more than a few days, McSorley was recruited from high school as a safety, even after leading Briarwood to three consecutive Virginia state titles — but James Franklin believed in him enough to offer him at Vanderbilt and later convinced him to flip to Penn State.
Even in his high school days, McSorley’s mom, Andrea, told the Washington Post he was “a kid who likes a schedule.” Not much changed when he became a Nittany Lion. McSorley never missed a practice in his five years at Penn State.
He showed up. And he played with heart. We always saw him as “the good guy,” even though he wasn’t perfect and even if he played with a bit too much emotion sometimes, like when he punted the ball following his buzzer-beating touchdown pass to Iowa in 2017 (For what it’s worth, in the most McSorley fashion possible, he apologized to the media instantly). Even from the beginning, it was evident that he was more than capable of representing the university on and off the field.
I came to Penn State with no prior ties to the university or its football team, and McSorley was one of a few players on the 2016 team who made it so easy to fall in love with the Nittany Lions.
On the evening of my first home game as a freshman, I walked down College Ave. in search of a Penn State football jersey. I ended up at the Student Book Store, where I’ve now shopped before countless home games, whether it was to buy a much-needed poncho before a downpour or an extra piece of white clothing when Franklin said “screw it” to the no white after Labor Day rule. I flipped through a rack of jerseys near the window overlooking the traffic of a Friday afternoon before a home game and had my pick of jersey numbers — back when they weren’t so closely policed for player likeness exploitation.
At the time, I didn’t know many players, but I recognized No. 9 from the cover of a season preview magazine bought during move-in weekend and thought to myself, “Having the quarterback’s jersey is probably the safest move.” My other option was the only other number I recognized: Joey Julius’ No. 99. I’ll admit, when he was bruising returners on kickoff during the first month of the season, I kind of regretted not getting the jersey of who I then considered to be the team’s coolest player.
My first game sitting in the Beaver Stadium student section would be Trace McSorley’s first start at Penn State. Little did I know I was about to witness the humble beginnings of a man who would one day rewrite the Penn State football history books and make so many fall Saturdays memorable.
I wore that jersey proudly for McSorley’s first win, despite rumblings of “Touchdown Tommy” and complaints that Franklin made the wrong decision on his starter. I also wore it proudly when I was “that Penn State fan” for the first time in my life at High Point Solutions Stadium later that season after the whispers had been quickly silenced, and again over my winter coat in sub-freezing temperatures the next year against Rutgers when it felt like Penn State had nothing left to play for. I walked into the Big House this season with No. 9 over my coat to watch perhaps the worst performance of McSorley’s career.
And I packed it for my trip to Orlando this week to see McSorley stamp a period on the end of a windy, rambling, run-on sentence that somehow remained coherent while packing in a full spectrum of emotions.
It was a gameday favorite of mine, somehow instilling a sense of pride that it wasn’t a random number. McSorley was the face of Penn State football and I was able to wear a piece of his legacy on my back. The specific games I remember wearing the jersey represent so many different stages of the past three seasons. And they speak to how you can’t imply define McSorley’s career with one word or one definitive memory or even one positive emotion.
When I look at my jersey now, I don’t think of the $40 it cost a naive freshman in awe of his first Penn State football weekend. I think of the home run touchdown celebrations. And the post-game punt apology against Iowa. And singing “Baker won the Heisman, next up Trace McSorley” all summer. And how on one night in December of 2016, he could sling the ball as far as he wanted and it was caught every time.
This jersey is perhaps the most meaningful physical artifact of my college career. It will remain in my closet until I die or until one of my hopefully future Penn State children steals it to pull off the #vintage look. (Kids, if you’re reading this in the future and students are still selling old Penn State apparel on Instagram, I appreciate your entrepreneurial spirit, but please don’t sell my jersey. It’s probably a collectible.).
Trace McSorley’s three years at the helm of Penn State football will stay with me until I die, too. I can’t thank you enough for the memories and the excitement of an underdog program becoming elite, even if we’re not quite there yet. You made my first three years as a Penn State fan incredible and afforded me a lifetime’s worth of memories cheering you on in Beaver Stadium, on enemy grounds, and in Orlando for what should have been your grand finale.
You weren’t perfect, but we didn’t need you to be. You brought us some of the highest highs without ever letting us take them for granted. And you always gave us a type of foolish optimism that the Wizard of Camelot could always launch a comeback. I felt that one last time during the third quarter on Tuesday, and although you weren’t able to leave one last mark on Penn State history, the loss has made me appreciate the other great comebacks and moments just a little more.
I’ll miss cheering for you, one of the easiest players to love and believe in. But I’ll always wear my No. 9 jersey in tribute to you and out of nostalgia for when you did it your way and brought Penn State back.
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About the Author
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