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The Origin Of Penn State’s Defensive Linemen’s Dog Tag Tradition

Penn State football’s defensive line is perhaps the best position group on the team through six games. Position coach Sean Spencer and his Wild Dogs have played a huge role in the Nittany Lions allowing only 8.2 points per game, which is the second-best total in the nation behind Wisconsin, by sacking opposing quarterbacks 27 times so far this year.

The Wild Dogs also just might have Penn State’s best version of a less tangible concept: brotherhood.

Spencer and his defensive linemen got quite a bit of airtime on HBO’s “24/7 College Football,” and the show gave fans a glimpse of just how close all the players are. The Wild Dogs’ bond was hilariously documented during a segment featuring their dinner at The Field in State College, but HBO also captured one of the position group’s most sacred traditions.

On the Friday night before a game, Spencer’s Wild Dogs gather in a meeting room at the team hotel to find out who each one will play for that week. Every lineman puts his dog tag in a bucket before each one is pulled out by a teammate who pledges to play for him the next day. If, for example, Robert Windsor grabs Yetur Gross-Matos’ dog tag out of the bucket, they’ll dedicate their games to each other.

“When it becomes bigger than just yourself, you’ll have a special moment,” Spencer told HBO’s camera crews while explaining the ritual. “They hug each other and embrace, because they know they’re playing for each other. That’s what makes it special.”

“It doesn’t matter what the damn gameplan is,” he went on to tell the team during the meeting. “If you don’t fight for each other, we have nothing. What we have in this room is special, and you need to believe in each other whenever you go out.”

The ritual was inspired by Carl Ohlson, Penn State’s assistant athletic director for sports psychology. He works closely with Spencer and his Wild Dogs, but before that, he earned the ranking of Lieutenant Colonel in the United States’ Army. Picking a dog tag is common in the military and intended to inspire accountability and brotherhood.

“They identify who you are, and that’s really your brother in the military. We feel the same way here,” redshirt junior end Shaka Toney said after Penn State’s 35-7 win over Purdue. “We salute and appreciate them, and we don’t mean any disrespect in any way.

“It’s all about us. Our brotherhood is at an all-time high right now,” he added. “If it’s one of us, it’s all of us. There’s no individuals right now. It makes you want to play harder. You look at the guy across from you and know what he’s gone through. We play for each other.”

Sophomore tackle PJ Mustipher said that Ohlson’s messages always resonate with him — particularly his input on brotherhood beyond the Wild Dogs’ position group.

“Carl always talks about ‘What are you doing when you’re not on the field?'” Mustipher said Tuesday. “What can you be doing to better the team when you’re not on the field? When the offense comes off the field, you’ve got to support those guys. You’ve got to help them get through whatever they’re going through, whether it’s good or bad.”

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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