UNIVERSITY PARK — Derek Day wasn’t about to leave his teammates.
A left leg broken in two places below the knee that would later require eight screws and a metal plate to piece it back together wasn’t enough to convince Day to get inside an ambulance. The then-Central Dauphin senior opted for crutches instead and propped himself up on the sideline in agony for an entire half to watch his high school football career and those of his fellow seniors come to a painful close.
“He came back on the bus with the team,” Day’s high school football coach Glen McNamee said, remembering the somber moments following Central Dauphin’s 33-0 loss to Manheim Central in the 2007 Class AAAA District 3-6 playoffs. “I’ll never forget this: He was on crutches after the game coming out of the locker room and obviously he was very emotional. We were all emotional. The season had ended and to see him on crutches and what he meant to us and what he meant to the program — I’m getting a little emotional now. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
It might as well have been.
During Penn State’s season-opener against Ohio last weekend, Penn State fans and Day’s teammates got another glimpse of the makeup of the player who has quietly worn No. 24 for five years for the Nittany Lions. After a burst through the Ohio defense, Day showed off his toughness, one of the many qualities that earned the former walk-on a scholarship before last season and now a shot to potentially start at running back when the Nittany Lions travel to Virginia this weekend.
After absorbing a brutal hit that knocked his helmet from his head, the 5-foot-9, 193-pound tailback got hit again.
This time, the contact was Ohio helmet to Day’s skull. The collision opened up a gash that soon began spilling blood. A wobbly Day tried to get up, but fell back down to a knee before getting up for good and running off the field under his own power.
He’d return to the game just moments later with stitches and a solid one-liner added to his resume.
“I was just trying to get the guys going and I just came off the field saying that, ‘Ohio, they don’t hit very hard’,” Day said. “Just taking a hit to the head from one of their helmets, I just wanted to get the guys a little bit fired up.”
After he returned to the game, it was nearly impossible for Day’s teammates not to play harder or be inspired.
“As an offensive lineman, you appreciate having someone who runs as hard as he does behind you,” senior tackle Mike Farrell said. “He’s really a complete back.”
It’s taken years of repetitions to achieve that status.
Day grew up playing youth football in and around State College before heading to Harrisburg to play for McNamee at Central Dauphin. Under McNamee, Day would begin to build his reputation as an incredibly versatile player. While he was a star running back at Central Dauphin, Day also picked up the more thankless jobs. He returned kicks, covered kickoffs — extra curricular tasks that would become his everyday routine with the Nittany Lions — played linebacker, defensive back, ran the ball and caught it.
“It was amazing, when he wasn’t actually (in the play) at practice, he would immediately put a pinney on and play scout team,” McNamee said. “He didn’t hesitate to do that.”
Before his senior year, Day’s father relocated to Bellefonte for his job. Day’s mom rented an apartment in Harrisburg so Day could finish out his senior year. Day’s plans were to play college football and was recruited mostly by Football Championship Subdivision schools, mainly Delaware and New Hampshire.
However, the broken leg caused schools to pull their scholarship offers and instead offer Day a spot as a preferred walk-on player. Penn State did the same after former Penn State assistant coach Brian Norwood — who had met Day at a Penn State football camp — passed Day’s information on to defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
From that moment on, Day was determined to do what he needed to to make an impact at Penn State.
He utilized the weight room at the Lasch Football Building to add 12 pounds to his frame. He used the practice fields to hone his skills at reading defenses as he labored away as one of the foreign team’s key contributors.
“Being on the foreign squad, you just have to catch up to the speed of the game, the guys you’re playing against and that and just reading. Reading the different looks that you’ll see,” Day said. “Those are two of the biggest things that really helped being on the scout team for my first couple of years.”
Initially without a scholarship, Day took on summer jobs. He worked in Bellefonte near his parents’ house one summer. Another summer Day toiled away in a leather shop run by his uncle in Williamsport.
In the meantime, Day was determined to help the Nittany Lions any way he could on the field.
“He’s a very trustworthy kid. You put your complete trust in him. You know he’s going to do his assignment well,” senior quarterback Matt McGloin, who walked-on with Day five years ago said. “He’s going to block right. He’s going to run the ball the right way. He knows what he’s doing out there. He’s just a type of kid you like being around.
“You like handing the ball to him, you like playing with him because he’s been through it all with you. And I came in with him. I’ve known him for five years now and he really has worked hard to get where he is.”
That included developing a knack at chasing down kick returners on game days. He made 17 tackles and forced a fumble over the last two seasons.
Last season, Day earned his first shot at running back, taking 12 carries for 27 yards.
Last Saturday, Day eclipsed his total yardage mark, carrying the ball eight times for 36 yards and catching one pass for three yards. Now, he’s hoping that role keeps expanding.
The NCAA’s penalties against Penn State will severely limit the number of scholarship players the Nittany Lions will be able to field. Day knows Penn State could very well be relying on walk-ons like him well into the future. He hasn’t really thought about it that much, though.
“Hopefully they can use me as an example and my message to them is, just work as hard as you can. Give it every thing you have on every day and you’ll be rewarded,” Day said. “We have a decent amount of walk-ons right now and those guys, I’d be honored if they looked at me as a guy to look up to.”
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @traviswjohnson_