Somebody handed the Williamsport elementary student a sheet of paper and instructed him to write down what he envisioned himself doing.
Jacob Fagnano immediately identified a long-term objective:
I want to be a Penn State football player.
At some point Saturday, when Penn State (7-4, 5-2 Big Ten) ends its season against Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3), perhaps it will hit Fagnano that he spent the past five years fulfilling a lifetime goal.
The senior safety endured multiple injuries and long odds to play at Penn State, a school just 66 miles from his Williamsport home.
He enrolled at Penn State with no scholarship, found a niche as a special teams player and developed into a defensive regular.
Last Saturday against Indiana, Fagnano received his first start. Depending on the condition of junior Malcolm Willis’ knee, Fagnano could start make another start this weekend.
Saturday has the elements of a memorable afternoon for Fagnano and 30 other seniors. But the sensation Fagnano experienced before the Indiana game might be difficult to match.
“This is my fifth year and I have been going to games here since as long as I can remember,” he said.“I have been playing every game for the past three years. I will tell you jogging out of the tunnel (last Satruday) literally felt different. It felt like a differing atmosphere, different feeling inside of me knowing that it was my first start. It was something special.”
Especially when others said it might not happen.
Fagnano encountered some hometown doubters when he decided to bypass baseball opportunities to accept former assistant coach Mike McQueary’s offer play football at Penn State as a walk-on. Fagnano, the son of a former Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league baseball player, could throw a baseball 90 mph and missed a chunk of his senior football season because of an ankle injury.
His Division I baseball future seemed secure. His Division I football future seemed tenuous.
Yet something about fall Saturdays proved alluring. The voices of his supporters, including his parents, Phillip and Patti, further convinced Fagnano to chase his dream.
There was some football logic to his decision too. Before his senior high school season, former Williamsport coach Tom Gravish said Fagnano started receiving interest from “all the Big East and local ACC schools.”
The interest subsided once a defender from Pleasant Valley crashed into his ankle bone in the second week of the 2007 season. Fagnano missed five games.
“I think that scaled his opportunities back,” said Gravish, a Bald Eagle Area High School graduate who now coaches at District 4 Jersey Shore. “He was definitely a scholarship player.”
Fagnano played wide receiver and safety and returned kicks and punts for the Millionaires. The versatility represented an asset at Penn State, where he started working into rotations as a third-year sophomore in 2010. Former coach Joe Paterno awarded him a scholarship after the season.
“There’s no better feeling than coming here at the bottom and earning your way to the top,” Fagnano said.
Four starting secondary jobs opened after last season, and Fagnano and junior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong competed for the strong safety spot throughout spring drills. The job remained opened when preseason camp started, but a hamstring injury prevented Fagnano from starting the Sept. 1 opener against Ohio University.
When the hamstring healed, Fagnano started rotating with Willis and Obeng-Agyapong. He has played through other forms of pain this season, most notably a broken bone in his left hand. The hand injury occurred in the first half of a 35-23 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 27. Fagnano said the pain stopped bothering him last week.
His three tackles and two pass breakups helped Penn State defeat pass-happy Indiana 45-22. The victory clinched a winning season.
“I was really proud of him,” cornerback Stephon Morris said. “He was a little nervous going into the game. I had to calm him down. He stuck in there and did a hell of a job like he has been doing all season.”
Gravish said Fagnano’s story has the elements to inspire other central Pennsylvania athletes looking to play at Penn State.
“He proved everybody wrong,” Gravish said, ‘but he didn’t prove me wrong. I thought he could do it from the start. I talked with Coach McQueary during the recruiting process, and I said, ‘This guy can play for you.’ He’s one you can point to and tell kids, ‘Here’s a guy playing for Penn State. He chased a dream and now he’s playing in the highest level in he Big Ten.’ He’s a great student and a great role model.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.