Jordan Hill trudged off frigid Hersheypark Stadium on Dec. 12, 2008, while celebrating Steelton-Highspire’s second straight PIAA Class A title.
The scene featured a few dizzying moments, none bigger than the revelation he would never play football with his childhood friends again.
Earlier this week, Hill’s mother, Sue, reminded her son of the game in a conversation about Penn State’s finale against Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions (7-4, 5-2 Big Ten) and Badgers (7-4, 4-3) meet today at Beaver Stadium.
Hill’s college career will not end with him clutching a trophy. Penn State’s season ends regardless of today’s result because of a NCAA-mandated postseason ban.
“My mom said something to me, ‘I can’t imagine how you are going to be after the game. You bawled after your state championship game your senior year, not because you won, but because it was over for you,’” said Hill, a senior defensive tackle. “This is much bigger up here at Penn State.”
Thirty-one surreal careers will end this evening. Penn State’s senior class ushered the program into a transient season, one that included Bill O’Brien’s debut as head coach and the stunning NCAA sanctions levied against the program in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
The sanctions altered the roster yet they ultimately permitted the program’s unbreakable qualities to surface. Only one senior, wide receiver Justin Brown, left the program despite a NCAA waiver allowing players to transfer and play elsewhere immediately.
“There isn’t a program that has gone through this,” Hill said. “Ever.”
By showing commitment and resolve, the class has earned wide-ranging respect. Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema, one of the first coaches to announce he would not recruit Penn State players, developed an admiration for the Nittany Lions before the season started.
The Badgers are in an unusual spot. Penn State and Ohio State’s postseason ban cleared the way for Wisconsin to qualify for a second straight Big Ten title game. The Badgers will qualify for their third straight Rose Bowl by defeating Nebraska next week in Indianapolis.
Still, Bielema said every healthy Badger will play today. Penn State’s seniors welcome a chance to meet Wisconsin’s best.
“I believe as a football player — and they have great football players on their team — they would have the same mindset that they won’t accept losing and they want to win,” center Matt Stankiewitch said. “They could very emotional for this game also. Of course, we are going to come out with emotion. We always have and we always will, especially with it being our last game, I expect a lot of players to have no regrets and play with that extra amount of emotion.”
The challenge of playing Wisconsin, which defeated Penn State 45-7 last year, has limited the volume of reflection this week. But O’Brien said the senior class will have a profound impact on the program.
“You can’t say enough about them,” he said. “I think people have to understand within those walls over there at the football building these guys will always mean a lot to this football program.”
O’Brien said seniors and their families will be honored at 3 p.m. The game begins at 3:30 p.m.
Here’s the complete list of seniors being honored today: Mark Arcidiacono, Joe Baker, P.J. Byers, Cody Castor, Derek Day, Andre Dupree, Emery Ettter, Jacob Fagnano, Mike Farrell, Frank Figueroa, Patrick Flanagan, Michael Fuhrman, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges, Brian Irvin, Christian Kuntz, Evan Lewis, Pete Massaro, Michael Mauti, Matt McGloin, Shane McGregor, Stephon Morris, J.R. Refice, Matt Stankiewitch, Sean Stanley, James Terry, Jamie Van Fleet, Garrett Venuto, Mike Wallace, Michael Yancich and Mike Zordich.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.