Steve Alten was suffering through a bout of “senior-itis” at Penn State in the early 1980s when a professor pulled him aside and asked him what he wanted to do with his life.
“I said I’d like to coach basketball at a college,” Alten said. “He told me to go and do it.”
That teacher, Robert Eisenbraun, is now retired from the kinesiology department at Penn State. But his advice to an undergrad more than three decades ago remains an inspiration.
After his days at University Park, Alten did coach some basketball while earning advanced degrees at the University of Delaware and Temple.
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And that “go and do it” message carried him into a writing career that now boasts a dozen successful novels, including his latest, “The Omega Project.”
The lead character in “The Omega Project” is one Robert Eisenbraun, who awakens from a cryogenic sleep to find himself fighting to survive in a future where mankind has been wiped out.
The real Eisenbraun, who lives in Lemont, said he was “pretty well floored” when he got word from his ex-student about the fictional version of himself.
“He was my favorite professor,” Alten said from his home in South Florida. “He was very concerned about his students, a true Penn Stater. I thought, ‘This guy would make a great character.’ ”
Eisenbraun has a master’s in physical education from Penn State. His teaching interests included archery, swimming and racquet sports. He specialized in secondary teaching methods and the supervision of student-teachers.
“I think it’s very nice of him,” Eisenbraun said Saturday, just after returning to town after a bike-riding vacation in Italy with his wife, Betsy.
“What really makes me feel good is that students remember you,” Eisenbraun said. “This is what I tried to stress to my students when I was teaching them about teaching. You have to be focused on your students.”
“Usually in my books, the hero is fabricated,” Alten said. “But in this situation, it worked out well. It’s much easier when you have someone in mind.”
“The Omega Project” is on shelves at Barnes & Noble and other booksellers, and is available online. The author’s website is www.stevealten.com.
Alten said readers should expect a combination of “Planet of the Apes” and “Cast Away,” with the Eisenbraun character facing isolation as Tom Hanks did on a lonely island, and the shock of having your world turned upside down, as Charlton Heston confronted in the original “Apes.”
“His experiences are a lot like ‘Cast Away,’ except he’s talking to a species that has evolved and looks like it’s going to become the next dominant species on Earth, but without any of the egotistical habits and destructive ways of humans,” Alten said.
This is not the first time Alten’s Penn State roots have surfaced in one of his novels.
The Philadelphia native’s first book, 1997’s “MEG,” features a prehistoric shark, Megalodon, terrorizing a beach community. The book’s protagonist is a Penn State graduate and former Nittany Lions football player.
Alten said he hopes to pen some positive publicity for his alma mater during this period of scandal and tumult.
He said: “Penn State is such a great place to go to school.”
And to encounter a teacher, such as Robert Eisenbraun, who just might change for the better the course of a young person’s future.
“There are a handful of professors who really make a difference in your life,” Alten said. “For me, this guy was one of them. And I know a lot of professors are like that at Penn State.”
Alten sent Eisenbraun a copy of the book. It arrived the day before the former professor and his wife left for Italy, so he hasn’t yet shared fully in the experiences of his namesake. But he did read the book’s jacket.
“When I opened the flap, the first thing I saw was my own name,” he said. “I was flattered. This was all a very pleasant surprise for me and for my wife. And our kids got a kick out of it.”