A toddler wearing a navy-blue Penn State T-shirt, his neon-yellow shoes shining bright under the blacklight in the Nittany Lions’ locker room, stood at Grant Haley’s old locker and giggled. His mother smiled and took his picture as he ran across the black leather bench, a special moment captured in time.
There were countless encounters of the same ilk on Saturday afternoon at the Lasch Football Building, ones that brought smiles to the faces of children, parents, siblings and new friends.
Dozens of Four Diamond families took a brief break away from the Bryce Jordan Center for the annual Thon Explorers Program, getting a glimpse of what their beloved Nittany Lions see and experience on a daily basis.
Typically, current Penn State players give the Four Diamond families a tour of the facility and play games along the way. Saquon Barkley was a hot commodity last year, as was quarterback Trace McSorley. However, due to NCAA time management legislation instituted last year and, according to a Penn State spokesperson, a “misunderstanding on the type of internal paperwork that needed to be filed,” the players were not allowed to participate.
Instead, former Nittany Lions showed their support and led the way. Super Bowl LII champion Stefen Wisniewski, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James, New Orleans Saints linebacker Nate Stupar and Detroit Lions defensive end Anthony Zettel were among the lettermen who returned for the cause — a cause they all care about deeply.
“Thon’s one of the greatest things that any university does around the whole world,” Zettel said. “When I was here, we had the sanctions and stuff, and we got a bad rap. People didn’t see this stuff with Thon that the student body is doing. The impact made on all these little kids’ lives is just incredible.”
After meeting up with Penn State lettermen and staffers in the locker room, the families were off on their tour.
In the building’s main hallway, former Penn State defensive tackle Tyrell Chavis chatted with the family of A’Niah Butler, who is remission after a bout with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. They bowled a giant bouncy ball, knocking down human-sized inflatable pins.
A few feet down the hall was the wall of Penn State All-Americans. A couple of boys rattled off the names on the photos that were eye level.
Jared Odrick. Devon Still. Allen Robinson. Then, they reached the newest addition to the wall.
“Ooo! Ooo! Saquon Barkley!” one boy exclaimed. “Look! Look! It’s Saquon!”
Those huddled in the hallway soon funneled out to the Lasch Building lobby, where James, Zettel and Wisniewski were holding court. The Steelers pass-catcher signed black-and-gold footballs, and Zettel posed for pictures.
Meanwhile, Wisniewski, rocking a charcoal Super Bowl zip-up hoodie, chatted with a young boy wearing a white Zach Ertz jersey.
Wisniewski was feeling the Philly love in Happy Valley.
“Eagles fans have been waiting a long time for a championship,” the former All-Big Ten lineman said. “When you talk to fans, you really see how much it means to them.”
And in the end, the day meant the world to more than just Eagles fans.
A group picture in the weight room wrapped up an afternoon filled with arts and crafts, piggy-back rides and autographs. Stupar put a youngster on his shoulders so he wasn’t hidden in the crowd, and everyone let out a “We Are...Penn State” chant after the snapshot.
As the Four Diamond kids and families exited the Lasch Building to head back to the BJC, hands were shook and hugs were shared.
“I love to be a part of this,” Zettel said, “and to see the smiles on those kids’ faces.”