Editor’s note: Every day, from now until Penn State football’s Class of 2017 reports to campus June 24, we’ll highlight a different one of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming signees. Today is Day 1 of the 17-day series.
Wearing his father’s Penn State letterman’s jacket, C.J. Thorpe sat a few steps away from Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus beaming cheek-to-cheek.
A blue-chip, bruising offensive lineman from WPIAL powerhouse Central Catholic, Thorpe’s high school is on Fifth Avenue, just down the street from the Cathedral of Learning and Pitt’s bookstore. He sees Pitt students walking around all the time and is friends with plenty of future Panthers.
Those classmates grew up going to Pitt games at Heinz Field. Thorpe, not so much.
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“Nah,” the Glenshaw native said smiling. “Never.”
Instead, he watched Penn State games with his father, a former Nittany Lion linebacker in the 1980s. He’d visit Happy Valley on Saturdays as a kid, attend White Out games and play in the tailgating lots in the shadow of Beaver Stadium.
Thorpe, the No. 6 offensive guard in the country according to 247 Sports, was a Nittany Lion supporter then. And, now, as a 6-foot-3, 318-pound manchild, he’s set to wear the blue and white — much to the chagrin of many in his hometown.
“Pitt was never really a contender,” C.J.’s father, Chris, said. “He goes to school right next to Pitt. He really had no interest in Pitt.”
The Panthers were one of 19 schools, including Alabama, Michigan and UCLA, that offered scholarships to Thorpe. He went on an unofficial visit to Pitt in March 2015 and, the following weekend, he took an unofficial at Penn State.
Thorpe’s respective feelings toward both schools were clear after that two-week period.
“With Penn State, it was more of a family surrounding,” Thorpe said. “At Pitt, you could tell they were recruiting you the whole time. When you go down there, it’s a recruiting trip. When you go to Penn State, they tell you the facts and let you make the decision on your own.”
A year later, on April 16, 2016, Thorpe made his decision — he verbally committed to Penn State.
His recruiting process wasn’t over yet, though. Alabama visited him, he took a trip out to southern California to see the Bruins’ facility, and Michigan was heavily interested in flipping him in the weeks leading up to signing day.
But Pitt shut the door on Thorpe. Even the school out west knew there was no talking Thorpe out of becoming a Nittany Lion.
“The only time I went to a Pitt game was when they were recruiting me my junior year,” Thorpe recalled. “I didn’t go to any games my senior year because I had already committed. They kind of cut me off.”
That meant no sideline recruit pass for the Penn State-Pitt game at Heinz Field last season.
But Thorpe thought he could pull one over on Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi.
“I did try to finesse Narduzzi for a pass,” Thorpe said as he looked out the window with a wide grin. “But, nope, it didn’t work.”
If he did obtain a Pitt sideline pass, Thorpe said he would’ve worn a Penn State shirt.
“It was worth a shot,” he added.
Instead, Thorpe watched the renewal of a rivalry at William Penn Tavern with a few friends, all Pitt fans. It was wing night at the Pittsburgh establishment, so that helped him cope with a 42-39 Penn State loss.
Still to this day though, eight months later, Thorpe can’t shake it. He wasn’t on the field for the Nittany Lions, but he doesn’t stop hearing about it from his Pitt-supporting pals.
“My one friend always tells me, ‘You know 42 is greater than 39.’ It’s like OK, OK, I get it,” Thorpe said.
Thankfully for Thorpe, he doesn’t hear any trash talk at home. His father flies a massive Penn State football flag on the side of their house, and their neighbors have Nittany Lion flags, too.
For years, it’s been a sight Chris Thorpe admires on a daily basis — but for a while, his Penn State flag wasn’t out for everyone to see. While his older son, Niko, was being recruited, he took the flag down and then kept it away while C.J. was hosting coaches for in-home visits.
“I didn’t want any influence at all, either way,” Chris Thorpe said.
But they made sure to have the flag back up when head coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead visited in late January just before National Signing Day.
“Now when it flies, it’ll have a much different meaning to it,” C.J.’s dad said.
Throughout the recruiting process, Moorhead — as well as assistant coaches Terry Smith and Matt Limegrover — were integral to Thorpe’s commitment. Smith is a close friend of Thorpe’s father, and all three coaches originally hail from the Steel City.
Plus, Thorpe’s brother, Niko, actually played under Moorhead at Fordham.
Having that knowledge of what it was like to play for the former Rams head coach helped in Thorpe’s decision.
“I told C.J. straight up, Moorhead’s the kind of guy you want to play under,” said Niko Thorpe, a senior linebacker with Fordham. “Being a coach is one thing, but being an actual person, relating to players, is a whole other issue, and Moorhead does a great job of that. He’s the type of guy you could become friends with.”
That’s the kind of bond Thorpe feels he’s already formed with Moorhead, Franklin and the rest of the Penn State staff. That’s a main reason why the Pittsburgh native will suit up for the Nittany Lions next season and not his hometown Panthers.
Penn State was the right fit for Thorpe. Pitt wasn’t.
Even though that might rub some Panthers fans the wrong way, Thorpe’s not worried. He’s good friends with several players on the Pitt roster — defensive backs Damar Hamlin and Bricen Garner to name just two — and he can’t wait to face them.
While the lineman may not have been there on the sidelines at Heinz Field for last season’s Penn State-Pitt game, he will be in 2018.
And Thorpe’s already looking forward to it.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Thorpe said, nodding his head. “I’m expecting the boos.”
Overview of C.J. Thorpe
Hometown/high school: Glenshaw, Pa./Central Catholic
Height/weight: 6-foot-3/314 pounds
Position: Offensive lineman
Recruit ranking: 4 stars (247, ESPN, Rivals and Scout)
Other scholarship offers: Alabama, Arizona State, Auburn, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Mississippi, Pitt, Stanford, Syracuse, Temple, Tennessee, UCLA, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin
James Franklin says: “Thorpe is a grown man. He’s got something that I think most coaches are looking for. It’s hard to find. He’s an offensive lineman with a nastiness to him. He plays with a really nasty demeanor. He wants to finish it. He wants to be physical. When you can find guys like that, they’re really valuable.”