There are north of 30 former Penn State football players on current NFL rosters — and four took a few minutes to chat past and present over the weekend.
Super Bowl LII champ Stefen Wisniewski, Steelers tight end Jesse James, Detroit defensive end Anthony Zettel and Saints linebacker Nate Stupar all remember their time in Happy Valley fondly — and they’ve all kept tabs on how the program has progressed since departing for the pros.
At Saturday’s Thon Explorers Program at the Lasch Football Building, we caught up with the quartet, asking them everything from their favorite memory in the blue and white to Penn State’s recent success under James Franklin.
Here’s what they had to say:
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Q: What has it been like to see Penn State progress this much since you left?
New Orleans Saints LB Nate Stupar: I am not surprised at all. I’m really happy to see it. From when I left, when all the JoePa and (Jerry) Sandusky stuff happened, to see it grow, to see the type of players they’re bringing in around the the type of environment they were building, it’s completely different from when I was here. It’s awesome to see the changes that they’ve done from when I started here. How (James Franklin) recruits. How he lets the kids have a good time. It’s fun seeing Coach Franklin. They’re open arms here. James, Coach (Brent) Pry and (Sean) Spencer. I love coming around, working out. It truly feels like home.
Philadelphia Eagles OL Stefen Wisniewski: I always knew we’d come back. It didn’t really take that long, to be honest. I’m proud of the program and proud of these players. And we’re right back at the top of the Big Ten and two years from winning it — and I don’t think we’re too far away from winning it again.
Detroit Lions DE Anthony Zettel: They had so much talent when I was here — young, young talent. Whenever you get a group of guys like that and leaders like Trace (McSorley) and Saquon (Barkley) and (Jason) Cabinda, you know it’s the perfect storm. They didn’t surprise me at all. It was pretty exciting to see.
Pittsburgh Steelers TE Jesse James: As a football person, it’s been awesome to watch the guys be in the spotlight, get national attention, play in primetime games every other week, having a chance to make the playoff here the last two years. So it’s been fun to watch the program grow under James Franklin. ... The players that they’ve had, the way the room’s been set up, Coach (Dwight) Galt setting the mind-set they want to win by any means necessary. Everybody’s buying in, and it’s been fun to watch.
Q: What’s your favorite Penn State memory?
Stupar: My interception against Purdue. I intercepted it, was running toward the sideline, was hit late out of bounds, and I get up and spike the ball. Little do I know, my dad is right behind me on the field. He’s a letterman, so he would be on the field. So we have a picture of me on the field, and he’s got his hands up. I gave that picture to him for Father’s Day one year. It was just a cool experience because not many people get to play college where your dad played. To be able to have him on the sidelines — sometimes I’d go up to him during games and talk to him. Pretty cool.
Wisniewski: Probably winning the Big Ten championship in 2008, beating Michigan State. Unbelievable game playing in the snow. And we beat them by a lot, blew them out, so it was a lot of fun.
Zettel: I’d say us beating Michigan in four overtimes in 2013. That’s the biggest memory.
James: Just the memories you make hanging out doing nothing. Obviously, Thon weekend’s always awesome. Guys get together — and doing whatever you can for the kids. Uplifting Athletes was always something that you bonded over, something we were involved with. So there’s just so many memories; it’s hard to pick one as a favorite.
Q: Who’s the best NFL player you’ve either played with or against?
Stupar: I’d have to say Jonathan Casillas. He’s a linebacker for the (New York) Giants. I’ve played him like twice, and one year he ran me over, and another year he ran me over. He’s one of those guys where you’re just like, “Crap, I’ve got to play this guy.” He’s just so athletic, so smart, so determined, which I am, too. But the battles, he won more battles than I did against him.
Wisniewski: There’s several. (Defensive tackle) Fletcher Cox, who’s on our team, is definitely one of the best. (Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle) Aaron Donald is really, really good as well.
Zettel: I’ll say either Tyrone Smith from Dallas or David Bakhtiari from Green Bay.
James: I like to play against Penn State guys, so I’ve had a chance this year to play against Paul Posluszny twice. He’s a guy I’ve looked up to; he kind of mentored me. We spend our offseason together in the summer, and we train together, so it’s fun to play against him. Sean Lee’s fun to play against, just the type of competitors they are. I played against Tamba (Hali) twice; that’s always fun. He plays with such a different style you don’t see much. It’s always fun to play against Penn Staters. ... (Carl Nassib), we played him four times. He’s ridiculous. (laughs) He tries to talk to me between plays. It’s almost funny. I wish we had him mic’d up.
Q: Besides Saquon Barkley, what Penn State player are you most looking forward to watching at the next level?
Stupar: I am hoping for Jason Cabinda. He’s a dedicated hard worker and a great leader. He has a good skill-set, and I’m hoping for the best for him. I worked out with him this past summer, helped him out, hung out. Great dude, and I’m excited for what he can bring into the league. Nothing but good things for him.
Wisniewski: I’ll be rooting for all these guys. Any Penn Stater that comes out and comes in the league, I’ll be pulling for him and hoping for the best for him.
Zettel: I’m excited for all those guys, because I have good relationships with all of them. But Parker Cothren’s my boy. He’s one of my dudes. I’m excited to see where he goes. With all those guys, I’m rooting for everybody.
James: (Mike Gesicki). Excited for him. We still keep in contact. As a receiver, he’s probably the best prospect of the draft in that aspect of a tight end. Not proven as much as a blocker because he hasn’t been asked to do it the last two years, but I think coaches in the NFL are going to see that and try to teach him. And I feel like he’ll go pretty high, so I’m excited for him.