Unless you were caught in traffic, you couldn’t help but feel good about the afternoon for Penn State’s annual Blue-White Game on Saturday.
The sun was out. The shorts were on.
Officially about 72,000 fans (or 82,000 if you go by James Franklin’s calculations) showed up to see the new coach’s squad and watched as most of the first-teamers led the Blue to a 37-0 rout over the White.
But as many smiles as the the day brought the Penn State faithful, the feel-good story belonged to walk-on running back Cole Chiappialle.
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For the 5-foot-8, 211-pound sophomore, the afternoon in the sun meant much more than the two touchdowns he scored.
The guy, who even the most stalwart of Penn State fans likely never heard of, was playing for someone else — his mother Kim.
Kim Chiappialle passed away unexpectedly on March 9, just eight days before spring practice. Cole, his father Phil, sister Brittany Kopinski and brother Roger Capretta still don’t know the cause of death for Kim, who passed at the age 53.
“She had a lot she was going through, but it was a natural death,” he said. “It was very unexpected. I came home and saw her on a Saturday and the next day I got a call from my sister.”
Cole, the youngest of three children, said his mother looked for him every time he played on special teams last season. He was among the team leaders with four tackles.
“She was my biggest fan,” he said. “Every day after a game, she was calling me and saying, ‘Ah, I saw you on TV.’ She was definitely a big part. She came to one game last year, but she watched every game on TV that she could. She called me after every game.”
When the news broke, it didn’t take Chiappialle long to find out he had an extended family, one willing to lend support to a teammate.
“Mostly everyone on the team contacted me, texted me when they heard,” Chiappialle said. “When I came back, they all just rallied behind me and helped me through this.”
Chiappialle also found sanctuary on the practice field. He immediately impressed Franklin and his staff.
Chiappialle, who was recruited as a linebacker in Bill O’Brien’s “run-on” program, came in with solid credentials in the offensive backfield. He gained 404 yards in a game and as a senior rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns.
He did it all at Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, the town that’s renowned as the homtown of NFL Hall of Famer Joe Namath.
“Football is big there,” Chiappialle said. “I can tell you that. ... It’s a little town where everyone knows everyone.”
Chiappialle got only one carry last season and didn’t gain a yard.
But from the start this spring, he impressed the new coaching staff. Franklin surprisingly mentioned his name in a Big Ten teleconference this past week.
“He’s had a great spring,” Franklin said Saturday. “I’ve been very impressed with him. I though we had four backs that have shown some flashes of really good things. He’s got great vision. He’s got great toughness and balance.
“I think there is a role for him in this football program. He needs to be a huge contributor on special teams. I thing he’s got a similar style to (starter Zach) Zwinak in the way he runs. I’m excited for him and proud of him. He’s a guy that has come in her and worked extremely hard. Everybody in the organization has tremendous respect for how he carries himself and how he works.”
The way Chiappialle works is what has made a difference.
“From the day we got here, Cole does the little things right,” Penn State assistant coach Charles Huff said. “Not the fastest, not the strongest, not the biggest, but he does the little things right.”
“I love football. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here,” said Chiappialle, who is known as “Chip” to his teammates. “It was a big opportunity with a new staff to show them I can play. That’s what I did. I came in every day, worked hard, did the little things right and let everything else fall into place.”
Everything worked out well Saturday as Chiappialle took advantage of Franklin’s Wildcat formation, where the direct snap goes to the tailback. Before the fans could figure out how to pronounce his name (chippie-EL-lee), he bolted 19 yards out of the Wildcat for a first down.
Later in the second quarter, Chiappialle was back in the Wildcat on a fourth-and-goal play from the 1. Chiappialle took the snap and lowered his head at the goal line, plowing over a defender and into the end zone. As he rose, Chiappialle pointed skyward.
There was little doubt who was pointing toward — Kim.
“I had a little moment to myself before I went out,” Chiappialle said. “This game I was going to play hard for her, which I’ve been doing every day at practice.”
Later in the quarter on the first play following Ryan Kaiser’s interception, Chiappialle delivered his biggest highlight of the afternoon.
From the 23, he took a handoff from Michael O’Conner, was spun around by Carl Nassib, bounced off of Parker Cothren and raced down the left sidelines for a touchdown to make the score 17-0.
“It was a stretch play and I cut it back,” Chiappialle said. “The guy hit me on my right shoulder and I just kept going, spun out and took off.”
Chiappialle pounded his chest as he raced into the end zone.
“ I just screamed, honestly,” he said. “I just wanted to break one and I got one. I just screamed a lot. There was a lot of emotion.”
He finished the half with 63 yards on nine carries. He also caught two passes for 17 yards.
“The game of football rewards those who do the little things right,” Huff said of Chiappialle. “He had a great day today. I kind of expected it. Of course, you don’t expect what he’s going to do but I expected him to do the little things right so I expected production.”
“There’s things I’ve got to clean up and work on, but for the most part I thought I did well,” Chiappialle said.
Whether Chiappialle can do the same things toting the ball on Saturday in the fall remains to be seen. He’s fourth on a depth chart behind three very talented running backs (Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch).
Certainly success in a Blue-White scrimmage doesn’t forecast future success (remember Aric Heffelfinger, who gained 92 yards on five carries in the 2002 Blue-White game).
But for this Saturday, Chiappialle shone as bright the sun before the 72,000 or 82,000 fans and one angel on his shoulder.
“That was something that really drove me this spring,” he said of his mom’s passing. “It’s still something I’m overcoming and battling every day.
“Football helped a lot, but honestly my teammates, my family, my girlfriend, everyone that has supported me through my entire life really helped me get through this and be strong,”
“Cole has taken the situation and made it a positive,” Huff said. “It's made him stronger. His team rallied around him which was important. And I beleive the teammates and coaching staff and support staff rallying behind him made him feel like, ‘OK, I lost someone in my family, but I'm strengthened by my family.’”