They grew up in the shadow of Beaver Stadium, as Penn State fans throughout their childhood.
They sat in the stands, cheering on their team week after week, and when they went home after the game they imagined themselves racing across that emerald floor, dressed in blue and white with a full house imploring them with a deafening roar.
Now it’s a reality.
“Being a State High grad or not, I’m happy to be playing in front of 107,000 fans,” said running back Jack Haffner, a State College Area High School graduate who is one of four former Little Lions on the Nittany Lion roster.
The quartet, plus Central Mountain’s Von Walker, has the area well-represented with talent who have a chance to make names for themselves — however they may get on the field.
“I’m just trying to earn my spot on the team, wherever that may be,” linebacker Matt Baney said. “I’m competing at linebacker, competing at special teams — really wherever.”
There certainly are possibilities for the group, which also includes offensive linemen Evan Galimberti and Adam DeBoef.
For Haffner and Baney, the impressions they left from the Blue-White game in April were lasting.
Haffner led the White team in rushing with four carries for 11 yards, including a seven-yard rumble. He also had an 11-yard pass reception.
Baney had the biggest highlight of any of the local athletes, picking off an Austin Whipple pass and returning it 28 yards to the end zone in the third quarter of the 37-0 game.
“It’s nice being able to walk around town, being able to talk with people that watched you grow up in high school, watched you play,” said Baney, who also registered a tackle during the Blue-White game and worked with the first-team defense in the spring. “Now you’re playing at Penn State. It’s kind of the dream of every State High kid.”
Baney’s path to Beaver Stadium wasn’t nearly as short and direct as his Little Lion teammates.
He started out as a freshman at St. Francis, spending one season with the Red Flash before the call from home became too much to ignore.
“It wasn’t the spot for me,” the junior said. “I decided I wanted to come back here and try to earn my spot, make a name for myself here. … Especially when you go away, you kind of realize how special it is at Penn State.”
Opportunities to get on the field also exist for Haffner, although his route is a little tougher.
The redshirt sophomore was a first-team All-State selection after racking up 2,143 yards on 288 carries and 26 touchdowns during his senior season with the Little Lions.
But with a talented backfield returning for the Nittany Lions, led by Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, the 5-foot-10, 210-pounder may have a tough time getting into the backfield.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘tough,’” running backs coach Charles Huff said. “I would use the word ‘opportunity.’ He’s going to get the opportunity. When will he be able to crack the lineup is when he takes the advantage he gets. Those who do something with the opportunities get more opportunities. Those who are not necessarily ready, or mature enough or physically ready to do that will keep getting opportunities until they are ready to take advantage of them.”
Haffner did see action in seven games last season on special teams, picking up one tackle, and he is aware of the challenges ahead.
“Everyone has their own kind of niche,” Haffner said. “You just try to do your own thing and improve in your own way, and not focus on other people.”
Walker has already caught the attention of plenty of people with his speed and athleticism, seeing time on offense, defense and special teams last season as a true freshman — one of a dozen freshmen to get onto the field in 2013.
The Central Mountain standout had seven carries for 18 yards at running back, returned six kickoffs for 99 yards and four punts for 19 yards and also registered four tackles.
The Nittany Lions coaches certainly have options with the sophomore, who was both a running back and defensive back last year and is now listed with the linebackers.
“Von’s one of those guys that can play multiple spots on every unit,” said Huff, who is also the special teams coordinator. “The tough part for us coaches, a lot of times … we have guys that can play multiple spots and they overdo it. They try to put them here, try to put them there, try to make them here, we can put him here, and it’s kind of like a white board you’re throwing paint on it. It gets kind of blocked up.”
Walker has again been working with the kick return unit during the preseason.
“Our job is to find which spot we can put him in and he can own that spot,” Huff said. “Once he owns that spot, he can take off with it.”
Getting onto the field will be a little more challenging for Galimberti and DeBoef.
Even with a projected starter Miles Dieffenbach lost to injury, and graduation leaving only one returning starter up front, the young linemen will have a hard time moving up the depth chart.
“We have some young talent coming up,” said Galimberti, a redshirt freshman guard. “There are windows of opportunity, eventually, for everybody.”
DeBoef is a true freshman tackle, and Galimberti is excited to have his former Little Lion teammate back on his side.
“It’s just going to be really fun to continue with him,” Galimberti said. “We’re all pretty tight-knit.”
While they all know cracking the lineup will be tough, they have been hearing from new head coach James Franklin practically since he was hired that no starting spots are assured, and everyone would have a shot to earn playing time.
Those are words the standouts from the area like to hear.
“We’re all about competition now,” Galimberti said. “I like to hear that. It’s kind of a fresh start with the new coaching change. Everybody gets to prove themselves.”
When any or all of them hit the field, they all know they have succeeded in reaching one dream: To slip on that uniform and run through the Beaver Stadium tunnel with the team they have been watching from the bleachers for years.
“It’s really cool,” Galimberti said. “It really is always what I wanted to do since I was a kid. It’s been my dream for years. It’s really cool to have it come together now.”