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Bowl week memories from behind the lens

Penn State fans and Centre county residents Christina and Nathan Ulmer enjoy some bratwursts before the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia on Jan. 2 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Penn State fans and Centre county residents Christina and Nathan Ulmer enjoy some bratwursts before the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia on Jan. 2 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

It’s been almost two weeks since Penn State football reporter Jourdan Rodrigue and I have been back from Jacksonville, Fla., yet I could still go for several days of sleep and some snuggle time with my puppy. Getting the opportunity to travel for bowl week was exciting, rewarding and exhausting.

From the moment our adventure started at 4:30 a.m. at the University Park airport, it was nonstop going. For me, the first part of the trip was stressful, flying with all of my camera gear. And when I say all of my camera gear I mean three carry-on bags (one that Jourdan got stuck lugging around) and an overweight checked bag with tripods and more. I panicked as they tried to toss my suitcase of all my cameras under the plane and am still thankful to the young man who moved his bag so mine would fit.

The first night we were there after an exhausting day of travel, we drove 45 minutes out to the resort the team got to enjoy. The smell of endless seafood made me incredibly jealous at their welcoming banquet. Before they could eat, strength coach Dwight Galt led in the prayer, which Jourdan got called out to join in. Everyone joined hands and then from graduates and down through GPAs, they dug in.

At the Mayport Naval Station on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but smile and photograph away as the players joked around. It’s a side of the players we usually only see from afar, but to see it up close and hear their jabs at each other I couldn’t help but laugh along. Carl Nassib’s expression when a pilot yelled at him for hitting a button was priceless. And the pilot who asked me to take a photo and at the last second revealing his PSU shirt to some “oooos” from the players.

At practice on Thursday morning, I was caught off-guard and reminded of the jersey swap. Players traded jersey with their teammates and closest friend who they call brothers, leaving it an identification nightmare for me, but a fun tradition for them. The seniors were lifted and carried off the field, some easier than others, and some hanging on to their buddies.

At the Wolfson Children’s Hospital, I first met a timid teenager. He made it a point to tell the players he was a defensive lineman before getting sick. From the doorway of another youngster’s room the Nittany Lion showed off his one armed push-ups. Even though he’d soaped up as we entered the floor, and as much as he wanted to high-five the young boy suspiciously watching from his hospital bed, he had to stay outside the room. He’s got fur. So the boy settled for Charlie Shuman, whose size didn’t matter as his caring side shined through. With some Penn State swag and a fist bump, he seemed to become a fan.

At the TaxSlayer press conference on Friday, we were back to stiff football talk. The challenges of Georgia’s offense and finishing out the year strong for the seniors. Comments about the NFL were shot down quickly and the focus redirected to the final game for the 2015 football family.

The game finally arrived on Saturday morning, and the cool and damp weather made it feel like a fall football Saturday in Happy Valley. As a fellow photographer and I followed James Franklin on his loop around the stadium he joked about us enjoying the game from one of the two pools in the stands at EverBank field. That’d be nice, but there was a game to be photographed.

When I came across some of the first tailgaters out in the lot, the last thing I was expecting was for them to joke that they live right down the street from our office. They drove from Pleasant Gap to Jacksonville for the game, and tried to use their tailgating goodies to bribe some Georgia fans into switching to the Blue and White.

Game time I was running the sidelines and capturing the plays. The outcome wasn’t what all the “We Are” proud in the stands had hoped, but for me it was another tiring but exciting experience to add to my book.

Abby Drey: 814-235-3917; @ADreyPhotos