Penn State

Penn State Ladies' Football Camp: A True Immersion Experience

Note:  This is a long article.  An in-depth description of my experience at this camp.  My goal is to take you there with me as I describe my day.  Enjoy!

Coach Joe Paterno was proven wrong.  When he first heard of the idea of a Ladies’ X's and O’s football camp at Beaver Stadium, his initial reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding.  You’ll have three women show up.”

As he made a surprise visit yesterday to observe practice drills and wish all of us well he quipped, “I didn’t realize we had that many kooks around.”  For a brief clip of Joe Paterno’s remarks, and some video of the game, click here.

This was typical Joe Paterno: down to earth, speaks his mind.  But you could tell from the broad grin on his face that he was delighted with the successful turnout.  His appearance was unanticipated, but it was not a total surprise.  How could he resist?

We were making history as the first group of females to ever play on his beloved and well-protected field at Beaver Stadium—a venue that is known more informally as “the house that Joe built.”

Kooky might be one way to describe this energetic and enthusiastic group of women.  Really, though, it was more than that.

We were all very serious about learning and experiencing more about college football—exemplified by what is called "the Penn State way" by insiders in the program.

Ranging in age from 16 to 67, these women had paid $395-plus travel and hotel costs and came from ten different states—the furthest traveler was Carol Pilgrim from Long Beach California—to participate in the first-ever women’s football camp at Beaver Stadium.

As for me, I traveled all of seven miles from my home to Beaver Stadium.  This was too tempting an experience for me, both as a football fan and as a newbie blogger, to pass up.

Fifty other women felt similarly, many of who also lived in Centre County, PA.  The $395 cost, part of which would be donated to support breast cancer research, was well worth it.

I was typical of most of the other women in the stadium that day. We were all avid Penn State Nittany Lions fans. Every female I encountered at camp bleeds blue and white and follows the team season after season.  Some, like me, married into Penn State football and learned to love it.

A few stories of the women I met might best explain.

Priscilla McFerren adopted Penn State football when her daughter played trumpet in the Blue Band, during 2000-2003, tough years for a Penn State fan!  But she and her husband took to Penn State football and decided to order season tickets.

In 2005, they were rewarded with the turnaround that brought Penn State to a BCS bowl game and continued success since then.   She and her husband now live in State College and attend every game at Beaver Stadium.

Debbie Hall and her 16-year-old daughter Victoria, from Indianapolis, made Penn State’s fantasy camps a family affair.

Debbie’s husband, a Penn State alumnus, was participating concurrently in the five day men’s fantasy football camp.  Debbie, like me, adopted Penn State football through marriage.

They come to Beaver Stadium to watch games when they can acquire tickets.  They have better luck seeing Penn State play closer to home at Purdue or Indiana.  Victoria has her sights on becoming a student at Penn State University.   An experience like yesterday will likely serve as further motivation to keep her grades up.  When she comes to Penn State (notice I did not say “if”) I can only imagine the bragging rights she will have among students in her class!

Perhaps the most football-knowledgeable female present was Kelly Paterno.  She is the wife of Penn State Assistant Coach Jay Paterno, the quarterbacks coach. She is also a mother of five children.

More than any other female present, she had the insider’s view of Penn State football, gained from living, breathing, eating, and sleeping Penn State football, from watching how hard her husband prepares, not just for games during the season but throughout the entire year.  She had the most exposure to players, to the “Penn State football family,” clearly a member of an  “inner circle.”

Yet even Kelly felt that she had a lot to learn by attending this camp.

The initial gathering in the Media Room at Beaver Stadium was full of laughter and excitement.

Patrick Steenberge, President of Texas-based Global Football/Global Sports Group, Inc., has been partnering with Penn State Athletics for the last five years to run the men’s five day Fantasy Football Camp (click here ). 

Patrick had received numerous emails from spouses involved in the men’s camp and other females asking him to do something similar for women.  Patrick admitted that he doesn’t do a lot of marketing research when he plans a new program.  He had a gut feeling that it would be successful, if it were offered as a one day camp at an affordable price.  So he just put it out there as an offering and waited to see what would happen.  His initial idea was that it would complement the Men’s Fantasy Football Camp, to give the spouses something to experience on their own.

I suspect that what Patrick learned yesterday is that the demand for a high quality Ladies X’s and O’s camp goes well beyond that niche—he tapped a hole in the market that neither he nor Penn State realized was there—the desire for female devotees to Penn State football to "live the dream of Penn State football," as he so eloquently described the goal of his fantasy sports experiences. 

To me, this was not a surprise.  According to the NCAA, average attendance at a Penn State football game in 2009 was 107,008.  According to a demographic study conducted by Scarborough Research for the 2005-2006 football season and published in Street & Smith’s Sports Business Daily (click here) women make up 36 percent of the NCAA football fans who attend more than 10 games per season.

This is a huge audience of devoted fans, an audience that has been largely ignored by all but a handful of NCAA football schools who have been running football camps or Football 101 classes for women for several years.

How difficult could it be to convince 50 of the 30,000 or more female Nittany Lion fans who are in the stands every week to sign up for a one day experience at Beaver Stadium? The opportunity is in the numbers.

Still, there were risks involved.  The entire experience could be a massive flop if not designed properly.  As any marketer knows, word of mouth for an experienced-based event like this can be the difference between a spectacular success or a grand failure.

Mike McQueary, assistant coach and Wide Receiver/Recruiting Coordinator for Penn State football, who served as our head coach for the day, admitted that of all the moments he has had at Beaver Stadium—as starting quarterback in 1996-1997 and now as an assistant coach for the last 10 years—this was the one that made him the most nervous.

Mike had one day to teach 50 females about Penn State football X’s and O’s, with no knowledge of our backgrounds or abilities. It was a daunting task, and he wanted to get it right, to make it an outstanding experience for anyone who participated.

Mike’s idea was to give us a sense of how involved the game of football is.  We weren’t going to learn the entire playbook—We were going to experience what they described as a typical  two-a-day August workout—a set of drills and playing an actual game of flag football on the turf at Beaver Stadium.

Mike and Penn State’s two graduate assistant coaches, Bill Cavanaugh (offense) and Elijah Robinson (defense), as well as Travis Rundle, administrative support coordinator for the PSU football office, were there to serve as position coaches and explain the offensive and defensive schemes for our game that afternoon. They gave us a playbook that we were to learn and to take notes on.

Our coaches threatened that we’d better take notes—they would be watching and determining who would play based on how engaged we were.  Of course, we were all engaged—we were there to learn and very serious.  So ultimately we all had a chance to play.

On defense, there were three basic schemes:  "Stack sky, stack smoke zero,” and "stack squirm."  On offense there was a more extensive set of schema:  “slot right zero pitch", "slot right six slant", "slot right six naked right", "slot RT spring red seven",  "triple RT spring red three x streak", to name just some of them.

Often the description of how to execute plays went over our heads, but it wasn’t a real problem:  the offense and defense GA’s would be on the field with us to go over each play in the huddle and to line us up.  The focus would be on experiencing what it is like to execute a real game of football based on a real game plan that we were required to learn ahead of time (well, sort of).

But before we did that, we had to learn lineup rules and huddle procedures.

We were exposed to Penn State-unique terms like the “Fritz,” the weak side linebacker who was named after a pizza delivery guy in the 1970’s.  Fritz is responsible for giving the down and distance for the upcoming play.  Or the $am.  $am, the strong side linebacker, is responsible for getting the signal and giving the call in the defensive huddle.

Only at Penn State is the strong safety called a hero.   We learned that at Penn State, the X, Y, and Z receivers are labeled differently than anywhere else in football, which sometimes causes confusion when players enter the pros.

Why?  “Because that’s the way Joe wants it,” Mike matter-of-factly stated to great laughter.

These internal designations were confusing at first.  We’re used to knowing linebackers as outside or middle linebackers.  Or wide receivers as split ends or flankers.

This was all new language—internal lingo. But its purpose was clear;  to make sure that everyone knew his (or in this case her) role so there was no confusion.

It was downright fascinating, and probably one of the key insights of the day;   everyone has a clear role to play, a specific sequence of steps and moves for each scheme that will determine success or failure.

Add to that the on-field adjustments that must be made in real time, and we gained an appreciation for how intelligent and quick-thinking the players must be in order to execute any designed play successfully.

Humor was a hallmark of the day.

Mike McQueary does a great imitation of Joe Paterno yelling at the offensive line at halftime during a game.  I hope I don’t get him into trouble!

Mike talked about some of his crucial mistakes, some of the times when he forgot to signal an important aspect of a play call and Joe gets after him on the sidelines. He kept us laughing throughout the day.

I had watched Mike McQueary take every snap as a starting quarterback during his Penn State career, but being up close and personal and listening to his perspective was truly refreshing.

It was a very different view than what I have gotten all the times I have heard Joe Paterno speak about Penn State football.

Mike also went over the importance of geometry in lining up—how angles matter in blocking and tackling, creating lanes, or going after the ball.  Bill Cavanaugh and Elijah Robinson discussed foot position and stances. They emphasized the little things that make a difference in the success or failure of a particular play.

Elijah promised, “This fall, you will impress your husband when you comment that the defensive line failed to achieve containment.  You will know more football lingo than they do.  You will astound them.”

Perhaps the most fun instructor of the day was Brad “Spider” Caldwell, Penn State’s legendary equipment manager. We developed an appreciation for Spider’s role in making sure that the right equipment is delivered to the right place at the right time in the right condition.

He passed around his favorite piece of equipment:  Levi Brown’s Size 18 shoes.  He showed us how a helmet and shoulder pads protect a player.   He showed us Nike’s standard-order “black shoes,” which actually have a lot of white on them, and discussed how he would make them all black.

He told us of the stink when the equipment arrived back at Penn State five days after this year’s muddy Capital One bowl.  Frozen in blocks no less by the time they arrived back at State College in the middle of winter.  Stories like that were enthralling.

In fact, Spider had so many stories and had to answer so many questions that the coaches gave up on teaching us anything about special teams.  It didn’t matter.  They were a bit ambitious as to what can be learned in one intense eight hour day, even without any breaks!

We did have one bathroom break that occurred when women just started jumping up and heading for the restroom.  So a three minute break was finally called.  I was wondering how the heck we would get back in three minutes, forgetting momentarily where we were.  The men’s locker room was right around the corner, and if that wasn’t adequate, heck, we were in Beaver Stadium.  Plenty of stalls around for a mere 50 women!

All the classroom learning were really more "chalk talks” than lectures.  We constantly interrupted the coaches with numerous questions.  We sidetracked into topics that were not exactly on the agenda.

That flexibility was important:  Mike didn’t want to leave any question unanswered, even if it was my question about the lack of heaters at the 2008 Iowa game!

But nothing in the day compared to the experience of drills on Beaver Stadium turf.

That started with going through the tunnel—feeling just a bit what the players must experience—as they enter the field on game day.  We had to leave to our imaginations the 110,000 fans screaming and yelling.  But still, we were thrilled to enter that tunnel for the first time.   Cameras were flashing everywhere.

The practice drills were intense. Our coaches really gave us a workout.

There were four drill rotations.  Between each rotation, we were told to grab Gatorade or water.  We were given barely enough time to grab a swallow when the next drill rotation was called.

Some of us (including me) realized how out of shape we were.  Other women, including Kelly Paterno, demonstrated incredible athletic prowess and a real feel for the game.

I participated in some of the drills, but quickly found out that my left knee was not up to the task.  I had an old injury that had already caused six months of physical therapy and did not want to re-injure it.

But that was okay with me.  My other passion is photography, and I had been conflicted even before the camp started as to which I would rather do.  So for most of the time, I was shooting.  When I felt I could do a drill without making my knee worse, I would participate.

Too soon, it was time to suit up for the flag football game.  So we gathered once again in the media room.  On every chair, there was a Nike blue football jersey.  We had been assigned to two teams:  "One" and "Seven."

There was a mad scramble to find the right size and right number for each of us.

This was one aspect that should definitely be improved for next time.  For whatever reason, the majority of football jerseys were ladies’ small and ladies’ medium.

We had all been asked for our size for a standard white T-shirt, but nobody asked our size for the jerseys!  Whoever assumed that we were all petite needs to rethink that!  We came in all shapes and sizes from smaller than small to larger than extra large.

We all dealt with it in good humor, and fortunately the jerseys were stretchy enough that we were able to somehow get them on.  I found myself with a small but was lucky enough to find a woman with number seven who was willing to exchange mine for a medium.  If asked, I would have ordered an extra-large.

But really, that was a relatively minor glitch that can be corrected easily for next time.

Then it was time to line up—to enter the tunnel, this time with a gaggle of photographers—just like a real game—in front of us to record our entrance.

We even had spectators—spouses and friends were also allowed to walk through the tunnel and observe the game.  Former players Darryl Clark and Matthew Rice were there.  Defensive Line Coach Larry Johnson came to watch.

My husband Terry couldn’t resist being there, even the Men’s Fantasy Camp participants changed their practice schedule that day to watch us women play.

Someone in the stands had a cowbell and played the standard Penn State beat.  It was the closest thing to a cheerleader rallying the crowd, and everyone responded.

With Terry in the stands, I didn’t want to disappoint him.  My knee was bothering me, so I chose to substitute in positions that I thought would be the least harmful.  I played in a couple of formations so I can say I did it.  I didn’t do any harm to the plays run but I can’t also claim that I contributed much to our team’s progress.

Mostly, though, I shot photos.  Captured action and sideline shots.  Even with that, by the end of the game I was hurting.  My knee had given out.  I could barely walk.

To anyone who is now worried, all it took was two Aleve pills and a good night’s sleep.  My knee is fine today.  I suspect that there are other women who are feeling it more physically than I am!

As the game progressed, the teams gelled. The ladies on the sidelines became very intense and competitive. Each team was in it to win.

Sideline discussions involved who would be best at each position. Substitutions became necessary as the game wore on.  It became very clear to all of us why each position has a unique name.

There is no time—quick decisions have to be made.  So using “Fritz," for example, made sense to avoid confusion between outside linebackers when calling out positions.

I even overheard some complaints about unfair tackles.  To put it bluntly, I overheard: “She grabbed my (slang word for breasts)!”

During practice, Mike had stated that when men block and tackle, they use their hands and attack the chest.  He sheepishly told us that as ladies, this is inappropriate.  He showed us an old-fashioned shoulder block—arms crossed in front of us—as more appropriate for a women’s game.

But in the heat of battle, well, you get the picture!

So many of the “chalk talks” in the team meeting room became clear to us as the game was played.  That is how it should be.  The best way to learn football is to practice, play the game, make mistakes, and then focus on improving technique.

In the end, the game ended with a 6-6 tie.  Each team scored a touchdown.  Each team achieved a great defensive play.  There was no tie breaker planned.

This was a bit odd for a Penn State-coached team.  In the past Joe Paterno was famous for hating tie games, preferring to go for a win even if it meant a loss, than settle for an unsatisfying tie.

But it was fitting for this experience.  Everyone succeeded.  Nobody won, but nobody lost, either.  The final score didn’t matter.

What mattered more to each of us were individual successes at this game called football, at whatever level of skill we brought to the game. 

Besides, there was no time to extend the game.  As soon as the game finished, we posed for a team photo and a few pictures on the turf with family or friends and boarded the blue buses to take a tour of the Lasch Football complex.  

We snapped photos of trophies.  Peeked into Joe Paterno’s office from an outside terrace.  Walked down the corridor where the coaches’ offices are and the coaches’ conference rooms.

There is a lot of history in this building; player photos, All-Americans, inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame, or the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  All intended to motivate, to inspire the current players to perform their best.  Worth a longer look, but we only had a few minutes.  We descended into the workout room, where one lone player was sweating it out.

We were then invited into the team locker room after Bill Cavanaugh checked it out.  He told us that there were some football players in there who were willing to meet us.

We had fun talking with them, posing for pictures, getting autographs, admiring some interesting body art, their physically impressive bodies.  These young men—sophomore wide receivers Justin Brown and Curtis Drake, tailback Devon Smith, and quarterback Kevin Newsome were true gentlemen and fun to meet.  They were very curious about our experience, asking us as many questions as we asked them.

Finally, we were invited to an auditorium where Penn State’s head video  coordinator, Pat Foley, talked about his background role on the team; how they record each game from the sidelines and the end zone.  He showed some game videos and some other videos that surprised and delighted us.  I don’t want to say too much about this—leave some surprises for next year.

But the roles that both Spider and Pat played throughout the day gave us all a sense of the background work and support that is necessary to field a very successful top 25 football team.

With that fine ending to a very full day of learning, it was back on the buses to a brief trip to Beaver Stadium to enjoy a shower at the men’s locker room at Beaver Stadium.  Or at least some of the women did that.  Some of us went back home or to our hotels, preferring privacy.

The final event of the day was a football banquet, held at the Nittany Lion Inn. And so we socialized, a bit more dressed up and clearly refreshed.

Patrick Steenberge, our host, greeted us with a brief talk.  After a few stories about his own experience as a backup quarterback for Notre Dame, he applauded us for our desire to live the dream.

During dessert, Kelly Paterno was our keynote speaker.  An excellent speaker, she gave us a perspective on what it’s like to be a coach’s spouse, and on what she learned from that day. She told some interesting stories and answered questions.

It was a delight to have her involved in the camp.  She added a lot—not the least of which was her excellent play on the field.

In the end, the success of this first ladies camp at Beaver Stadium came down to this:  the coaches didn’t insult our intelligence.  They challenged us instead to go very deep in our knowledge, to go beyond our comfort zones physically.

They immersed us in what it is like to be a Penn State football player, even if it was a very brief glimpse of that, and gave us an intense experience we will never forget, one that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

We will be changed forever as a result, in ways that none of us can quite yet predict.  We will view football with different eyes.  If nothing else, we will feel a lot of sympathy when we see Joe Paterno yelling at a certain assistant coach on the sidelines whose bright red hair is easy to detect from a distance.

At the banquet last night, Mike McQueary stated that we are now officially a part of the Penn State family.  We can now say we played football at Penn State.

There was a new bond created with Penn State football, a new understanding of how complicated it is to field a successful team season after season, what the players go through, what it takes to make Penn State football the premium program it has become under Joe Paterno’s legacy of leadership.

There is also now a bond between us women as the pioneers in this experience.

We were, in a sense, guinea pigs for this first ever ladies camps.  Having never done this before, nobody knew exactly what to expect.  Neither us, nor the coaches, nor the organizers could have predicted the exact outcome of this particular experience.

I suspect that this bond will be strengthened over the months to come. Some of us are already talking about doing it again next year, or having a reunion tailgate this fall. I have a feeling that this is just the beginning, and am grateful to be a part of this newly formed subgroup of the extended Penn State family.

To everyone who was involved in organizing this and coaching us and explaining things to us with incredible patience, insight, and humor, all I can say is very well done!  You succeeded and then some.

Now, do it again next year!