In January 2014, Koa Farmer posted a picture on Instagram when he committed to Penn State, talking about the Nittany Lions eventually reaching the Rose Bowl.
Just a senior at Notre Dame High School in southern California, Farmer was certain Penn State would play in “The Granddaddy of Them All” — and that’s when the program still faced a bowl ban.
The West Coast kid was sure of himself though that he’d one day return home to play in arguably the most historical bowl game in college football.
“I believed in coach (James) Franklin, I believed in the past guys, the guys that were here before us, and I believed in all of Nittany Nation,” Farmer said with the sun at his back at Disney California Adventure on Tuesday. “You’ve got to believe in that kind of stuff. Look where we’re at now.”
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Farmer’s bold instincts proved to be right. He and the No. 5 Nittany Lions are set to face No. 9 Southern California in the Rose Bowl at 5 p.m. on Monday.
The game, and whole trip really, offers an unforgettable experience for all of Penn State’s players — but for Farmer, suiting up to face the Trojans in his own backyard brings an entirely different appreciation.
Jamal Farmer will never forget the phone call he received on Dec. 4.
Shortly after the Nittany Lions found out they missed out on the College Football Playoff and were headed to Pasadena, Koa dialed his dad’s number.
“It was so surreal,” Jamal remembers. “It was one of those situations, like, no way. He’s going back to the Rose Bowl? You go 3,000 miles away to school and now you get to come back home?”
Jamal was thrilled, and so was Koa.
The Penn State linebacker is a native of Lake View Terrace, a suburb of Los Angeles. His house was 10 minutes from the Rose Bowl stadium.
Koa grew up around the Rose Bowl week hoopla, able to hear the parade and bowl game from his living room.
To the redshirt sophomore, the Rose Bowl was a common sight. He went to UCLA games before the bowl pageantry came to town, and actually worked out at the stadium, jogging as early as 8 years old.
“It’s normal to me,” Koa said.
That being said, the bowl game itself is something he’s always dreamed about playing in.
His father feels the same way.
Jamal has been asked by family and friends more times than he can count the same question over the past couple years: When is Koa going to play on the West Coast?
“I’m like, man, the closest we might get is Iowa or something,” Jamal said with a laugh.
For Koa’s West Coast family, Pasadena is a little more convenient than Iowa City.
“It’s chilling,” Jamal said. “For him to be able to come back home and get this experience, it’s priceless. It’s the Cinderella story for a kid that never knew if he would play on the West Coast again.”
Koa’s recruitment was kind of odd.
The all-state, multi-purpose weapon for Notre Dame was committed to California-Berkeley, but was scheduled to visit James Franklin at Vanderbilt.
“The coaches came over in black and gold and I was set to visit Vanderbilt,” Koa recalled. “Next week I see on SportsCenter that they’re going to Penn State. I thought to myself, ‘Welp, I guess I’m not visiting Vanderbilt.’ ”
But shortly thereafter, Franklin and his staff showed up at Koa’s house in blue and white, asking him to visit Penn State the following weekend.
So Koa and his parents flew from California to Philadelphia and planned on a connecting flight to State College — but seven inches of snow canceled their flight.
The Farmers had to rent a car and drive to Happy Valley.
“It wasn’t ideal,” Franklin said coyly. “I didn’t think the weather was helping us.”
Any negativity toward the Pennsylvania weather changed when Koa, his parents and Franklin got to Beaver Stadium.
The group had dinner overlooking the field. The flood lights were on, and the stadium in its entirety was covered with snow.
“It was beautiful,” Franklin said.
That day was the first time Koa had ever seen snow.
“When I saw that stadium, it was amazing,” the linebacker said.
Over dinner, Franklin pitched the family on Penn State — the academics, tradition, everything — and the Farmers walked away impressed.
“We went there and it blew everything else out of the water,” Jamal said. “It was a no-brainer.”
Jamal also liked that, while it’d be harder to watch his son play live, going to Penn State and living across the country would offer a new, challenging experience for Koa.
He was thankful that his son’s teammates were so welcoming to a California kid out of his element.
“All those guys took care of Koa when he’s at Penn State,” Jamal said. “They all go to each other’s houses.”
And now that the Nittany Lions are in Los Angeles, it’s Koa’s turn to show everyone around.
It’s not the first time, either. Over the past couple of years, he’s hosted teammates at his house over breaks.
Two summers ago, linebacker Jason Cabinda, as well as Mark Allen, Johnathan Thomas and Amani Oruwariye, visited Koa’s hometown. They hiked up to the Hollywood sign, went to the beach, and met Koa’s high school friends.
“It was a nice vacation,” Cabinda said. “He knows L.A. inside and out, so he was always taking us places every day.”
Jamal said Koa loves having his teammates out in California whenever it’s possible, calling his son “that Ohana guy.”
“It’s his family,” Jamal said of Koa’s teammates. “Koa takes the reins. All these guys have their flip-flops, sunglasses and they do their Hollywood thing.”
It’s been much of the same this week, as Koa has assumed the role of tour guide. He said he’s been the first one awake in the morning and the last one to go to sleep, fielding questions nonstop.
What are we doing today Koa?
What rides are we going on?
Where are we going to eat?
But being a point of reference for his teammates isn’t a burden on Koa. In fact, it has the opposite effect.
“I just love to see guys’ faces when they see things that I’ve been accustomed to all my life,” he said.
It’s not just Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles or In-N-Out that Koa’s referencing.
On Monday, the team buses will drive up to the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions will suit up, and face the Trojans.
The Rose Bowl stadium is a sight he’s seen time and time again, whether it was going to those UCLA games or running around the field.
But like his teammates, Koa has never played in the stadium.
That’ll change soon enough.
“It’s really a dream come true,” Koa said of playing in the Rose Bowl. “It’s a blessing. It truly is a blessing.”
Penn State vs. Southern California
Game Day Breakdown
Who: No. 5 Penn State (11-2, 9-1) vs. No. 9 Southern California (9-3, 7-2)
When: 5 p.m.
Where: Rose Bowl Stadium
Series: USC 5-4
KEYS TO WIN
For Penn State: Get Barkley to the edge. It seems simple, but the Nittany Lion offense is at its best when Saquon Barkley is stretching the field. Whether it’s sweeps or wheel routes, clearing space for Barkley and letting him use his speed to burn linebackers is the way to go.
For USC: Keep the foot on the pedal. We saw Wisconsin mount a 21-point lead, and a conservative second half doomed the Badgers. If the Trojans go into the locker room ahead, they better keep it coming in the third and fourth quarters.
Nittany Lion to watch: Mike Gesicki. With a leaping touchdown against Michigan State and an incredible score in the Big Ten title game, the junior is a mismatch for any linebacker or defensive back — and he’s in great form.
Trojan to watch: Ronald Jones II. The focus is on Sam Darnold, but the Trojan running back will be a factor. What gets overshadowed in Penn State’s win over Wisconsin was Corey Clement’s monster game. Jones is a 1,000-yard rusher with the ability to hurt the Nittany Lions.