Joe Nastasi, with his highlighter-orange sneakers standing out in a huddle of Little Lions, raised a playsheet above his head and directed State College toward the end of Tuesday’s football practice. Nastasi — State College’s wide receivers coach and a Penn State letterman — then pulled a few Little Lions aside to give them a quick talk before running the play. The guys listened and executed, resulting in a long completion.
Funny thing is, those players didn’t grow up watching Nastasi at Beaver Stadium. They weren’t even alive when he graced the blue and white from 1995-98.
But the Little Lions recognize Nastasi as more than just a former Penn State wideout. They know him as a caring coach and paternal presence, someone who can be trusted and counted on. He’s a friend and familial figure who can help receivers create separation on a fly route and at the same time offer life advice.
Now in his second season on State College’s staff, Nastasi wears a wide smile any time he’s asked about the Little Lions. He understands his role and wants nothing more than to make a difference.
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“I take a lot of pride in the fact that I am more than just a coach for these guys,” Nastasi said, sitting on a set of concrete steps just outside Memorial Field, looking out at the turf. “Sometimes you have to flip hats, man. Sometimes you’ve got to be the counselor, the dad, and I mean that in a very good way. Not everybody comes from the same exact setup. I have a gift and ability to handle all walks of life and all kids and get them to where they need to go.”
State College head coach Matt Lintal noticed that from the start.
Lintal met Nastasi through a mutual friend two years ago. Brian Harpster, a State College native who coaches area youth baseball, worked with Nastasi in the past. He also just so happens to be Lintal’s neighbor. After a conversation with Harpster and finding out Nastasi’s interest in coaching football, Lintal reached out.
“I heard positive things about him as a person, as a coach and for what he does for kids,” State High’s head coach said. “Every day since, he’s lived that and been tremendous.”
Plus, there’s a familiarity factor.
Nastasi’s known a lot of the Little Lions since they were young. His son of the same name is a 10th-grader on the State College football team and played Pop Warner with a lot of his current teammates. Nastasi even coached youth flag football and saw more than a few future Little Lions grow before his very eyes.
“There’s already that natural trust. It doesn’t take time to build; it’s been years of been built,” Lintal said. “When these kids are in need, looking for guidance, and looking for what they need to do to become a man, Joe’s a guy that’s always going to be there for them through good, bad and ugly. He’s going to be there, have their back and hold them accountable to the best he can.”
When these kids are in need, looking for guidance, and looking for what they need to do to become a man, Joe’s a guy that’s always going to be there for them through good, bad and ugly.
Matt Lintal, State College football coach
Take State College wideout Cohen Russell, for example.
Russell, a 5-foot-7 soft-spoken junior, leads the Little Lions in receiving prior to this week’s action. Just looking at Russell, not too many would think he’s torn up secondaries in 2017. But with 253 yards through seven games, not to mention his team-high 719 all-purpose yards, that’s been the case.
Russell attributes quite a bit of his success to Nastasi. The State College speedster — who is raised by a single mother — calls Nastasi “a father and uncle figure” to him.
“He’s been there for me ever since I was young,” Russell said. “He always tells me to play angry because of my size. Not too many people can play receiver at my height. He tells me to play angry and play like I deserve to be out here.”
That’s Russell’s favorite piece of advice Nastasi ever gave him.
What about senior wide receiver and future Nittany Lion preferred walk-on Brandon Clark? “Just work your ass off every day,” Clark said with a smile.
Yep, that’s the kind of mentality Nastasi has instilled in his wide receivers — and really, all the Little Lions he coaches.
Nastasi knows what it takes to not only make an impact in high school, but also get to and contribute at the next level. He played with the likes of Bobby Engram, LaVar Arrington, Joe Jurevicius and Curtis Enis, who all thrived at Penn State and spent a combined 34 seasons in the NFL. Nastasi even latched on in the league himself with the Cleveland Browns’ and St. Louis Rams’ practice squads.
In his playing days — from being taught by Joe Paterno to catching the eye of a couple NFL scouts — Nastasi learned what it took to make it from a work-ethic perspective. That knowledge is invaluable to the Little Lions.
But the most important thing Nastasi grew to understand was that no one is the same. Everyone has a different background and story.
That’s helped him identify with the Little Lions, and it provides someone on whom State College’s players can lean.
“I feel like I’m not only a position coach,” Nastasi said. “You can be that little piece of the puzzle that excels them.”
Lintal added: “He knows who may need a positive male role model. He’s willing to step up and be that if those kids want and need him to. He’s done that repeatedly. That’s just who he is. He’s a great person and a great football coach.”