Penn State Football

‘Never give up’: How Penn State QB Will Levis draws inspiration from his grandfather

PSU QB Will Levis looks ahead to fall camp

Levis, Penn State’s No. 2 quarterback behind Sean Clifford, believes he can take advantage of Tommy Stevens’ decision to transfer.
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Levis, Penn State’s No. 2 quarterback behind Sean Clifford, believes he can take advantage of Tommy Stevens’ decision to transfer.

When Penn State quarterback Will Levis graduated from eighth grade, his grandfather, former Yale football coach David Kelley, gifted him a Dalai Lama scroll that read: “Never give up.” When Levis graduated high school, Kelley offered a stone with, “Never, never, never give up,” carved into it.

So when Levis turned 18 — when he was allowed by his parents to get a tattoo — one particular Bible verse stood out to him: 2nd Chronicles 15:7.

“Be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded,” Levis said, looking down at the script ink on his right arm last Wednesday at the Lasch Building. “Ever since I was a kid, my grandfather’s mantra to me was to never give up. ... He’s going through tough times. I just felt like that would be a good tattoo to start with.”

For Levis, that verse — that phrase, “Never give up” — serves as a daily reminder. It’s a reminder of how far he’s come, how a three-star, under-recruited quarterback found himself in the top-two on Penn State’s depth chart as a redshirt freshman. And it’s a reminder of his grandfather, who instilled life and football lessons, who now suffers from dementia.

“He’s losing it a little bit,” Levis said, exhaling heavily as the words left his lips. “But he has his moments here and there where he’s still the guy I knew. He’s a big part of my life, in my development as an athlete and a person.”

Levis tattoo.JPG
Penn State quarterback Will Levis displays the tattoo on his right arm. The bible verse — “Be strong and do not give up” — is meaningful for Levis and his family. John McGonigal

That relationship started to take hold when Levis was 7. His family moved from Massachusetts to Connecticut, into a house that Kelley built. It was 100 yards away from the grandparents’ home, an easy walk for Kelley to swing by and critique Levis’ throwing motion.

Mike Levis, Will’s father, recalled having a catch with his 10-year-old son in the yard one day. Looking on, Kelley bellowed: “Aim small, miss small.” It’s not often a fifth-grader is drilled to aim for the left hip. But Levis’ rise was one built on what his mother, Beth, calls “old-school, coach values”: Structure and discipline.

See, Will Levis is the latest in a long line of college athletes. His mother was a two-time All-American soccer player at Yale. His father was a wideout at Denison University in Ohio. Great-grandfather Alva Kelley won the 1939 national championship with Cornell — beating Ohio State, no less. “There might be some karma coming back around with Alva sending Will toward State College to repeat that,” Beth Levis said laughing. “How cool would that be?”

And then, of course, Levis’ grandfather compiled a storied career at Yale, first as a three-sport athlete and later a longtime assistant for College Football Hall of Fame inductee Carmen Cozza. Seven of Cozza’s 10 Ivy League titles came with Kelley on his defensive staff. Yale’s current defensive line assistant coach title is actually named after Levis’ grandfather.

But Kelley did more than coach up Yale’s pass-rushers. He also served as Cozza’s gameday referee intermediary, which made for interesting stories to sit down and tell Mike, Beth and Will years later. Stories he can no longer spin with the same wit, the same sharpness.

Kelley’s dementia has been “a slow progression,” according to Levis’ father. He and Beth never formally sat Will or his three sisters down to inform them of the disease. They picked up on it themselves. They all started to notice three years ago that their grandfather wasn’t the same.

“It’s really difficult,” Beth Levis said, pausing to collect her thoughts. “It’s an ugly disease. I’m sure it’s different for everybody as far as how it takes hold of your body and changes your mind. But it’s been a very quick decline, unfortunately, for him. He knows who everybody is still. But he’s a shadow of himself from a mental standpoint from what he used to be.”

Added Mike Levis: “He is one of the most energetic, driven, full-of-life individuals I’ve ever met or been around. And to kind of see that life slowly soften, or that energy dwindle just a little bit, is what I’ve noticed the most.”

Will, admittedly, saw it, too. “He’s having trouble,” the Penn State quarterback said simply. But that doesn’t erase the impact Kelley has had on his grandson. If anything, Levis’ bond with his grandfather — and the family mantra of, “Never give up” — has strengthened.

“I owe him a lot for how my path has gone the last five or six years,” Levis said. And what a path it’s been.

In May 2017, the summer after his junior year, Levis had offers from 10 schools: four MAC programs, three Ivy League institutions, UMass, Rhode Island and Albany. Two months later, he was Penn State’s replacement for Justin Fields.

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks to quarterbacks Will Levis and Tommy Stevens after Levis was pressured and lost the ball during spring practice on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 in Holuba Hall. Abby Drey

Levis’ recruitment — delayed by the quarterback’s late start in the national showcase cycle — gained traction in June 2017.

Levis was en route to Connecticut from Florida State when he received a call from former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Fields, a five-star prospect now at Ohio State, decommitted from Penn State a week earlier, leaving a quarterback spot open in the Nittany Lions’ 2018 class. Moorhead wanted Levis to come down for a camp on July 14, 2017, and he did. The three-star recruit earned an offer and accepted it the very next day — concluding an up-and-down recruitment.

“So many crazy twists and turns have happened for him to end up at Penn State,” Levis’ mother, Beth, said. “I believe that it’s meant to be. There’s a reason why he’s there. Something special is going to happen.”

Levis feels the same way, and he has reason to be confident. This time last year, when he arrived in Happy Valley as a summer enrollee, he had at least three quarterbacks — Trace McSorley, Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford — ahead of him on the depth chart. McSorley is now in the NFL, and Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State. Stevens’ decision surprised Levis, but he isn’t complaining. He wished the leader well and now sees it as an opportunity.

Levis — who “has one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen in my life,” according to Penn State wideout Justin Shorter — is expected to open the 2019 season as Clifford’s backup. However, after taking No. 2 reps in spring camp, Levis views it as an open competition. “There’s no telling who’s going to develop from now until the end of camp,” the redshirt freshman added. “I have to come in every day thinking I can be that starting quarterback.”

Should Levis pull the upset and overtake Clifford, he’ll have plenty of family at Beaver Stadium to support him. But Kelley, unfortunately, might not be in the crowd.

Last September, Levis’ parents, sisters and grandfather visited for Ohio State weekend. On the Friday before the White Out, Levis gave his family a tour of the Lasch Building, showing Kelley the Nittany Lions’ lavish locker rooms, surely different than those at Yale in the ’80s. They went out to dinner after and talked about Levis’ life as a scout-team quarterback and how he balanced his school work. On Saturday, the family witnessed the craziness that was College GameDay on the Old Main lawn.

Beth Levis called it a “special weekend,” one that allowed Kelley to see with his own eyes how far his grandson had come.

“He was a part of the energy of that weekend,” Levis’ mother said. “I’m glad we did it because, to be quite honest, I don’t know if he’s able to physically get back again.”

Regardless, Kelley will be keeping a close eye on his grandson. Wherever he is — either in the stands in Happy Valley or at home in Connecticut — the former coach will be proud of Levis. In truth, he already is. Levis knows that, and so do his parents.

Levis has followed Kelley’s words of encouragement. The quarterback has never given up. And wherever Levis goes from here, that mantra will always be a part of him — both on his arm and in his mind.

“I’m never going to give up,” Levis said, cracking a smile. “And for that, I know he’ll be proud of me.”