UNIVERSITY PARK — His eyes dampened. He dropped extended pauses into his profound statements.
Stephon Morris didn't mask his feelings: Penn State's finale against Wisconsin on Saturday will be one of the most memorable afternoons of his life.
The candid senior cornerback spent part of Tuesday weaving what this season has meant to him into a powerful account of his personal travails.
After fielding two questions about Wisconsin's offense at Penn State's weekly news conference, Morris was asked about the emotions associated with entering the Beaver Stadium tunnel for the final time as a player.
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His nearly four-minute answer introduced a variety of topics, including how he was abandoned by his biological mother and raised by his father, Roman.
“My mom pretty much tried giving me away,” Morris told more than 30 reporters.
Stephon said his father has attended every Penn State game in the last four years. On Monday, Roman sent his son a text message: “I have never been so proud of you in my life.”
Like many of Penn State's scholarship players, Stephon faced a difficult decision when the NCAA announced major sanctions against the program last summer. The NCAA offered a transfer waiver allowing players a chance to play immediately at another school.
Stephon was one of the first players to announce his decision to remain at Penn State. He quickly relayed the message to Roman, telling his father to ignore phone calls from opposing coaches. Stephon said Roman considered remaining at Penn State the “right” decision. Sticking with the program also fulfilled a promise Stephon made to former coach Joe Paterno, who died last January after battling lung cancer.
“You never forget about Coach Paterno and everything he's done,” Stephon said. “He's the reason why all of us are here. He's one of the reasons why I stayed, the fact that I told him I would be here four or five years.”
Running out of the tunnel for the season-opener against Ohio University marked an emotional event for Stephon. His emotions might swell to another level Saturday. The sanctions include a four-year postseason ban, so the Nittany Lions' season will end regardless of the result. Penn State would improve to 8-4 by defeating the Badgers (7-4), who will represent the Leaders Division in next month's Big Ten title game.
“It's going to be very emotional, kind of like bittersweet,” Stephon said. “I will remember this moment for the rest of my life. I kind of wished it didn't come this fast. The 13 weeks of the season is kind of like a jet plane. Every week just got faster and faster.”
At 5-foot-8 and 186 pounds, Stephon will likely have trouble selling himself to NFL teams. But he's encountering few problems selling Penn State to teammates.
The transfer waiver is being offered until the start of 2013 preseason practices. Many younger players, including fellow cornerbacks Adrian Amos and Da'Quan Davis, look toward Stephon for advice and guidance. He mentioned Amos and Davis as players committed to staying at Penn State.
In fact, Stephon doesn't envision many underclassmen leaving the program.
“When we started off 0-2, I kept hearing whispers of I might be here next year, I might not be here and things like that,” Stephon said. “But as we got winning, those whispers started to calm down, then after the Ohio State game, I heard them again. And I talked to those guys: 'It will be stupid to leave here. Where else would you want to go? Let's not think football. Lets' think about getting a degree, the support you will have with getting that degree. Not to knock other school, if you get a degree here. It means a lot.'”
Stephon, a telecommunications major, is one of 30 seniors being honored Saturday. After spending three straight years trying to obtain a permanent starting spot, he has flourished in the man-to-man coverage schemes implemented by new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and secondary coach John Butler.
Stephon, who quickly meshed with first-year head coach Bill O'Brien, has started all 11 games. He leads the secondary and ranks fourth on the team with 55 tackles.
“He is a sociable guy and he is passionate about the game of football,” O'Brien said. “And he really wanted to do really well this year and he wanted to go out there and help this team win. You can't say enough about Stephon, playing some and not playing some, and now coming in there this year. He's done a nice job.”
Notes: O'Brien declined to reveal the extent senior Michael Mauti's left knee injury. Mauti, who has suffered two previous ACL injuries, has been ruled out of Saturday's game. Safety Malcolm Willis (knee), defensive tackle James Terry (foot) and Curtis Dukes (head) are listed as day-to-day on the injury report released by Penn State.