Penn State football’s got the nastiest nice-guy around.
Carl Nassib, the 6-foot-7, 272-pound former walk-on who put on 60 pounds during the past three years to become a fearsome starting presence on the defensive line, is leading the nation with 11.5 sacks in seven games (12, depending on who you ask) and 15.5 tackles for loss.
The senior, notoriously camera-shy (according to head coach James Franklin, he faked a chemistry test to get out of a session with local media earlier this year), addressed media for his first press conference this season, on Tuesday — the day it was announced that ESPN, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports had named Nassib to their midseason All-America lists.
Nassib, as of late, has seemed vaguely mythological. He’s a player who, before Tuesday, had been composed of stories — “Nassib stories” as they’ve been called — stats, and big plays; an unmistakably larger-than-life presence on an already impressive Penn State defensive line.
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Take the tale Franklin let slip during a presser a few weeks ago; the one in which Nassib, at Chipotle for what is likely a neverending quest to “feed the beast,” befriended a 17-year old girl with Down Syndrome. Nassib ate lunch with her, and the girl’s mother was so impressed with the interaction that she emailed Franklin about it. The mother and daughter were then invited to practice the next day.
Fellow defensive end Garrett Sickels said his favorite story was the time the team found a cockroach in their quarters during fall camp, and Nassib hopped around screaming.
“I was like Carl, you’re 6-foot-7, 272…” laughed Sickels.
Then there are the stories Nassib’s teammates swear they can’t tell — defensive tackle Anthony Zettel and safety Jordan Lucas collapse into snickers when asked about their favorite “Nassib stories,” and Lucas, when asked why people call Nassib “Crazy Carl” simply responded, “Carl is nuts.”
“The first time I ever got called that was in ninth grade, and I don’t know how that re-surfaced,” said Nassib, moments after sliding into his seat at the podium inside the media room at Beaver Stadium, in a blue Penn State polo, large silver cross swinging from his neck.
“I think I’m a pretty laid-back person, but on game day I get pretty passionate and into it; (those) are the euphemisms that I will use today.”
He looked down and grinned; chalk that one up on a short list of the times a football player has used the word “euphemism” so casually, naturally, but Nassib (who plans to go to medical school), it turns out, is incredibly well-spoken. Self-assured, even in front of several dozen strangers.
How was he doing?
“Well, thank you.” Perfect grammar, consistently so, as he sat, shoulders loose, and talked about himself. It’s not something he’s necessarily comfortable doing.
“It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I’d rather pass the torch on to other people,” he said. “But I think it’s getting a little bit easier for me.”
Focusing on other people is easiest, though. For example, along the length of his prodigious stat-line, the takedown that sticks out to Nassib the most is the sack-and-strip that allowed his teammate and friend, 325-pound Austin Johnson, to rumble 70 yards down the field for his first-ever touchdown.
“It was awesome, kind of comical, but it was awesome,” he said, grinning. “We were both exhausted, like I was exhausted, I don’t think I blocked one person because I was so tired, and he couldn’t even breathe. But it was a great moment for our team.”
Nassib never started a game before this year, throughout high school or college, and now, is a national headline. His work ethic is the reason; his “Walk-On University” mentality the catchphrase used by those who describe him.
“People work hard for awhile, and expect results to come out like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “ It’s difficult to work hard and not see the fruits of your labor until later in life. Those are the really lucky people, that really strive to be the best that they can be, and then, one day, they are. I want to be one of those people that just can look at myself and think, ‘I’ve done everything I can to be the best that I can,’”
His brother, Ryan, is a Syracuse grad and backup quarterback for the New York Giants, and still Nassib didn’t mention himself, or even Ryan, when asked who the best football player in his family is.
“That would definitely, without question, be my 7-year-old nephew, Jackson,” he said, trying to keep a straight face. “He’s a stud. Pure athleticism. Pure love for the game, it’s undeniable. He went to the other team, because he’s in flag football, and they didn’t have enough guys, and he just destroyed his own team.”
Talking about others is easy.
To draw back attention to himself on Tuesday afternoon caused Nassib to pause.
“It’s difficult describing yourself,” he said. Another pause. “I think I’m a funny guy.”
Yet another pause, and he looked to the side, toward a media relations member.
“I don’t know, how would you describe me?”
“You are funny,” she said, surprised he asked her.
“Yeah, I’m hilarious, so there you go,” he said, snapping his head back toward his audience.
Although, he admitted, he laughs at his own jokes too much.
This is the same player who called himself “awkward and weird” in an interview with ESPN’s “Big Man on Campus” last week, and who referred to himself as a “nerd” on Tuesday. But he owns it, and man, is that refreshing.
That was what was immediately discernible, strikingly so — the kid who pulled himself up from the dregs of the weight room to become the biggest name on defense in the nation is at ease with himself, whether he’s rushing, roaring and screaming after a fleeing quarterback, or befriending people in the Chipotle line.
Nasty, or nice.