On Saturday, Sean Spencer will see his father for the first time in 33 years.
The last moment they shared in person was spent by Spencer’s father, former Michigan State running back Eddie Cotton, trying to persuade Spencer to change his last name to match his own.
That’s the first important decision Spencer can remember making: telling Cotton “no.”
There aren’t any visible signs of bitterness when Spencer, now Penn State football’s defensive line coach, speaks about his dad, though. In fact, he is proud of the legacy Cotton and a fraternity of African American players left at Michigan State in the 1960s.
Spencer says it simply – would-be nonchalantly, even – his dad was there, in his life for about 11 years, and then he just wasn’t.
He shrugs. It’s a chilly Friday morning during Penn State’s bye week, and Spencer’s angular office is littered with souped-up leaflets to be sent to recruits and the various odds and ends a coach collects over the years.
Up high, above any danger of clutter, are framed photos of his 11-year-old daughter, Alysia (nicknamed “Baby Chaos”) and on the low-slung windowsill behind him is a giant rawhide dog bone, painted blue and white with the words “Wild Dogs” scrawled across it.
To begin to know who Spencer is, it must be understood that the 44-year-old coach spends all day barking at a combined 2 tons of human hit-machine and then goes home to his young daughter.
His Wild Dogs (what he calls his defensive line) like to hit; Alysia likes to color.
“You get home and you’re mad about not getting a sack, and she shows you something she made and then you sit there and say, ‘Oh, that’s nice,” laughs Spencer, mimicking a grimace.
Spencer often talks about his ability to “feel” a room, to understand the vibe of what someone might need at a certain moment.
It’s why head coach James Franklin has him address the team before games; it’s why Spencer can go home to his daughter and melt away a day spent working with hulking, aggressive people with the warmth that comes with being a dad; and it’s why Spencer has been able to shape a line full of wildly diverse and unique personalities into a cohesive unit that he says is the best he’s ever coached.
We got on him, the first time he had a sack in Beaver (Stadium.) You know, he got up, he pounded his chest. And you talk to him, and you try to tell him, 'Listen, man. Don't do that. Don't attract attention to yourself.' And he goes, 'Coach, I got to explain something to you,' and he literally was tearing up in my chair. And he goes, 'I've waited my entire life to make a sack in that stadium, and hear that crowd cheer my name. And for that moment, it had nothing to do with just me. It had to do with me being here, I had that moment to find.'
Sean Spencer, on Carl Nassib’s first sack
With defensive end Carl Nassib, Spencer has exercised a talent for allowing a big personality to be exactly who he is, despite the traditional uniformity of the position.
“Let’s talk about Carl,” he said, and there’s much to discuss about the guy who exploded onto the scene this season after putting on 25 extra pounds from last year and finally wrangling his big, long body to match his intensity.
“Every rep for that guy counts,” said Spencer. “Whether it’s practice, whether it’s the game, it’s going to be 100 miles per hour. He has to be physically exhausted at the end of every game, because he never takes a play off.
“It’s a pleasure to coach the guy.”
Spencer cocks his head, grins. “He’s off, now.”
Nassib is indeed a little quirky, very intelligent and unapologetically himself. Spencer learned to adapt to that after the first game of the season – to “let Carl be Carl.”
“We got on him, the first time he had a sack in Beaver (Stadium),” he said. “You know, he got up, he pounded his chest, he went like that (Spencer throws his arms out). And you talk to him, and you try to tell him, ‘Listen, man. Don’t do that. Don’t attract attention to yourself.’
“And he goes, ‘Coach, I got to explain something to you,’ and he literally was tearing up in my chair. And he goes, ‘I’ve waited my entire life to make a sack in that stadium, and hear that crowd cheer my name. And for that moment, it had nothing to do with just me. It had to do with me being here, I had that moment to find.’
Spencer laughs. “And what do you say after that?”
So he let him be him, something a guy like Nassib needed.
With Garrett Sickels, on the opposite end of Nassib, it’s a little more straightforward. The redshirt sophomore is ultimately coachable, in the most traditional sense. Spencer takes an old-school approach with Sickels.
“Garrett, now, you can get after,” he said, laughing. “You scream at him and he’s like ‘OK! I got it!’”
And then there’s Austin Johnson, and with him, Spencer has to show the “why.”
“He’s everything you want a defensive lineman to be,” he said, shaking his head, eyes widening.
“But he is an intense human being on the field. Sometimes we have to calm him down. He turns from being an off-the-field nice guy to a maniac on it. I love that about him.
“He is so smart. His football intelligence is so high, that sometimes it may even hurt him because he thinks a little bit too much. He deciphers every single play.”
Spencer said even in the middle of games he’ll ask Johnson to break down a certain play for him on the sideline and the defensive tackle will execute perfectly.
“It’s pretty impressive. But I have to tell him sometimes, 'Sometimes you just got to grit your teeth and stick somebody. Don’t think, just hit.’”
Finally, there's Anthony Zettel.
This season, Spencer stepped into a role he couldn’t have predicted for the defensive tackle. Zettel, amid all the hype and the humor of his unique personality, was delivered the heaviest of blows possible when he lost his father, Terry, to cancer early in the season.
There’s a photo, now iconic, of Zettel and Spencer after the senior’s career day against San Diego State just 24 hours removed from Terry’s passing. Spencer has his arm around a sweaty, exhausted Zettel as they walk off the field.
It's a responsibility as a coach, when you tell a kid that you're going to be there for him. And you tell him you've got his back. You can't do it as lip service, you really got to mean it. And it's got to come from your system and your soul.
Spencer said he saw Zettel walking by himself, after the game, and more than anything else, he just wanted to make sure he wasn’t alone when he left the field.
He told him he was proud of him.
“At that moment in time, I think we both realized that his dad was gone,” he said. “It was emotional.”
Zettel will never forget that, and tells Spencer he’s like a father to him, especially now.
“Now he calls me his dad,” Spencer said, unable to keep a grin from creeping across his face. “You know, that’s kind of cool. I know that sometimes he does it lightheartedly, but I know it means something for him that I’m there for him.”
His guys are all so different, and it starts with that front four.
So Spencer treats them differently, not by level of affection or instruction but in variance of style. He is all people all at once to them, whatever they need from him. And he makes it clear as we sit and he leans forward and his hands settle on the desk in front of him and his eyes widen that he always will be that person for them.
“It’s a responsibility as a coach, when you tell a kid that you’re going to be there for him. And you tell him you’ve got his back. You can’t do it as lip service, you really got to mean it.
“And it’s got to come from your system and your soul.”
“I’m still not calling him ‘Dad,’” Spencer says, throwing me a side-eye as he rolls backward in his chair, threatening to graze with his elbows the giant windows that give him a view of the pristine and coolly green practice fields at Lasch.
He’s talking almost absentmindedly now; odd for a guy so often hyper-focused. Maybe he’s nervous, the words bubbling up and out toward a person he hardly knows as he goes through the upcoming meeting with Cotton in his mind.
“I don’t really know what to call him. I can’t fix my mouth to call him ‘Dad.’ I’ll probably just say, ‘Hey, man.’”
He’s not giving Cotton tickets to the game, either.
“I’m not giving him free seats so he can root against us,” he says with a chuckle that doesn’t quite reach the crinkly laugh lines around his eyes. “He can meet me after.”
And like that, and with a final handshake, he clicks back into place. Focuses. Back to work, to a dozen different brains and their corresponding cares and talents, and to feeling out the quirks and the habits of each and every one of them. Just two games left, after all, with the best defensive line Spencer said he’s ever coached.
His players are preparing for the finish, too; their sounding board, motivator, listening ear, leaning shoulder, baritone-voiced, patiently furious and frenetic coach will be exactly who he needs to be for each one of them.
They are the sum of his parts.
And on Saturday, they are the ones who will show the man meeting his son for the first time in 33 years exactly who that son is – and exactly who that son became, without him.