As I watched a guy named “Taco” fold Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg in half, I thought, “Man, Penn State fans should hope he leaves after this season.”
I sat up in the press box last week at Beaver Stadium as the Nittany Lions lost to Michigan and thought about how I wasn’t here for the first, or 20th, or 50th time Hackenberg was drilled for a sack, but I was present for the unthinkable 100th, and then the 101st, in three years.
I counted, then re-counted. And thought again, “my God, for his sake, I hope he leaves,” because asking a guy to stay and take a fourth year of the same beating is a terrible expectation to place on someone.
But darn it all if he didn’t get back up for more after every single one of them.
Hackenberg’s calling card has been, for the last three years, that of the guy who sticks around.
Rodrigue, on Christian Hackenberg
“What keeps you getting back up?” he was asked by a reporter after last week’s game, as he sat in the middle of a horde of us with our bright lights and microphones in his face.
His teammates, he said, and his own pride.
The followup question came. “Is it ever hard?”
“No.” He shook his head.
He’s never missed a start, never even missed a full series — the longest he’s been out is when he’s had to get evaluated after a particularly vicious hit, and that’s never lasted more than a snap or two.
Hackenberg’s calling card has been, for the past three years, that of the guy who sticks around. He didn’t transfer even when Bill O’Brien left, when it became clear that Hackenberg was not the ideal fit for the preferred offense of James Franklin and the vast development issues facing the offensive line.
He has said that it was partially a decision of defiance for him to stay committed to Penn State when the sanctions hit, that commitment and his word has always been important to him, and the bonds and friendships he’s made during his time here, through the harder times especially, have meant the world to him.
One of those friendships is that of former walk-on Von Walker, who said that because of Hackenberg’s blue-chip status and hyped entrance to the program, he saw the quarterback get treated a bit differently by many.
Not Walker, who treated the quarterback the same as everyone else and chirped at Hackenberg right away, picked on him even as “the walk-on with nothing going on for him,” and the two became fast friends after that.
Walker also admitted a few weeks ago that he “felt bad” for Hackenberg. It wasn’t a statement of pity, exactly, but instead of empathy that proved that these players know all too well the pressure that’s been on the young quarterback from the societal bubble surrounding Penn State, and college football itself.
Those expectations have to stop.
Hackenberg has given up his body fully to the program, and allowed us in the media to prod and pry and analyze every breath he takes and still agrees to speak when he’s requested. He’s sacrificed himself every week in the fall to try and hold something together at Penn State, picked himself apart on film in the offseason and worked tirelessly to fix the things he needs to fix — only to have that not even matter because he’s just going to get pummeled anyway.
Many of the Penn State faithful wanted him to fix their program. Because, after all, the best way to rebound and rally would be to win football games in the face of the sanctions and the body that imposed them.
But to do so wouldn’t be a black-and-white task; no, Hackenberg’s time at Penn State has not been deconstructed as simply as an ’80s jock rock movie where there is quantifiable, categorical “good” and “bad” and the touchdowns of the “good” overpower the sanctions of the “bad” and the hero rides off into the sunset in the green pickup truck, a town in bloom behind him, beautiful blond girlfriend by his side.
Instead Penn State got a dose of real life, and it was messy and grotesque and to even fathom that a young man with a rocket arm; the perfect mold of a quarterback, a kid still growing up, could fix that was pure fantasy and impossible hope.
It was like a part of the Penn State fan base expected a systemic savior — not from their new coach, but from their quarterback.
What they got instead was a human being.
And they should thank him for taking the hits, time and again, and then they should let him go.