Penn State's annual tradition of introducing each outgoing senior while he runs through Beaver Stadium one final time will not only have special meaning for those wishing fond farewells for Michael Mauti, Michael Zordich, Matt McGloin and the rest, it will have special meaning for Nittany Lion fans with Lycoming County ties.
Saturday's game against Wisconsin is also the last game with the program for safety Jacob Fagnano, who has seen playing time any walk-on from Williamsport High School would love to have. It's also the last game for Jamie Van Fleet from Loyalsock who also joined the program in 2008 as a walk-on, but whose career ended with a spring practice knee injury.
Fagnano didn't have much time to think about that before this week - he was too busy contributing at both safety positions and special teams before earning his first career start last Saturday vs. Indiana. But now that the time is here, and with the 7-4 Nittany Lions having no postseason plans because of NCAA probation, now is especially the time to soak in every last buckling of the chinstrap.
"It has hit me in moments, probably hardest after walking off the field (against Indiana)," said Fagnano. "It was really hard, up until now I'd been focusing on Indiana, Indiana. I didn't realize how big of a situation I was in."
Both Fagnano and Van Fleet grew into this situation. Countless people enroll at big schools like Penn State planning to walk onto the football team. Some dream of being the big star they're convinced they were meant to be but somehow Division I coaches overlooked their talents. Others want only an opportunity to test their talents at the biggest school that will take them, and others enroll at a school because that's where they wanted to go, and if football works out, even better.
Put Fagnano in the last group. He grew up a Penn State fan and was set on going to school there. He eventually found his way onto special teams coverage with Van Fleet before seeing increased time at safety. He entered fall practice atop the depth chart at strong safety before Stephen Obeng-Agyapong won the job, but Fagnano's determination and versatility, not to mention ability, earned him regular playing time in the defensive backfield and earning a start at free safety last week when Stephon Morris was injured.
This path has allowed Fagnano to see quite a bit. He went from being wowed by veteran receivers Deon Butler and Derrick Williams as a freshman, to trying to cover breakout star Allen Robinson this fall.
"He's got a nose for the ball and is a great playmaker," said Fagnano. "I know when I see him line up in the slot in practice it's only going to make me better."
Fagnano has 33 tackles entering Saturday's game, tied for ninth on the team with Obeng-Agyapong and defensive end Sean Stanley. He is an economics major on track to graduate in December. He had six tackles in 2011 and eight in 2010, his first season of in-game action.
Van Fleet's playing career ended a few months ago, yet he still appears in the same 2012 senior class photo with Fagnano, Mauti, and everyone else who endured the last 12 months of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno's firing and death, NCAA sanctions, and a new start under head coach Bill O'Brien. Van Fleet, who played in every game from 2009-11, had his most notable moment when he returned a blocked punt 21 yards for a touchdown to give Penn State the lead for good in a 2010 game vs. Indiana at FedEx Field. He is a landscape contracting major and is also graduating in December after earning Academic All-Big Ten honors.
"It's really hard to put into words, in my opinion, what this senior class means to this football program, to this athletic department, and this university," said O'Brien. "At the age of 21, 22, some of them 23 years old; that's pretty heavy stuff and you can't say enough about them. I think people have to understand within those walls over there at the football building these guys will always mean a lot to this football program."