Only six of them made it through five full years. In hindsight, it’s a high number.
Last month, Penn State football honored 19 players during Senior Day ceremonies before their final game at Beaver Stadium. It’s those six who stand out.
Co-captains Anthony Zettel and Angelo Mangiro. Kyle Carter. Ben Kline. Matt Zanellato. And national sack leader Carl Nassib, the lone walk-on of the group. Kline is a Dallastown High School graduate.
Those are the only players who were on the roster before chaos hit the school in 2011. Those are the only ones who signed with and were coached by Joe Paterno.
They’re now the last link on the roster to the late coach.
“We came to Penn State because this was the most solidified program in the country,” Zettel said of his 2011 signing class. “You knew what you were going to get when you came here. Things happened, you know.
“I didn’t come here because of Coach Paterno strictly. It was a little bit of an extra. I knew he was 80-some years old when I came here and he wasn’t going to be here my whole career.”
Zettel and his classmates saw things collapse that November as former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted on dozens of counts of child abuse. That was followed not 24 hours later by school administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz being hit with perjury charges. Paterno was ousted by the board of trustees four days after that.
Eight months later, the NCAA hammered the program. None of the six players had any reason to believe they would get to play in a bowl game if they stayed. In those first 48 hours after the sanctions were announced, there was very real concern whether enough guys would stick around to field a remotely competitive team.
But as the 2015 season rolls to a close, here they still are, ready to play in a second straight bowl game following the removal of the sanctions. They’ll face off against Georgia at noon on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida, in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Zanellato paid tribute to his former coach during his Senior Day introduction, writing “409” — Paterno’s record-setting win total — on his wrist tape before the game.
Some of the seniors, however, aren’t ready just yet to sit back and take stock of everything they’ve been through in the past four years.
“It’s the past. It’s the past,” Mangiro said. “I’m grateful for this coaching staff that came in. I have a great relationship with them. I’ve had great relationships with my other coaches, too.
“One more (game). This is it … I’ve got a month left and I just want to soak in as much as I can. Soak in my teammates.”
That word — “teammates” — figured prominently in Paterno’s final speech to Mangiro and the rest of his players on his final day as coach.
“The departures of these (six) men mark the final chapter of connection to another era, the last witnesses to an as-yet unspoken history,” wrote Jay Paterno, Joe’s son and former assistant coach, in his biweekly column for statecollege.com. “They are the last who sat in what would be Joe Paterno’s last team meeting and heard him say … ‘No matter what happens, we will always — all of us — we will always be teammates. We will always be Penn State football players and teammates — always until the day we die.’”
It’s a sentiment passed on from Paterno to his successors, Bill O’Brien and James Franklin.
More than anything, the seniors will remember each other.
“I came here for the guys in the locker room, the guys on the team, the guys that you go to battle with everyday,” Zettel said. “So when the sanctions and stuff hit and everybody had a choice to leave, it really was a point where there’s very few teams in the country that could have done what we did, and most of the guys stayed.
“It was everything I thought. I wouldn’t change anything going back the last five years. I wouldn’t change a thing just because it made our program stronger.”