I’m halfway through my iced coffee when Ben Kline informs me that he used to be “a d---.”
Surely not, I think, snickering at his admission, not the clean-cut young man sitting squarely in his chair across from me. He’s in khakis — voluntarily — for God’s sake.
We’re in a State College Starbucks and the Dallastown High School graduate is drinking water, sandy blondish-brown hair swept to the side to show a 3-inch-long cut pink in its healing process.
It’s where Kline got stitches just before the opening minutes of Penn State’s TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia, when he stood in a huddle of linebackers and yanked them by the facemask into his own skull, screaming, “Take advantage of it! Take the (expletive) advantage of it! Because you're not going to get that many, and once it’s over, it’s (expletive) over!” as he did so.
The video caused quite a stir, going viral in a matter of hours — an interesting sendoff for a guy who doesn’t really like external noise.
Rough first year: Before all of that, he was Ben from Dallastown, the local kid on Joe Paterno’s last team (though he didn't know that at the time). Different moments stick out most vividly to him about his first year, but mostly he says it’s a blur.
“When I first got here, it was actually really funny, because me and (Anthony) Zettel really hated each other,” he said (now, of course, he and happy goofball Zettel are like brothers, and Kline describes him as “vibrant”). “We had to live together, that’s who we were assigned and we just butted heads really badly. From the jump, we just fought all the time. A lot of that’s my fault.
“I was a d--- and he was himself, so we didn’t get along at all.”
His first camp, then Paterno’s last, was punctuated by brutal two-a-day conditioning sessions.
“I hated everything about it, it was just so, so awful,” he said. “I remember Vandy (former Penn State assistant coach Ron Vanderlinden) came up to me and said ‘Hey, do you know Deion (Barnes)?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, we’ve met,’ and he goes ‘Well, he’s 260 pounds and he’s beating you now.’
“I guess we weren’t doing introductions.”
Kline admitted he felt he wasn't “a good teammate” during that time, citing a lack of engagement and his tendency to keep to himself.
Injuries start: And during his redshirt freshman year, the injuries started.
“I was having a lot of problems, neck stingers and stuff that made my shoulders weak, and I subluxed my shoulder,” he said. “I ended up playing through it and it kept happening, the stingers and stuff. ... I had surgery that offseason, got really strong and felt really good and then going into my redshirt sophomore year ... it tore the second practice of camp, just ripped completely.
“They strapped me in and I just kind of grinded through it. ... They just tape you up, put you in a harness. Played the year like that, with one arm basically, then I tore my (pectoral) and that ended that year. Tore my Achilles that summer.”
It was a veritable flood of bad luck, but Kline is hardly superstitious.
“I don’t know, life is what it is. What’re you going to do?”
Making adjustment: What he did was find a tradeoff. He adjusted, and threw himself into academics (a business economics focus does take quite a bit of time, after all) and volunteering for various charitable projects, becoming a Rhodes scholar candidate, etc.
“I think that you make plans, but you have to constantly adjust,” he said. “I think that’s the key to anything, is figuring out what adjustments you need to make. That level of involvement with the other stuff, getting hurt over and over again gave me more time (to do so). ... It was something I actively sought out, because I didn't just want to sit around and wallow.”
He sees now that it changed him, turned him toward involvement with his teammates off the field as he explored various personalities and ideals.
“I think that (getting hurt) forced me to be a better teammate. I thought, ‘Well listen, you’re hurt and these guys don’t have any reason to know about you on the field. So you’d better make damn sure that you’re there for everybody as much as you can be and make an impact off the field.
“You come in and you see guys from all different backgrounds. ... Guys who grew up in North Philly, guys who grew up in rich families, guys who grew up on farms, you got everything. And that’s what makes it cool, but you kind of get these preconceived notions of who people are. Just learning about people, who they are and getting an understanding about what’s important to them. ... And just realizing people aren’t cookie-cut. ... You just see who people are, and where they fit into your life and where you fit into theirs.”
He finishes his water, and as we talk he pulls the circular plastic cap guard off the bottle and begins to absentmindedly twist it between his thumbs and forefingers. As the plastic bends it gives, and bits of it come apart in his hand. He drops them one at a time into the bottle, then begins twirling the bottle back and forth between his hands — a restless talker, but not a scattered one.
Getting into politics:
Kline is working on the campaign of York County native John Fetterman as he runs for U.S. Senate. Fetterman is a bear of a man with the dates of homicides in the borough of Braddock (where he’s mayor) tattooed on his arm and a fierce passion for restoring life to a town that gave everything it had to industry, only to be left in ruin. Financially, Fetterman is an underdog in the race, but he’s not processed, not “cookie-cut,” after all, and therein lies some of the draw for Kline.
Many who don’t know him outside of his No. 38 jersey seemed surprised at the choice of Kline, he of the slick side-part and clarity of speech. But working for Fetterman is pretty fitting in reality, because as we talk it grows ever-clearer the former linebacker is not the stock photo-esque mouthpiece of cause, as he was often made out to be while trotted out in his pressed blue polo to speak about his academic and service accomplishments — no, this Kline, cussing a little in his candidness, watched his blue-collar father, Rick, lose his job during 2008’s economic crash after not missing a day of work in 20 years.
“That was really transformative to me,” he says, and his voice grows soft. “He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever met, and just seeing him take a hit like that was really tough. It changed my outlook about a lot of things, it’s kind of why I’m doing what I’m doing in economics and public policy.”
Over five years, Kline has let go of many of the qualities that made him describe himself the way he did in the opening minutes of our conversation, but held tight to others.
Life outside of football: Any implication of abrasiveness or rudeness, or unconcern for some of the diverse personalities around him, is absent. In their place are care, self-awareness, and an adamant and vocal refusal to suffer fools in careful worlds while also constantly questioning and appraising the one around him.
It’s partially why he’s been so successful running operations like Uplifting Athletes’ chapter at Penn State and in the classroom — he isn’t satisfied with status quo molds but wants to create them himself. And if you’re privy to the information, he’s going to tell you exactly what he thinks along the way.
At Penn State, life often included interactions with media by both Kline and his teammates as the platform the football players have is vast on both a local and national scale.
It’s a lot of noise, and naturally, Kline’s got an opinion about it.
“At the end of the day, sports are entertainment,” he says. “When you boil it down, you got 11 guys who go out on a field and run into each other for like two hours, and people cheer, and somebody loses, and somebody wins, and then everybody goes home and nothing really happens. ... It doesn’t matter. We’re just hitting each other, and people are getting mad, and people are happy, and then you guys ask us about it.
“I think that, especially now with everything, with Twitter and college football being as big as it is, I think there’s this constant need for content and for stuff. That’s what the media is now, to me. There’s this machine that keeps getting fed. I think it becomes a real distraction, not even from a sports perspective, but it becomes a real distraction to people in general who are paying attention to it. ... They’re missing life. People can spend their time how they want, but by spending so much time in the minutiae of recruiting, and sports teams and fabricated controversy, you miss out. There used to be less responsibility on the consumer to regulate how much time they spend on these things, but now you can end up spending so much time on it because it’s constantly there.
“We shouldn’t pay attention to all the voices,” he says.
“You guys are going to keep writing it, we’re going to keep reading it and f---ing our heads up. I know me at least, I couldn't do it. It’d just be too much.”
As we talk about noise, of course we get back to that photo that traveled around the Internet of Kline, mouth agape, forehead and white jersey covered in blood and then the resulting video that explained it.
“People were so shocked by that,” he said. “I do that every game, it’s just this time I think I caught a screw on someone’s helmet or something. It wasn’t a big deal or anything, it just blew up. I was being an idiot. No concussion, nothing. I was just having fun! I mean, how many opportunities do you get to smash your head into someone’s helmet?”
Hey, he’s honest.