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Paterno's final recruits enter last Penn State season

MARK WOGENRICH
(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • The 2015 Penn State football roster includes four players who committed to a Joe Paterno-coached staff.
  • The four are Malik Golden, Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey and Nyeem Wartman-White.

STATE COLLEGE — When he committed to the Penn State football team five years ago, Malik Golden drew the delighted sarcasm from the coach for whom he would never play.

"I'm glad we got one of you Connecticut guys,'" Joe Paterno told Golden in 2011. "I'm glad I was able to bring some of that Connecticut money to Penn State."

Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno, above, will be portrayed by Al Pacino is an upcoming HBO movie about the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Golden, a fifth-year senior safety for the Nittany Lions, still hears Paterno's voice in that moment. He also has the first note Penn State sent — via Facebook, from an assistant coach — offering him a scholarship.

Golden looks at that offer occasionally "to reflect on things," he said. It froze a moment and closed a chapter. As one of six players remaining from his recruiting class, Golden holds the distinction of being Paterno's last remaining recruit on Penn State's roster.

"He definitely changed my life with that offer," Golden said. "And I think Joe would be proud of where we're at today."

When Penn State opens the season Sept. 3 against Kent State, its roster will include four players who committed to a Paterno-coached staff. Golden, vying for a starting spot at safety, was the last, announcing his decision Aug. 24, 2011.

Fond memories: Offensive linemen Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey and linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White also committed to Paterno that year, each with a fond memory. Gaia sat in Paterno's office with his father Tim, discussing the difference in Italian cooking between red sauce and Bolognese.

Dowrey nearly ran into Paterno on the sideline of a practice he attended, then listened as the coach discussed making a grocery stop. And Wartman-White committed to former Penn State assistant Ron Vanderlinden while the two walked outside Beaver Stadium near the Paterno statue, which the university removed a year later.

Personal trials: All four have gone through personal trials — injuries, position switches, family matters — not to mention the team issues over the past five years. With defensive end Evan Schwan and offensive lineman Wendy Laurent, both of whom committed to Bill O'Brien in 2012, they form a small but determined group of Penn State fifth-year seniors, all with their degrees.

Nineteen players signed letters of intent in February 2012 to play for Penn State. Six remain. They carry a single pursuit into this season.

"No more individual goals, I don't do individual goals," said Wartman-White, who missed last season with a torn ACL. "I have team goals: I want to win."

Golden talks almost daily with former teammates Geno Lewis (who transferred to Oklahoma) and Akeel Lynch (to Nevada), who committed to Paterno the same summer as he did. It was a class reshaped first by Paterno's firing in 2011, then by the NCAA sanctions in 2012.

What happened to the 2012 class: Six players who had committed to Penn State in 2011 ultimately signed with other schools (four at Ohio State) in February 2012. Of the 19 who signed, five transferred with eligibility remaining, three as graduates.

Four players from the 2012 class are in the NFL, including two who left with eligibility (Jesse James and Austin Johnson). Two players were dismissed for team-rules violations, and two left for personal reasons.

"It's true, we've been through a lot," Dowrey said. "But that's a reason for a perfect season more than it is for a .500 season, in my eyes."

Dowrey: Dowrey attended a Penn State football camp as a high school junior and was hooked.

"For the next year, my whole goal as a football player was to get a scholarship offer from Penn State," the Winchester, Va., native said.

A year later, he and Johnson received their offers together, from former Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. "Can I commit right now?" Dowrey asked.

Dowrey, recruited as a defensive lineman, didn't have much contact with Paterno and talked little about football with the late coach. His most memorable interaction came at a practice he attended as a recruit.

Dowrey was staring hypnotically at former Penn State tackle Devon Still and nearly backed over Paterno, who was walking off the field as practice concluded. The two spoke briefly, and not about football.

"He just started talking with my family, about his wife going to the supermarket, just the most casual conversation," Dowrey said. "We hadn't played a game for him, so I guess he wanted it to be known that it was about more than just playing and practicing football."

Dowrey played in eight games on the defensive line in 2013 before switching to offense in 2014. He has made six starts at guard the past two seasons and is competing for a job this year.

Dowrey, 23, completed his journalism degree in December and is working on a second in telecommunications. He has considered producing a project on his story.

"I really wish I had the opportunity to have been coached by such a legendary coach, such a respected coach," Dowrey said. "But at the same time, I don't regret anything. The coaches I've had have been amazing. They made me who I am today, and I'm very thankful to Coach Paterno for giving me this opportunity. I mean, without him and his staff, I wouldn't be here right now."

Wartman-White: Like Dowrey, Wartman-White intended to commit to Penn State as soon as he received an offer. He did so to Vanderlinden, then Penn State's linebackers coach, while the two walked near Paterno's statue. He told Paterno later that day.

Since then, two knee injuries — one in 2012, another last season, both on special teams — twisted Wartman-White's career into something unexpected. Last year's injury was particularly cruel, occurring at Lincoln Financial Field, in his hometown of Philadelphia, in the season opener.

Wartman-White now is freed from thinking about which linebacker position he'll play or how many tackles he'll make or whether he might petition the NCAA for another year of eligibility.

"I'm over proving myself," said Wartman-White, who completed his telecommunications degree in December. "… It's my fifth year. The most games I've won at Penn State is eight. I'm trying to win 12, to win 14. I don't care about the next level. I'm going to remember Penn State more."

Gaia: Two schools, Penn State and Texas A&M, recruited Gaia as a defensive lineman, with the rest wanting him on offense. He was partial to Penn State — Gaia's cousin, Amy Altig, is an assistant women's lacrosse coach — and wanted to commit during his visit but waited.

A few weeks after committing, Gaia visited Paterno's office, where his father Tim and the coach sat for hours and "didn't talk a lick of football."

"All they talked about was being Italian," Gaia said.

Like Dowrey, Gaia played defensive tackle in 2013 before switching to offense in 2014. He is the offense's most experienced player, with 25 starts at guard over the past two seasons. Gaia, who has a degree in business management, is projected to begin the season as the starting center.

When Gaia arrived on campus in 2012, among the first things he did was have his picture taken with the Paterno statue. His offer letter remains framed on the wall of his parents' home in Maryland.

"I think it's cool that we can all say we're a Paterno recruit and we're part of that legacy," Gaia said. "But I love Coach O'Brien, and I love Coach [James] Franklin. We're always moving on."

Golden: For Golden, the history remains immediate. He remembers seeing Paterno at the Alabama game in 2011 and even driving past the coach's house. His career has been dotted with moments difficult and memorable.

Golden has played receiver, defensive back and special teams, had a few injuries and watched friends like Lewis and Lynch transfer. Last season, he played football while younger brother Elijah dealt with an illness that prevented him from attending any games. Elijah will return to State College this season, when Golden plans to be a starting safety.

Golden, 23, has a degree in telecommunications and is working on a second in journalism. He said Paterno would be proud of that, along with the fact that few players have been in off-the-field trouble. "He'd be really proud of that," Golden said.

Now, though, Golden wants to win. He committed to a team that had won at least nine games six times in seven years. He wants to leave with one of those seasons.

"Honestly, we need to get back to that," Golden said. "That's what it means to me: Winning a Big Ten championship. We've had some ups and downs, obviously, but we're getting back to what Penn State's all about."

THE CLASS OF 2012

Nineteen players signed letters of intent in February 2012 to play for Penn State (two more joined during the summer). Six players from that class are fifth-year seniors this season. A look at the 2012 recruiting class. Players still at Penn State in bold.

STEVEN BENCH, Transferred to South Florida in 2013

DaQUAN DAVIS, Dismissed from team in May 2015

DEREK DOWREY, Fifth-year offensive lineman

BRIAN GAIA, Fifth-year offensive lineman

MALIK GOLDEN, Fifth-year safety

JESSE JAMES, Second-year tight end with the Pittsburgh Steelers

AUSTIN JOHNSON, Second-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans

JAKE KILEY, Announced graduate transfer after 2015 season

WENDY LAURENT, Fifth-year offensive lineman

GENO LEWIS, Graduate transfer to Oklahoma

JORDAN LUCAS, Sixth-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins

AKEEL LYNCH, Graduate transfer to Nevada

JAMIL POLLARD, Enrolled at Penn State, transferred to Rutgers after 2012 sanctions

EVAN SCHWAN, Fifth-year defensive lineman

ANTHONY STANKO, Left team in 2013

JONATHAN WARNER, Left team in 2014

NYEEM WARTMAN-WHITE, Fifth-year linebacker

BRENT WILKERSON, Dismissed from team in April 2016

TREVOR WILLIAMS, Signed rookie free-agent contract with the San Diego Chargers