The hardest things to work with, Paris Palmer said, were the dates. As in, the dried fruit you’d find in trail mix.
Those suckers arrived in bricks, which Palmer and his co-workers at a North Carolina factory would have to break up themselves.
“I had never heard of dates,” Palmer said Tuesday from Penn State, the other end of a long journey. “But the dates would hurt our hands. To break them up, that was very annoying. Our gloves would get cut.”
It’s easier for him to joke about now when telling his story. Preparing to take on Indiana as the Nittany Lions’ starting left tackle on Saturday couldn’t be much different from his time working at a production facility for a company called Ann’s House of Nuts.
Palmer was a mixer, working upstairs to ration out the cashews and such into mixing pans before they would go through a tube down to the ground floor to be individually packaged. He did this with a knee still swollen from ACL surgery that threatened to derail his life.
His football story very easily could have ended there — in a factory set in a town of 1,500 people, just 30 minutes away from the town of 4,000 where he went to high school.
“At the time, football wasn’t in my sights,” Palmer said. “I was just trying to handle what was in front of me. Having no money. Laying around the house, not being able to walk or run after surgery.”
Palmer’s grades needed work. His knee needed rehab after he injured it after his senior season in a pick-up basketball game.
And he needed to get the word out about himself.
“I downloaded a program I Googled online. A free trial of video-editing software,” Palmer said. “I asked my teammates to bring the game film over, and I made mine and two other teammates’ (highlight) tapes.
“That tape got me into Lackawanna.”
Landing at Lackawanna: That would be Lackawanna College, the junior college in Scranton that has an impressive track record of developing players on the field and in the classroom before sending them on to big-time programs.
With the help of Falcons coach Mark Duda, that’s what happened to Palmer. Out of football in 2013, he was back on the field in 2014 and getting offers from all five major Division I conferences.
But it took some time to adjust. First from moving from rural North Carolina to Scranton by himself — “kinda scary,” Palmer said — and then learning to make better use of his 6-foot-7 frame. He was successful at Plymouth High school, but the offense was a Wing-T scheme. Palmer rarely ever had to pass block.
And he needed to get into better shape after so much time off.
“My body wasn’t where it should’ve been as far as muscle,” Palmer said. “So when I first got there, it was rough. The first workouts were rough. I hadn’t been through anything as rigorous as that. When I first got there, Lackawanna was just totally different.
“People were quitting left and right because it was hard. And I’d just have these late nights in a four-man (bedroom) thinking to myself, ‘I’m doing this for a reason.’ Some people get to Lackawanna and that’s enough for them, to play football at a junior college. But I knew, myself, I wanted more.”
Joining the Lions: He did earn more. Palmer initially pledged to Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, planning to head back closer to home. But as signing day for JUCO players drew closer in December 2014, it was Penn State that made the strongest push.
With starting left tackle Donovan Smith about to leave early for the NFL, the Lions suddenly had a gaping hole on an offensive line depth chart that was crippled by sanctions.
Spurrier already had one foot out the door at South Carolina, and Penn State’s staff was pushing much harder. In the end, playing for a program that many thought couldn’t recover — like him — appealed to Palmer.
He signed with the Lions.
“He’s been a really big part of our program ever since he committed to us and ever since he’s arrived,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “We’re proud of him. He’s bigger and stronger than he’s ever been. He’s more confident. He’s doing really good in school. He’s just going to be really successful.”
Just like at Lackawanna, this too would take some time. Palmer was still reshaping his body when he arrived at Penn State the following January, but was expected to challenge right away for the starting left tackle spot.
Struggling early on at PSU: The Lions’ lack of depth forced him into the starting lineup too soon, where he had a miserable major college debut — Penn State’s first loss to Temple since before World War II, a game in which the Lions allowed 10 sacks.
“His strength and his size has completely changed from the day he got here,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “I remember (after he arrived) being in the weight room and using the rack next to him, and it was almost like he had never worked out before, never lifted before.
“Now he’s a very strong human being. It’s paid huge dividends for him. It’s something he didn’t have when he first got here. His work ethic to build up has been a strong point for him.”
A year later, he had the buffer that wasn’t there before. Penn State started Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson at tackle while Palmer watched from the sideline.
“He handled that the right way,” Franklin said.
Getting back into lineup: When Nelson was lost for the season with a knee injury of his own last month against Maryland, Palmer was back at left tackle, where he figures to remain for the rest of his senior year.
“His background and his story kind of defines what he’s gone through at Penn State,” Gesicki said. “He was ready for his opportunity. Unfortunately it came down to another guy getting injured, but Paris was right there, ready to step in and contribute. And that’s exactly what he’s done.
“We’re all proud of Paris. We’re happy for him. He’s continued to improve and take advantage of the opportunity that’s been given to him.”
Now he’s on a stage that would have been hard to imagine from the second floor of a peanut factory in Robersonville. Or from a crowded bedroom in Scranton.
Penn State is ranked No. 10 in the nation and making a push for a 10-win season and a major bowl game. In the Lions’ win over Purdue two weeks ago, Palmer was graded by Pro Football Focus as the second best tackle in the nation for that week.
And Palmer is making sure he absorbs every minute of it.
“To go from a very small, rural North Carolina town to Penn State — that’s not a small feat at all,” Palmer said. “A lot of times in the locker room, I’ll be the last one out because I’ll be thinking, ‘Wow. I’m really at Penn State right now.’ I just soak it in. I still have those times after a game where I just sit back and know I just played at sold-out Beaver Stadium.”
Learning to persevere: Giving up some sacks? Playing the role of backup? No big deal.
“In all honesty, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know about myself,” Palmer said of his early struggles. “Football’s a game of perseverance. I knew who I was coming into this place. I can say that I’ve always been someone who’s never let circumstances determine my future. Or change my outlook in any way.
“I’ve always had goals. And I’ve always worked to make sure I achieve them.”