Two wounded Lions helped inspire PSU to Big Ten title
- Penn State linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White has suffered ACL tears in consecutive seasons.
- Penn State offensive tackle Andrew Nelson saw his season end with an injury against Maryland.
- Wartman-White hopes to play in the NFL next season. Nelson hopes to return to Penn State.
Penn State's Andrew Nelson worked himself into such a pregame-speech frenzy Saturday that he needed forehead stitches to correct his overzealous headbutting.
Teammate Nyeem Wartman-White then took the mic at halftime, imploring his defense to get its act together — "A lot of bleeps," safety Marcus Allen said — while wishing he were on the field.
Nelson and Wartman-White, whose seasons ended because of knee injuries, both called Penn State's 38-31 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game bittersweet. Though neither played in two of the season's defining games — against Ohio State and Wisconsin — both contributed plenty to those victories.
One hopes to return for Penn State next season. The other, after season-ending knee injuries in consecutive years, will try his luck in the NFL draft. Both basked in the confetti Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Two ACLs," Wartman-White said in a chaotic Penn State locker room, "is worth the Big Ten championship."
Star-crossed career for Wartman-White: A fifth-year senior linebacker, Wartman-White had a star-crossed career of injuries at Penn State. He received a medical redshirt as a freshman, after playing in two games, then started 20 games over the next two years. Following a 75-tackle season in 2014, Wartman-White planned to be among Penn State's cornerstones at linebacker.
His past two seasons, however, ended because of torn ACLs, both sustained against Temple (Wartman-White originally is from Philadelphia). This year's was part of an early stretch during which Penn State lost six linebackers, including all three starters, to injuries.
Yet Wartman-White was among those helping the group press onward, prompting his position coach to call him an "inspiration."
"I don't know if I could handle it the same way," said Brent Pry, Penn State's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. "He kind of makes everybody smack themselves and say, 'Look how fortunate I am. He's on his second ACL. What do I have to complain about?'"
At halftime Saturday, Wartman-White lit into his teammates, who trailed Wisconsin 28-14. Despite the Lions' history of comebacks, the linebacker reminded them not to take that for granted.
"He told us how much he wished he was out there," said Allen, who was involved in the critical fourth-and-one stop late in the game. "He told us to finish it off."
Wartman-White, who turns 24 this month, will pass on petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility and instead will enter the NFL draft. After the game, he moved proudly through the field and locker room. He said he developed "whiplash" watching his teammates celebrate. That made the rehab worthwhile.
"You get hurt a bunch of times and you sit there and think, man, it's not how you picture things," Wartman-White said. "It is bittersweet. I didn't know how to feel out there, if I should feel happy or sad. But when you see a hundred guys that happy, yeah, it's worth it."
Nelson has endured injury-plagued career: Nelson, a redshirt junior offensive lineman, spoke like the proud father of a line that went through as much injury upheaval as Wartman-White's linebackers. Penn State lost three starting tackles (Nelson, Paris Palmer and Brendan Mahon) for medical reasons this season. That forced two former guards, including a redshirt freshman, to start at tackle against Wisconsin.
Nelson, 21, from Hershey, has dealt with injuries the past two years. He missed four games in 2015, played hurt often, and had this season end against Maryland.
"Nelson is a guy who could have easily been one of our team captains," offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said. "He's that kind of mentor for the younger guys, that solid voice in the room. [His injury] hit the guys pretty hard."
For Nelson, staying involved remained vital as he worked through rehab. He contributed be guiding Penn State's young linemen (three freshmen started against Wisconsin) and giving a pre-game speech Saturday that went overboard.
By headbutting teammates on their helmets, Nelson opened a gash on his forehead that required stitches. He pointed at it and smiled.
"You have to believe that you have contributed, that you've helped," Nelson said. "You also have to realize that your life is more than football, and your life has more meaning than just being on the field. For me, that comes from my faith."
As for his future, Nelson said he hopes to play next year.
"Obviously that's something to think about a lot, especially in my case when you've had so many injuries," he said. "For me, I love this game too much and this team too much not to come back and give it another try."
WHO: No. 5 Penn State vs. No. 9 USC
WHEN: Jan. 2, 2017
WHERE:Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
LINE: USC is a seven-point favorite.