Al Pacino is taking on the role of former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno in HBO's Paterno. It premieres April 7. Wochit
Thirty scripted words tattooed on Trace McSorley's right ribcage offer an unseen glimpse into who the quarterback is — and what lies ahead as he enters his final year in Happy Valley.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."
Those lines — written by Marianne Williamson and lived by an undersized, doubted signal-caller — provide the foundation for McSorley's past, present and future.
McSorley was recruited primarily as a safety out of high school. He spent his first two years with the Nittany Lions in the shadow of Christian Hackenberg, and many wondered how a generously-listed 6-foot quarterback would follow in the footsteps of an NFL-bound stud.
Now, the Heisman Trophy darkhorse enters his farewell tour without Saquon Barkley by his side. McSorley — if he wasn't before as a former Big Ten Championship MVP — is the man in State College. And in anticipation of a pressure-filled, career-defining campaign, the gutty gunslinger is heeding Williamson's words.
"Being the face of the program, being that fifth-year guy on offense that has a lot of experience and has been a leader, there's something to be said for not holding anything back," McSorley said on an early April afternoon in the Lasch Building. "It's giving everything I have for this last year and doing everything I can physically, mentally, emotionally to be able to make this year as successful as it can be."
Of course, that begs the question: What constitutes success for McSorley and the Nittany Lions in 2018?
In two seasons, the quarterback owns a 22-5 record, holds Penn State's all-time records in passing and total touchdowns, propelled the program to its first outright conference crown since 1994 and, most recently, used a 382-yard performance to guide the Nittany Lions in their Fiesta Bowl triumph.
In the days following Penn State's dramatic win in the desert, McSorley reflected on what the season brought. The Nittany Lions won 11 games for the second consecutive year, the first time the program did that in nearly a decade. Penn State proved its 2016 rise to national prominence wasn't a fluke. The Nittany Lions didn't fade away, and neither did their magician at quarterback.
But McSorley, a perfectionist, saw the flaws. He saw a team moments away from a chance to compete for a national championship.
"I looked back and thought we were five points from an undefeated season, and one or two points from being in the Big Ten Championship and in really good playoff contention. Being able to realize how close we really were, it kind of hits home," McSorley said, grimacing as the emotional sting returned for a brief moment. "We were so close as a team that you realize at the top level, every single thing matters. It's not just every play on Saturdays. It's every rep you take in practice on Tuesday. It's every minute you're watching the film on Monday and Sunday. Every little thing matters when you get to that point.
"That's been the biggest thing I was able to take away: How close we were and how necessary every little detail is."
More animated than ever: That is why McSorley has been heated in spring practice, more animated than ever before. The fifth-year senior knows what the Nittany Lions — sans Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton — are capable of offensively. He won't allow the program he loves to drift back to the ordinary while a national title is within reach.
Two weeks ago, Penn State revisited the two-minute drill that killed its College Football Playoff dreams last season. Ohio State led, 39-38, with 1:45 remaining on the clock. The Nittany Lions sat at their own 41-yard line with two timeouts.
On Oct. 28, 2017, Penn State fell short. On April 11, it happened again.
Going up against Penn State's first-team defense, McSorley connected with tight end Danny Dalton on a downfield heave. The up-and-comer, possibly Gesicki's replacement, was yards from the end zone when linebacker Cam Brown caught up to him and stripped the ball loose.
McSorley was livid — and with media members and nearly one hundred faculty guests watching at Holuba Hall, the fiery quarterback laid into his target.
"That's the kind of s*** we talk about," McSorley yelled. "That's what we have to fix." Caught in the moment, McSorley reined it in, put his hand on Dalton's helmet and offered private words of encouragement.
Still, one thing was clear: McSorley wasn't going to back off, even in April with the season five months away.
"Trace is one of our guys who has been there," Penn State head coach James Franklin said after an "unacceptable" practice session. "He's been there and done it, and he knows what it takes and what's necessary."
Added junior running back Miles Sanders: "That's just Trace.... That's him. He's the quarterback, and that's how he operates. He's the lead man."
His start in Virgina: Briar Woods head coach Charlie Pierce said McSorley has been wired that way from the start.
McSorley, a starter for the Virginia high school since his freshman season, led a last-minute, game-winning field goal drive in his inaugural game. Early in his sophomore campaign, the quarterback addressed the team in the locker room for the first time before a rivalry game. "When he finished his talk, the team looked at me," Pierce recalled. "I said, 'We don't need to say anything else. Let's go.'" Briar Woods won 38-0.
McSorley's freshman, sophomore and junior seasons ended in a state title. In a championship loss as a senior, the two-way starter tallied 255 passing yards, three touchdown strikes, 12 tackles and an interception.
Even in heartbreaking defeat, McSorley didn't deviate from his dedicated disposition.
""That's who he was," Pierce said.
And that's who he still is.
"Trace has been the same guy he was in high school," said Penn State and former Briar Woods wide receiver Brandon Polk. "That leadership he puts out there, it just makes everyone else better."
Choice to make — QB or safety? Pierce said McSorley's will to win at Briar Woods was "just amazing." Which is why his recruiting process came as a surprise. More schools wanted McSorley as a safety. His coach vouched for him, telling recruiter after recruiter that despite his height, "What you can't measure is what's inside that young man."
Still, McSorley had a choice to make: Cave and become a safety, or stick to his guns and go for quarterback?
After watching "Coach Carter," a film rooted in the idea of commitment, and after hearing Williamson's words for the first time in the movie, McSorley had his answer — and his first tattoo.
"What did I want to do? What did I want to end up being? That's what I leaned on," he said of the quote. "I wanted to be everything I can be, and I wanted to be a quarterback. There were people saying I shouldn't do that. When I looked at that quote, there was no sense in listening to them if I felt like I could be more."
So, McSorley committed to Franklin at Vanderbilt on July 13, 2013. As a quarterback. And 47 months later, he hoisted the Fiesta Bowl offensive MVP trophy.
Finalizing his PSU legacy: Now — as spring ball wraps up with Saturday's Blue-White Game — McSorley approaches a season he's prepared for, consciously or not, for a half-decade.
Five years ago, the quarterback asked himself what he wanted to be. In 2018, McSorley faces a similar question: What does he want his legacy to be, and what does he want Penn State to be?
McSorley believes he and the Nittany Lions can be powerful beyond measure. As he approaches his last hurrah, the passion-filled leader isn't frightened by light or darkness.
Driven by doubt and 30 words on his torso, McSorley wants a College Football Playoff berth and a shot to win a national title.
"That's the next step this program needs to take," the quarterback said. "That's the ultimate goal."
He can't and won't settle for anything less.
"When I step on that field, there's a switch that flips," McSorley added, eyes widening. "When I step on that field, I'm not holding anything back."