Christian Hackenberg jogged off his high school field in September 2012, wincing from the afternoon sun, and awaited the question he had heard a thousand times before: Are you still committed to Penn State?
He smiled and nodded halfway through the question.
"I'm sticking with Penn State. I am a Nittany Lion," Hackenberg said, six weeks after the school had been hit with unprecedented sanctions. "One hundred percent."
At that point, Hackenberg didn't think he would ever play in a bowl game. He knew winning seasons might prove to be as elusive as winning the Heisman. But he remained committed. When his head coach left for the NFL seven months after he arrived on campus in June 2013, he again reiterated his loyalty. And when he didn't appear to fit James Franklin's offense and could've transferred elsewhere after the 2014 season, he again stayed put.
It hasn't been a storybook career for Hackenberg, but amid a reduction in scholarships and a shortened bowl ban, Hackenberg, now a junior quarterback, has helped lead this team to three straight seasons over .500. His decision-making has been questionable at times, but he has earned his place as the school's career leader in passing yards (8,318) and passing touchdowns (48). He has misfired on countless screen passes, but he has engineered six fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks.
Hackenberg hasn't been perfect. Far from it. But he has helped save Penn State. Without him, the Nittany Lions probably don't have three straight winning seasons, including a 7-5 mark in a 2015 season that will conclude in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia on Saturday.
"They don't. The real answer is no, they don't,” said former linebacker Michael Mauti, who was instrumental in keeping the 2012 squad together. "I don't want to overpraise the kid, but I'm just saying it's just the reality. If you don't have a quarterback like that, you don't win those types of games."
Hackenberg became a household name in Happy Valley before he ever signed his letter of intent. Fans leaned over the Beaver Stadium railings to slap his hand during unofficial visits, and at one point he boasted more Twitter followers as a high school senior than Penn State's senior starting quarterback, Matt McGloin.
Hackenberg posed for photos, said all the right things and was hailed as "Penn State's savior" long before he ever enrolled. Since his commitment three years ago, Penn State has reeled in five ESPN 300 receivers/tight ends. In the three years before, Penn State had zero.
"Christian saying, 'Hey man, I'm coming to Penn State, and we're going to get this thing done,' it just put confidence in everybody," said Charlie Fisher, the Nittany Lions' quarterbacks coach from 2012-13. "In my opinion, he not only held this class together that he was a part of, he gave hope to future classes."
Said All-Big Ten receiver Chris Godwin, part of the class after Hackenberg: "I definitely think he played a big factor in me coming here. I learned a lot from him."
At Penn State, Hackenberg arrived to every freshman workout an hour early by normally showing up to morning sessions at 5 a.m. He became a team captain as a 19-year-old sophomore, the youngest Penn State captain since Johnny Chuckran earned that honor in 1944, shortly after the invasion of Normandy. And, even as a freshman, Hackenberg and wideout DaeSean Hamilton once directed some of their teammates to unload the car of an overwhelmed female freshman who had arrived late to move-in day.
Hackenberg always said the right things, but more important, he did the right things. He was the No. 1-rated pocket passer in the country, but he earned his teammates' respect immediately by his actions and work ethic, not the numbers attached to his name on recruiting sites.
"It might seem kind of counterintuitive, but I feel like he's really kept the team together the last two years and kept people bought in," said Bobby Snopek, a former Penn State recruiting assistant and grad assistant, from 2012-15. "He's special, and he's competitive. Like a lot of the great ones, you just always felt like you had a chance with Christian Hackenberg."
As a freshman, he helped upset 25-point favorite Wisconsin in the season finale by throwing for 339 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. As a sophomore, against Rutgers, he drove Penn State 80 yards downfield for the game-winning touchdown with less than three minutes left. And as a junior this season, he staged a late 31-30 comeback against Maryland after throwing nine completions of 20 yards or longer.
His footwork hasn't been perfect. And he's never been a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien Award. But his effort has epitomized this team: Knock him down, underestimate him, and he'll bounce right back up. He's been sacked 103 times in his college career, but he has never missed more than a play or two.
Against Michigan, after he took a forearm to the helmet, he just sat up, gathered himself and then gingerly walked over to the sideline. He missed one play, came back and fired a 38-yard completion on the next series.
"You've got to get back up," Hackenberg said after the game. "Guys are looking at you, and you've got to leave everything you have on the field no matter the circumstances."
That's Hackenberg. He might not be one of Penn State's best quarterbacks ever, but he has still been one of the most important. Since he committed, nine other Penn State quarterbacks, including walk-ons, have quit, decommitted or transferred. Hackenberg never wavered.
And whether he decides to declare early for the NFL or stay put one last season, he shouldn't be remembered as the signal-caller who failed to live up to his billing as the future No. 1 overall draft pick or as the quarterback who never equaled his freshman production.
He should instead be remembered for what he was: the imperfect signal-caller who helped save Penn State.