- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Christian Hackenberg walked into the media room Saturday with sunburned cheeks and wet, tasseled hair so it looked as if he had just finished a pickup game of football on the beach. He smiled, his voice remained steady, and he kept constant eye contact.
This wasn't the look of relief. It wasn't the look of a quarterback who, after that final whistle, felt the heavy pressure of a fan base's hope slide off his shoulders. This was the look of someone who didn't feel that burden to begin with.
"It's funny. He just has this calming demeanor about him," said his father, Erick. "I don't think it's parenting. I just think it's who he is."
Fifth-year center Ty Howle could just tell by the way the 18-year-old quarterback talked and moved. He punctuated his sentences and didn't glance down during the huddle. And when he did make a mistake, he thought back to the advice he had long ago received from Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer: You have to have a short memory; you can't let that build into who you are.
Hackenberg's shoulders didn't slump after his second interception. He simply walked to the sideline and simply exchanged knowing glances with Bill O'Brien.
"He didn't really say much," Hackenberg said of the exchange with the Penn State head coach. "He understands that I understood what I did wrong.
"I sort of came off ... and he was just like, 'Yep,' and we kept going."
For more than a year now, Hackenberg has been called the future of the Nittany Lions. He's the most heralded PSU signal-caller to ever fax in a letter of intent, and he boasted more Twitter followers as a high school senior than nearly all of his future college teammates.
This -- the cameras, the crowds, the white No. 14 jersey -- is all new to the baby-faced quarterback. But, in a way, he's been here before. In a way, circumstances have molded him into becoming this calm-and-collected QB, one who forced his head coach to caution with a smile Tuesday, "We're not ready to waltz him in the College Football Hall of Fame." Not after his first game, anyway.
The spotlight found Hackenberg before his high school junior season and intensified with every 50-yard completion and camp he attended. During the Elite 11, which fell on the week leading up to the announcement of Penn State's sanctions, Hackenberg remained stone-faced while the university to which he was committed found itself mired in unprecedented controversy.
He withstood the incessant questions about his pledge and never wavered. His father still remembers when the PA announcer would echo Hackenberg's committed school as "Penn State." His son felt proud. And, by extension, so did his father. And his high school coach.
If he could stay calm through that, what's a few extra people watching on Saturday going to change?
"What a lot of people have forgotten is that, as a 17-year-old kid, he stood up in front of the world and said, 'I'm going to Penn State' and never wavered," Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy coach Micky Sullivan said. "Think about the character it took for a 17-year-old to do that. And everyone's worried about an 18-year-old starting a football game?"
Added Erick Hackenberg: "It was kind of right there when I knew he was all right. He showed maturity there and, as a father, you were like, 'Hes going to be OK. He's going to get through this.' I think him having to learn to manage all that, I think it was helpful for him."
And then there's the age difference. It looks as if the only mustache Hackenberg can grow comes after drinking a tall glass of milk. Some of his Penn State teammates are grown men, players who sport full beards and are able to enjoy a few beers during the offseason.
You couldn't blame Hackenberg if he was a bit intimidated about ordering around players four years his senior -- especially considering he's been on campus less than four months. Hackenberg was still in middle school when his starting center was practicing with the Nittany Lions.
But, again, he's prepared. Call it luck, or call it fate. But he's been there before -- as a high school sophomore.
"I just remember we were in a dogfight, and Christian was in the huddle with a bunch of guys who wanted to win and were older than he was," Sullivan recalled. "And somebody -- I think it was Larry Mazyck who started in New Mexico. He was 6-7, 300-pounds, and he said something.
"I'm not sure about the entire conversation. It was very quick, and Christian was in his face by the end. Larry knew he needed to shut up and listen to the play. From then on, everyone listened."
Hackenberg's father reminded his son of that in the days leading up to the Syracuse game. Sure, the environment has changed now. Only a few hundred fans would sit in the Fork Union bleachers for Friday afternoon games; now, Hackenberg sees those same numbers from just the media. A MetLife Stadium official said more than 200 reporters and photographers were credentialed.
Sure, the football is faster now -- but it's still the same game. It's the same theme. He’ll embrace and challenge teammates. He’ll sway to the alma mater and remain calm facing increasing challenges. The same person, but a better quarterback.
"At the end of the day," Christian Hackenberg said, "it's just football."
4dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
4dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
5dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy