HERSHEY, Pa. -- Beneath the specter of an uncertain future, and a criminal act the community is all too aware of, Zayd Issah lingered on the field Saturday night -- and finally smiled.
With sweat running down his nose and his face, so that it was indistinguishable from what might have been tears, Issah smiled. It has been an emotionally taxing three months for the three-star athlete, who faces several charges for allegedly passing off counterfeit $20 bills at fast-food restaurants. He tried to enjoy an oasis of football on Saturday night.
Under the lights of Hersheypark Stadium, after Pennsylvania dominated Maryland 58-27 in the Big 33 Game, he quickly embraced four-star PSU signee Andrew Nelson. He sought out his family on the field, and he stopped every few seconds to sign autographs and pose for giggling girls who asked for group photos.
Issah obliged, but he kept walking, away from the crowds and the groups, without any destination in particular. It seemed as if he just wanted to soak in the moment and forget about his troubles for at least a little.
"They say football's a game of second chances," he said. "So I want to use mine to the best of my ability and make the most out of it."
Bill O'Brien has not severed ties with the talented linebacker out of Harrisburg (Pa.) Central Dauphin. The staff appeared to offer him an ultimatum: Head elsewhere or enroll in prep school, clean up your act and then maybe rejoin the PSU family in January.
That's still the plan for Issah, who is deciding between Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and New Berlin (N.Y.) Milford Academy.
"Where do you stand with PSU?" asked one reporter.
"It's Linebacker U," he replied, harkening back to the same response he gave nearly 190 days ago. "Penn State's Linebacker U. That's all I got to say. I got my sights set on PSU right now, unless something changes."
Issah, still smiling and receiving pats on the back from passers-by, was pressed. What could that "something" be?
"I'll know when it happens, really," he said, nodding when asked if he's heading in with the mindset that he'll remain a Nittany Lion.
Individual defensive stats were not kept at the Big 33 Game, but Issah's name echoed over the PA system throughout the night. He started at outside linebacker, played defensive end during "speed packages," and seemed to leave all the emotion and bottled-up frustration of three months on the field.
On one early play, Issah drifted right but quickly reversed course and made a tackle near the opposite sideline. It was an effort not lost on Pennsylvania coach Art Walker, who focused on Issah's leadership this past week and didn't mention his less-recent hardship.
"He just had great work ethic," said Walker, who coaches Wexford (Pa.) North Allegheny. "He did a great job of anything we asked. He handled everything we threw at him. He responded well and had a great attitude.
"He's a good teammate, and he led by example. He's everything you want out of a player."
Issah isn't completely sure what comes next. He'll enroll in one of those two prep schools by August, but he's not yet sure which one. It'll likely come down to finances, he said.
The 6-foot-3 prospect already knows he'll be receiving scholarship assistance from FUMA. Milford hasn't yet responded with a number.
"I'm a little closer with Fork Union right now," he said, "so I'm still waiting to get a relationship with Milford."
Issah simply responded with, "Yeah," when asked if he felt like he received a fair shake. But, with his shoulder pads still on and that smile still fixed to his face, he thought for a moment when asked one final question, whether he wanted to get anything off his chest.
"I love to play football. I don't want to stop; that's it," he said. "And I'm glad they didn't take that chance away from me."