- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The story begins, like so many at Penn State, with Rip Engle.
The Hall of Fame coach who preceded Joe Paterno in Happy Valley didn't like the term commonly used to describe a strong safety: monster. So Engle came up with his own title.
"Rip thought that the word monster was derogatory," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said, "so he decided to call the position hero, and we still call it that. We have a linebacker position called the Fritz linebacker. It's named after Fritz the pizza man, who used to get the team pizzas.
"My players go, 'Who’s the Sam [linebacker] named after?' I don't know, maybe Sam Hill."
Although the hero safety has been around for decades at Penn State, the name still takes some getting used to.
"The kids say, 'So when people ask what position I play, I'm going to say hero? Doesn't that sound arrogant?'" Bradley said. "They laugh about it."
But the hero is more than just a gaudy title.
It's part of the Penn State tradition. The program has produced several standout players at the Hero spot, including first-team All-Americans like Darren Perry and Michael Zordich Sr., whose son Michael is a sophomore linebacker on the current squad.
"We have a great past of Heroes, All-Americans in the 70s and 80s, so it’s pretty well known," free safety Nick Sukay said. "When you see former players, they'll talk to you about who was here and say, ‘This guy, he hit pretty hard. This guy, he broke on balls pretty good.' And then Michael, his dad played here in the 80s and he was really good."
Despite growing up in Edinboro, Pa., Drew Astorino didn't know much about Penn State's hero tradition when he arrived in State College. He got a crash course in the position from watching veteran safeties like Anthony Scirrotto and Mark Rubin.
After playing free safety for his first two seasons, Astorino moved to hero last fall.
"It’s the position I would choose to play if I could choose any," he said. "You're in the mix every single play. If it's a run, you have run responsibility; if it's pass, you have pass responsibility. You're on the strong side of the defense, so you get a lot of action, whether it’s fighting off blocks of the fullbacks, linemen, then you're man-on-man with the slot wide receiver.
"You just basically are a hybrid of linebacker-safety, which I really enjoy.”
In 2009, Astorino ranked fourth on the team with 62 tackles and recorded an interception, two fumble recoveries and four pass breakups. He'll once again start at Hero this fall with Sukay returning to free safety.
Bradley thinks the hero used to be more of a novelty at Penn State, as many teams now use some version of a safety-linebacker hybrid.
"You've got to make the right reads and fast reads at that position, so you know where to be at all times," Astorino said. "For example, if you go up on a run and it’s a pass, you can really mess up the pass coverage. So it's a lot of responsibility. Most safeties at most schools are just for pass coverage only. This is a chance for a position to get in the mix every single time.
"I couldn't enjoy it more."