NCF Nation: Mark Rubin

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."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Penn State can handle adversity and win with defense -- Head coach Joe Paterno and many others held off on labeling Penn a great team until it faced some genuine pressure. Thanks to the Spread HD offense, the Lions had torched their opponents, never trailing in the fourth quarter through the first eight games. Adversity arrived Saturday night in Columbus, and Penn State overcame it and won in a new way. Swarming defense kept Ohio State out of the end zone, and senior safety Mark Rubin forced a Terrelle Pryor fumble that led to the go-ahead touchdown. Penn State won at Ohio Stadium for the first time as a member of the Big Ten and kept the national title game in the viewfinder.

2. Michigan State can use emotion to its advantage -- In years past, the Spartans were an emotional wreck, prone to meltdowns after the first sign of trouble. Many expected a similar collapse following last week's 42-point home loss to Ohio State. But Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and his players turned the page and focused on a game they had hyped up since the summer. Michigan meant more to Dantonio and the Spartans, and they weren't afraid to show it. An emotionally prepared team survived a bad touchdown call and some early adversity to rally for 35-21 win. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer stepped up as the Spartans snapped a six-game losing streak to Michigan and won at Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1990.

3. Terrelle Pryor is human -- In his first five starts at quarterback, the Ohio State freshman led a game-winning scoring drive on the road at Wisconsin, answered his doubters inside and outside the locker room with a superb effort at Michigan State and blossomed as a team leader. He was less than 11 minutes away from adding a win against a top 5 team to his resume before an ill-fated decision on a quarterback sneak led to the game's critical turnover. A more experienced and less talented quarterback likely would have gone up the middle on a quarterback sneak, but Pryor tried to make a play and got burned. "I thought I was scoring a touchdown," Pryor said, when a first down would have sufficed. The play epitomized Pryor's risk-reward nature at this stage of his promising career.

4. One game might sidetrack Northwestern's season -- It was bad enough that No. 22 Northwestern lost to Indiana, a banged-up team playing without its starting quarterback (Kellen Lewis) and riding a five-game losing streak (average margin of defeat: 24.4 points). But the turnover-prone Wildcats tumbled in Bloomington, and the loss came with a major toll. Star running back Tyrell Sutton injured his wrist and will undergo surgery this week that could end his season. Starting quarterback C.J. Bacher suffered what appeared to be a hamstring injury and could barely walk after the game. Northwestern likely needs one more win to secure a bowl spot, and with Sutton and most likely Bacher sidelined, an improved defense and reserve offensive skill players have to step up.

5. Race for No. 2 heats up -- Penn State is positioned for a push to the national title game, which could open up a second BCS spot for the Big Ten, most likely the Rose Bowl. Three teams sit with one league loss after Ohio State fell to Penn State; Michigan State improved to 4-1 in conference play and Minnesota, one of the nation's best stories, added another victory at Purdue. The Spartans and Golden Gophers don't play one another, and both teams have lost to Ohio State, which remains the front-runner for the No. 2 spot. But Minnesota has a very manageable remaining schedule and could finish with 10 or even 11 wins after going 1-11 in 2007.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 26, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Here are your top performers in the Big Ten for Week 9.

Penn State S Mark Rubin -- The fifth-year senior had a team-high and career-high 11 tackles and forced the Terrelle Pryor fumble that led to Penn State's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Rubin headlined a Penn State defense that shut down Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells and kept the Buckeyes out of the end zone.

Michigan State RB Javon Ringer -- One of the many Spartans players who injected emotion into the Michigan game, Ringer turned in a dominant performance, racking up 194 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries. He'll undoubtedly share the sticker with quarterback Brian Hoyer, who had three touchdown passes and no interceptions in the 35-21 win.

Indiana S Austin Thomas -- The Hoosiers defense elevated its play against Northwestern, and Thomas led the way with a team-high 10 tackles and two interceptions. Thomas' second interception came in Indiana territory with 4:03 remaining. He hurt his leg on the play and needed to be helped off the field, but his gutsy performance did not go unnoticed.

Backup quarterbacks -- This sticker is split three ways between Wisconsin's Dustin Sherer, Indiana's Ben Chappell and Penn State's Pat Devlin. Sherer stopped the bleeding in Madison with three touchdowns (2 pass, 1 rush) against Illinois. Chappell limited mistakes and led Indiana to an upset of Northwestern. And Devlin relieved the injured Daryll Clark in crunch time at Ohio State and scored the go-ahead touchdown. Whether they played because of performance (Sherer) or injuries (Chappell, Clark), these three got it done.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Unfortunately, our country has a pecking order when it comes to diseases, and kidney cancer is low on the depth chart.

More than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney cancer each year, but because it's a small amount relative to other diseases, the illness is considered rare and lacks the support for research and new treatments. But a group of football players are trying to change things.

Friday afternoon, Penn State will hold the sixth annual Lift For Life event, a weightlifting competition for players designed to raise funds and, perhaps more important, awareness for kidney cancer. Ninety-six Nittany Lions players will participate, with teams of four competing in 11 events ranging from the traditional (leg curls, bench press) to the bizarre (tire flipping). Fans will be able to support their favorite players, who will sign autographs after the competition. Proceeds will go to the Kidney Cancer Association.

So if you're in the vicinity of Holuba Hall -- Penn State's indoor practice facility -- around 2 p.m. today, try to get there. It's worth it.

Former Penn State wide receiver Scott Shirley started the Lift For Life event in 2003, the year after his father, Don, was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Don passed away from the disease in October 2005.

After Don's diagnosis, the Shirley family went from hospital to hospital, seeking some degree of hope. All they got was heartache.

A trip to Johns Hopkins proved to be the final straw.

"It was like going to visit the Wizard of Oz," Shirley said. "If anybody had the answer, Hopkins would. And the doctor came in and said the reality is there's nothing we can do. At that point, we were kind of at the end of road."

Shirley called the Kidney Cancer Association on his way back to State College and learned that because the disease was rare, it lacked the financial backing to push for new treatments. There was only one FDA-approved treatment, and it had just a 10 percent survival rate beyond five years.

Walking into his apartment, Shirley told his roommate and teammate, Damone Jones, the discouraging news.

"I said it's unfortunate 30,000 Americans a year get this disease and they're all told that nothing can be done because there's not enough of them," Shirley said. "Then Damone shrugged his shoulders and said, 'We're Penn State football. If I wipe my [butt] sideways, it's on the front page of the paper.

"Why not take advantage of that?'"

Their teammates, three of whom had fathers fighting the disease, immediately got on board. They decided that a weightlifting competition, open to fans and media members, would be the best way to generate attention. The first event was small, but it has since grown.

So has awareness and progress with the disease. Three new treatments have been approved in the last five years. One of the drugs, Sutent, is being used by Ohio State quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels as he fights kidney cancer.

Daniels and his son, Matt, a walk-on fullback for the Buckeyes, first contacted Shirley two years ago. Matt is organizing an Ohio State chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization that helps college football players organize to raise awareness about rare diseases.

"It makes sense someone should be there to help diseases that don't have a voice," Matt Daniels said. "This has been his idea since the beginning, even from when he was playing. I really have a lot of respect for him."

Seeing Joe Daniels make progress against kidney cancer has hit home for Shirley, who quit his job as an engineer in August to become the full-time executive director of Uplifting Athletes.

"Unfortunately, my dad didn't live long enough to benefit from those treatments," Shirley said. "Having become good friends with the Daniels family, that's really when it comes full circle for me. ... It's never really been about [Don Shirley] or for him. It happened because of his situation and what I learned and what the team learned about rare diseases. And it's really grown because of the opportunity to impact so many people."

While organizing Lift For Life as players, Shirley and Jones realized they were gaining real-world event-planning experience not usually afforded to football players. The same possibility hooked Penn State sophomore wide receiver Brett Brackett, who serves as president of the Penn State chapter of Uplifting Athletes.

Uplifting Athletes also has a chapter at Colgate, which will hold a Lift For Life event July 25, and hopes to form chapters at Ohio State and Maryland.

"We don't have time during the year for internships," said Brackett, a business major. "Every part of the organization, besides the financial committee, is run by a Penn State football player. It's pretty unique."

Because of the structure, it's not hard to get teammates to pitch in.

"We try to do a lot of outreach things," said Daniels, who is planning a benefit for Uplifting Athletes in Columbus later this month. "When it's a player-initiated thing, players have more pride in that."

There will be plenty of pride in Holuba Hall Friday. After all, competition is competition.
Brackett's scouting report says look out for Team Maryland, which includes Derrick Williams, Navorro Bowman, A.J. Wallace and Aaron Maybin. Another contender is Team The Real Deihl, featuring Brackett and Mark Rubin, both of whom were on last year's winning team.

"A couple teams are pretty stacked," Brackett said.