- Chris Jones
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THERE ARE CHOICES, and then there are decisions. Early this year, Christian Hackenberg surveyed an enviable choice. ESPN's top-rated high school quarterback had been recruited -- pursued is a better word -- since his sophomore season at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. Not surprisingly, Virginia was the first school to make him a scholarship offer. Then came Tennessee. Then came an avalanche of letters and visits by eager men. Hackenberg eventually narrowed his choice to four schools: Alabama, Miami, South Carolina and Penn State. Now came his decision.
The oldest of four boys from a family of athletes -- his dad, Erick, was a college quarterback, and his mom, Nikki, played volleyball -- Hackenberg had been groomed for this moment. He was the endgame of best-laid plans. When he arrived at the military academy, his coach, Micky Sullivan, had asked him what he saw in his future. "I told him I wanted to play Division I college football," Hackenberg remembers today. Sullivan asked him where. The names he had listed back then and the names on the letters in front of him were the same.
But between then and now, far from the linear paths of the blessed boys of Fork Union, the world at large had been shaken. Happy Valley especially was no longer what it once was. Before the Hackenbergs had moved to Virginia, when Christian was 8, they lived in Pennsylvania's coal country, and Penn State was like a light on the horizon, a distant dream. Now the entire order of things had changed. The letters to the Hackenberg house came from Bill O'Brien, who had followed the shamed Joe Paterno, who had failed to stop the monster Jerry Sandusky. It was the names that no one could have imagined changing that had.
And yet somehow Hackenberg still saw that light on the horizon. He visited State College, and words fail him when he tries to describe the feeling. "I really can't explain it," he says. "It just felt like home to me."
He and Sullivan talked at length. "I argued with him, playing the devil's advocate," Sullivan says. "But he stuck with Penn State every step of the way." At the end of February, Hackenberg told O'Brien to count him in.
That was before July, of course, when the NCAA levied its sanctions, including a four-year ban from postseason play. Hackenberg's choice appeared in front of him again. He talked to O'Brien, to Sullivan, to his mom and dad. Four of his fellow recruits changed their minds, but in the end, he stayed true to the plan. "My parents, the way they brought me up," Hackenberg says, "being loyal to your word was something they instilled in
me." Sullivan agrees. "We try to teach that here, that your word is valuable and you do what you say you're going to do, but I'm not sure we can take credit for that part of him. He learned that at home."
Hackenberg, perhaps to quiet the many doubters and second-guessers, has purposely not left himself any outs. Speaking to him for this column, for this very public letter of intent, I can't help asking him if he's sure -- if he wants to hold off, just in case. "No, we're good," he says. "I'm not going anywhere." (His Twitter bio already reads "Nittany Lion for life.") Someone like Nick Saban could make one last push before signing day on Feb. 6, but in Hackenberg's mind, he has no more decisions to make.
For him, now, once again, there are only plans. After Penn State's quietly remarkable 8-4 season, he could compete for the starting quarterback job, a pro-style passer in O'Brien's pro-style offense. Hackenberg talks regularly with his future coach and the rest of his incoming class, making sure everybody's hearts remain as undivided as his is. He has closed his eyes and imagined more than 100,000 fans watching him play the game he loves. He's even thought ahead to his senior season, when he might lead Penn State back to its first post-sanctions bowl game, the new light on his horizon. Hackenberg says the right things, about how Penn State should never forget, how none of us should ever forget, but he also remembers that once there were statues in State College, and he believes there could be statues outside Beaver Stadium once again.
"I see this as a great opportunity, that's how I think," he says, and why shouldn't he? Christian Hackenberg has seen firsthand the value of certainty. He's been taught his entire life what it means to be committed.
In ESPN The Magazine's NEXT 2013 Issue, Chris Jones writes that Christian Hackenberg, the nation's best prep quarterback, isn't shying away from Penn State even after all the sanctions.