- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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REDONDO BEACH, Calif. -- Who could begrudge Christian Hackenberg if he jumped from the burning ship that is Penn State football?
The top-rated quarterback nationally and No. 16 prospect overall in the ESPN 150 out of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, Hackenberg serves as the glue that binds the Nittany Lions' 14th-ranked recruiting class in the face of an unprecedented firestorm.
He committed on the last day of February to play for new coach Bill O'Brien, well after the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal rocked college football and the PSU community. But so much more has happened since -- the excruciating trial, more allegations and disgusting truths, the unveiling one week ago of the Freeh report.
NCAA president Mark Emmert left every option open when asked about possible sanctions against the Penn State program.
But there stands Hackenberg, who could run away from it all without a second thought, steely eyed and seemingly ready to enter the aftermath of perhaps the most unthinkable nightmare in the history of college athletics.
On Wednesday as the Elite 11 finals opened and he took center stage among 25 of the nation's top college quarterback prospects, Hackenberg dealt with a burden unlike anything the other two dozen face. Unlike anything any recruit has likely faced.
He picked Penn State because of O'Brien, who coached Tom Brady for the past three years, and assistants Charles Fisher and Charlie London. Hackenberg made the decision because he wants to "start something new" at the school.
"I'm not going to say we want to move on," Hackenberg said, "because what happened was horrible, and it shouldn't be forgotten. But this can give everyone something else to look at. We're the first class that the new staff has recruited. We're going to be leaders."
The QB said he talks with O'Brien weekly. Sometimes, twice a week.
They visited last Thursday after the Freeh report buried Penn State in another avalanche of negativity as the former leaders of the university and its football program were exposed for their knowledge of Sandusky's behavior and their lack of effort to stop it.
O'Brien last week told Hackenberg to "stay strong."
"He's on board with me," Hackenberg said, "and I'm on board with him."
The only situation under which Hackenberg would leave Penn State, he said, is if it was handed the death penalty. Less significant sanctions would not prompt Hackenberg to switch his commitment, he said.
"At the end of the day," Hackenberg said, "if there's football at Penn State, I'm going to be there."
Penn State did not respond to a request for this article to interview O'Brien about his recruiting approach.
"He knows what he's getting into," said Erick Hackenberg, Christian's father. "It's an opportunity for leadership. It really is. The building has crumbled. There are the ashes. Now it's time for the phoenix to rise out in some way, shape or form.
"It takes a special kid with a different mind frame to be able to step into that environment and accept the social pressure that comes with it."
Erick Hackenberg believes his oldest of four sons is that "special kid."
At the end of the day, if there's football at Penn State, I'm going to be there.
”-- QB Christian Hackenberg
Christian transferred two years ago as a straight-A student from Fluvanna County High School in Virginia because Erick, a former college QB, and his wife Nicole, a middle-school English teacher, felt he needed a more challenging environment to prepare for the academic and athletic rigors of college.
Nearby Fork Union, alma mater of Eddie George and Vinny Testaverde, offered a demanding regimen of discipline and order.
"It's helped him understand the breadth of this thing at Penn State," Erick Hackenberg said, "and handle it in a very mature way for a 17-year-old."
The Nittany Lions are sure to be ridiculed, even hated in some venues. Every element of the school's public face -- star quarterback included -- becomes a lightning rod for criticism, some of it, of course, misdirected.
"I don't understand how people can go out there and want to punish the players or shun the players," Christian Hackenberg said.
For his resolute attitude, Hackenberg has earned the respect of his peers, even as some asked him incredulously Wednesday about the situation in State College.
"He has a lot of courage for sticking with his decision to go to there," Notre Dame QB commit Malik Zaire said. "It shows a lot of character."
Future Michigan QB Shane Morris shared a hotel room with Hackenberg at The Opening two weeks ago.
"He [has a great relationship] with the coaches there," Morris said. "He fell in love with the campus. If that's how he feels, then that's where he should go."
Still, it's impossible for him to avoid the troubling questions. Why not take an easier path? Alabama recruited him hard; so did Miami and South Carolina.
Even with most of the top colleges in possession of a QB commit -- 24 of the 25 at the Elite 11 finals have pledged to a school -- the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Hackenberg could find another desirable program with no problem.
But he's not looking for the easy path.
"I listen to what people say," Hackenberg said. "But ultimately, I listen to Coach O'Brien. He's not going to lie to me. Well, he hasn't lied to me yet."
From tragedy comes a chance to move forward.
"That's what this is, a tragedy," Erick Hackenberg said. "Some people will understand what Christian wants to do and some won't.
"You can't please everybody."
Six weeks before the opening of O'Brien's first season and six months before signing day, it's difficult to see through the flames in State College. But when the smoke clears, if the ship remains afloat, Hackenberg plans to stand tall at the wheel and help guide Penn State football to calmer waters.
It looks like O'Brien could not have found a better captain.