Early in my tenure as an author here, I wrote a long form piece about the 2002 home game against Nebraska. That game, which still holds the Beaver Stadium attendance record of 110,753, keeps a special place in many fans hearts, but it's particularly special for me, since it's the moment that college football truly meant something to a teenager from the Garden State.
I grew up in Central Jersey in the shadow of Rutgers University before the Internet and massive cable television deals changed the college football distribution model. As anyone from that area at that time can attest, virtually no one cared about college football. To the extent they did, there were exactly two teams that anyone cared about - Penn State and Notre Dame. It's not that I didn't know football was a big part of the Penn State experience. I did. It's just that my perspective was a bit skewed.
One of the reasons that Penn State matters, and is indeed treated like the home team, in my home state is because of its tradition of exceptional players hailing from New Jersey. And it's the reason why I wanted to write this tribute to Gerald Hodges today. Last week, Gerald Hodges joined a litany of Nittany Lion superstars as the 2012 New Jersey Division I College Player of the Year.
The Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Club has been honoring players since 1945, and the number of Penn State honorees is astounding -
Hodges is the second consecutive Penn State player to be honored by the Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Club with their top college honor, as guard Johnnie Troutman was the 2011 recipient. Previous Nittany Lions to earn the Brooks-Irvine Division I honor include: quarterback Milt Plum (1956), end Dave Robinson (1962), George Landis (1970), running backs Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell (1971), linebacker Greg Buttle (1975), Ken Kelley (1982), linebacker Andre Collins (1989), quarterback Tony Sacca (1991), linebacker Aaron Collins (1997), offensive lineman Kareem McKenzie (2000) and Troutman (2011).
When Hodges was recruited out of Paulsboro, NJ, plenty of amateur recruitniks had visions of a Taylor Mays-like safety in their heads. He was heavily recruited by the best programs in the country and, indeed, spent the first part of his freshman season at safety.
Then Ron Vanderlinden got ahold of him.
Hodges was an outstanding athlete and became an instinctive and hard hitting linebacker. Paired with Michael Mauti, the two formed the country's best linebacker tandem. He was a Butkus Award semifinalist and a three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. After a breakout junior campaign, he was a first-team All-Big Ten honoree. Opponents feared going over the middle on him . . .
In the end, as with the rest of these thirty-one seniors, Hodges won't be remembered simply for his outstanding play on the field. He'll be remembered for his leadership off of it.
"If you're considering transferring, then obviously this isn't the place for you," Hodges said following a team workout Tuesday morning. "Obviously you don't want to be here that bad. It just shows you the character of people. ... Not to talk down on anyone, but it just is what it is."
"We're all one family, and that's what family does -- family stays together through the hard times and through the good times."
This was the place for you, Gerald. You'll always be family at Penn State. Thanks for everything.
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