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Catching Up With Drew Astorino: A Captain's Perspective of 2011

Drew Astorino emerges from the Beaver Stadium tunnel for the 2011 Nebraska game.
Drew Astorino emerges from the Beaver Stadium tunnel for the 2011 Nebraska game.
Mike Pettigano

When Drew Astorino got the first call from Joe Paterno, he didn’t even call him back. His younger brother took the message, and Astorino was sure it was a prank. "We were like, ‘there’s no possible way he’s calling me.’ We didn’t even call back," Astorino said. It wasn’t until his father Gary emailed assistant coach Mike McQueary and confirmed the call that Astorino believed it.

Early in the recruiting process, McQueary told Astorino he could be a preferred walk-on. After scoring the winning touchdown to give his high school team a win at the state championship game (he even scored the game-winning basket when his basketball team won the state championship that same year), Astorino was told he could possibly gray shirt. Committed to Kent State University, Astorino visited Iowa. As the story goes, Penn State had one scholarship left, and Paterno was recruiting another player when he came across Astorino again. Astorino was set to commit to Iowa with about three days left until signing day when Paterno called the Astorino house for the second time and offered him a scholarship. "I had always told Penn State, if they would offer me, I would commit right away," Astorino said. "I committed right there on the phone. ‘I’m there.’ It was pretty simple."

After battling shoulder injuries for several seasons at Penn State, the hard-hitting safety was voted captain by his fellow players his senior year; a tumultuous year for Penn State football. As a captain, Astorino and his teammates were thrown into the middle of the most shocking scandal in the history of sports. "I don’t think the wins and losses really had anything to do with my personality, but you know what, I grew up. You want to talk about tough interviews, as a 21 year old kid I was put in the national spotlight and in a situation that I don’t think any grown man would want to be put in. Talk about having to be mature in a tough situation," Astorino said. "Having gone through the stuff that we went through, you change a little bit, in a good way. You grow up a little bit, and that’s just how it is. But I’ve said it before: even if I knew what I would go through, if I knew what was going to happen, I still wouldn’t have changed where I went [to play]."

Astorino and his fellow captains had a new kind of responsibility: keeping everyone together. "It was wild. It was tough. The hardest part about it was you would think that we would get a little bit of ‘heads up, this is coming,’ or a little bit of knowledge that this situation is going to go down, or this person is going to get released," he said. "What people don’t know is that players were finding out at the same time the public was finding out. We were finding out through SportsCenter, ESPN, NBC."

The 2011 Nittany Lions had more team meetings than probably any team in the history of the program. "We were having three team meetings a day, we never left the football building," Astorino said. "But I think Derek Moye, Devon Still, Quinn Barham and I did a good job of keeping everyone relaxed. It wasn’t just the captains, but more or less the team we were on. We knew what we were playing for, we knew who we were playing with, we knew what kind of people we were, and that situation had nothing to do with us. It was hard for people to associate us with that, but we knew how it really was."

One week after the scandal broke, Astorino suited up for his last game in Beaver Stadium. The team didn’t run out of the tunnel. They walked onto the field arm in arm. Several players took a knee and prayed in the north endzone. And then, the strangest thing: the music cut out, and both teams joined together and prayed at the 50 yard line. One hundred and ten thousand people were silent. You could nearly hear the tears falling.

It was Still’s idea to walk onto the field. "We knew the entire country was going to be watching us," Astorino explained. "Devon wanted to send the message to everybody that through one of the most trying times in sports history for any team, we were going to stick together. And I think we showed that."

"At that time, it was just so much mass confusion," Astorino said. "Think of all the emotions for a senior like myself: it was my last time ever playing at Beaver Stadium. I just lost my head coach. I didn’t even know if we were going to play that game or play the rest of the season. I didn’t know if my football career was over. It would have been tough enough for it just to be your last game, but that’s a tough situation. It’s such a sad situation, and we had to take a moment to think about the people that were involved and pray for them. And then at the same time you had to play one of the better teams in the country in a football game a few minutes later. So yeah, it was tough to control your emotions, but that’s what we did. That’s why we were playing for Penn State. We were D1 football players. That was our job."

The most satisfying win for Astorino came one week later in Columbus. "When we went to Ohio State and we beat Ohio State at Ohio State that was very satisfying. There are a ton of them, but that was the most satisfying one. That was a good game."

So where is Drew now? He recently moved to Chicago, where he works for Coyote Logistics and lives with former teammate Joe Suhey. Having only ever lived in Pennsylvania, he moved to the city to try something new. He still carries lessons from Penn State with him. "It’s a very select fraternity that I’m in now," Astorino said. "Past the football, just being able to be part of a group of people who all went through the same thing, all played for the same thing, and had to learn the same values, that’s important to me and will be important to me for the rest of my life."

Astorino cherishes the memories he has of former coach Joe Paterno. "Every practice, there was a blue line. And the rule was once you crossed the blue line in practice, it was practice time, you’re strapped up and ready to go to work. So he put everybody behind the blue line every day, and he’d say a little something. Just seeing Coach Paterno on a daily basis, he’s such an iconic coach, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Penn State, because of him."

Astorino watched the 2012 football season with pride. "Last season was nothing short of inspirational," he said. "It was so awesome to be associated with Penn State football, to just be able to watch those guys basically bring back the life of Penn State. I couldn’t be more proud of those guys who came back."

He’s also impressed with Coach Bill O’Brien. "I couldn’t be happier for them to have Coach O’Brien. Their entire coaching staff is the best in the country. I think a lot of people thought everybody from Penn State was going to shy away and back down and Coach O’Brien and the program made everybody, especially former players, be proud of what we did, where we’re from, and who we played for." Astorino even admitted to feeling jealous that he didn’t get to play for O’Brien. "His sincerity and the way he goes about talking to his players...his honesty is few and far between in sports. He tells you how it is, good or bad, which is something you want to hear as a player. He told us he cares about a few things: graduating, winning, and being good people. And a lot of times, those are the three things you need to focus on as a college football coach. I really am, I’m very jealous of him and his staff and I couldn’t be happier that he’s part of the Penn State family now. He really does make all the former players proud to be part of Penn State."

Astorino made it out to a few games last season, including his first away game as a "fan" at Iowa. Now, he’s looking ahead to watching the upcoming season. Center Ty Howle, linebacker Glenn Carson, safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, and running back Zach Zwinak are among Astorino’s list of players he’s excited to watch. "I haven’t seen [Christian] Hackenburg yet, but I’m excited for him to get here. I’m excited for the whole thing. I’m so passionate about it now, I love it," Astorino said.

Nearly two years out, Astorino keeps in touch with his former teammates. "I think what people don’t realize is the best part of being on a team is the stupid stuff. Just funny airplane rides, being in the locker room with everyone and messing around. Those little things are the absolute best part about being on a team, being on our team, being on Penn State’s team. We had so many good times together as a group."

As for his plans for the future, Astorino says he’s going to "wing it." After joking about retiring to Aruba, he said he has thought about getting into coaching and eventually wants to move back to Pennsylvania.

Despite the trials his team was put through, Astorino said he wouldn’t change anything. "I obviously would have wanted things to be different, but you’re not going to change anything and I wouldn’t change anything," Astorino explained. "It brought our team so much closer together. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of the guys I was with, and how we handled ourselves through that situation. Because a lot of teams would have just folded, you know? And we stood up for what we believed in and I’m proud of that."

The above guest column was written by Nikki Bowser. Bowser is a senior journalism student at Ohio University and a lifelong Penn State fan.