Christian Hackenberg came to Penn State with zero expectations of ever playing for a national championship.
At the end of the day, when I think of the legacy that Hackenberg will leave in Happy Valley, I always come back to that. I ignore the fact that maybe people argue that he never quite lived up to the lofty expectations set for him as a five-star quarterback recruit. I ignore the fact that his best season as a college athlete came when he was a freshman, a statement that is oftentimes used by college football fans to get a laugh at someone's expense. I ignore the fact that he is in no way, shape, or form a perfect quarterback and there were occasions where you could tell he just didn't have it, oftentimes for reasons beyond his control.
I always come back to the fact that Hackenberg came to Penn State despite having about 500,000 reasons not to. He didn't have the lifelong ties to the school that made it obvious that he would commit to Penn State. He wasn't recruited by Penn State for years and years – in fact, he didn't even get an offer until 19 days into the Bill O'Brien era and he committed a month later. And when the sanctions came down, he could have left for a school that would have given him the opportunity to win championships en route to being the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Hackenberg knew that his first three years would not feature any bowl games unless the bowl ban got overturned, and by the time the ban would have been lifted in 2017, he would have been a senior on a roster with 65 scholarship players. For Penn State to compete for a national championship during Hackenberg's tenure in State College, it would have required something miraculous.
While the bowl ban was lifted, the lingering effects of the sanctions impacted Hackenberg's penultimate and final seasons in the blue and white. You've heard this countless times over the last few years, but no quarterback in the country got sacked more in 2014 and 2015 than Hackenberg, who was sacked 82 times over that span. That doesn't include the handful of times every game where he was under pressure, got a throw off, and still got leveled by a defender.
And every time that he got knocked down, Hackenberg got up, because he loved Penn State and felt that it was a disservice to the university to not give it his all every time he was out on the field. He played hurt. He played when he was so mentally shaken that everyone was mortified for his own well-being – go back to the Temple game this year when the announcing crew was on the verge of going down to the sideline and begging for Hackenberg to get pulled because he kept getting hammered. It ultimately led to the end of his collegiate career, but even during his final game, Hackenberg got hit, suffered an injury, got up, and kept playing until doctors stepped in and told him he had to stop.
So yes, we'll all sit around and comment on various posts over the next few months and discuss Hackenberg's legacy, because it was written in the Laws of the Internet that "legacies" are things that need to be broken down and debated for everyone and everything. If we're being 100 percent honest, yes, I'm like most people in that the numbers that Hackenberg produced during his career didn't quite reach what I expected out of him when he committed (which, considering that he basically re-wrote Penn State's record book for quarterbacks, is so weird and admittedly off base).
But still, god damn, was he a joy to watch. There was the four overtime game against Michigan. There was the Wisconsin game. There was the Boston College game. Everyone can pick their favorite Hackenberg moment (it's the A-Rob throw, come on), and everyone remembers the first time we saw him in MetLife Stadium, thinking that this rosy cheeked 18-year-old kid is capable of magic. And maybe, just maybe, behind the golden right arm he possessed, the next few years of Penn State football wouldn't be as horrible as we all thought when the sanctions came down in the summer of 2012.
And listen, if you want to, by all means, be cynical and think that everything he has done over the last three years has been motivated by his own self-interest. If you want to think that everything that Hackenberg said to the media and everything he did on the field to look like a great teammate was done so he could go to NFL and say "well, I struggled at times, but look at how good of a person I am now pay me millions," go for it. If you feel no sympathy because he's about to get paid lots of money to play professional football, that's also cool. But if you are of this mindset, do consider two things: 1) everyone who plays football has the same aspiration to some extent, so it's kind of unfair to single out one person and be angry at them, and 2) he kept getting knocked down, and every single time, he got back up, kept competing, and never complained.
So to Christian Hackenberg: thank you. Thank you for providing us all with moments that we'll never forget on the field. Thank you for being fiercely loyal in a time when nobody would have faulted you for going back on your word. And thank you, always, for loving Penn State. Here's to hoping that you end up purchasing a home in the greater-Houston area sometime in the next few months.