Commitment defines Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg

Tony Mancuso
November 12, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Commitment.

It's a word used a lot in the realm of college athletics.

It's a word that has a different meaning to different people.

And it's one thing to say you are committed to something.

It's another thing to live by your word.

Christian Hackenberg's commitment didn't necessarily begin on Feb. 28, 2012, the day he elected to play for Penn State.

It began on the couch in the living room of the Hackenberg household in Palmyra, Virginia. Sitting there as a lanky high school kid who had just finished his freshman year, Hackenberg, along with his parents — Erick and Nicole — and eventual high school coach — Micky Sullivan — made a choice.

"As a freshman going into my sophomore year, my family and I were making a decision that would put me in the best position to be successful," Hackenberg said. "I didn't necessarily realize it then. I thought they were sending me over to a military school, but at the same time, I understood that from the big picture, it made sense."

Hackenberg enrolled at Fork Union Military Academy as a sophomore. He committed to the process, and he hasn't looked back since.

An Under Armour All-American, Hackenberg threw for more than 5,000 yards and 55 touchdowns during his three seasons at Fork Union. He led the Blue Devils to the state title game twice, including a championship in 2010. A five-star prospect by all of the major recruiting services, Hackenberg had his pick of resting places for his college career out of high school.

Leaning on his support system for advice, the insight Hackenberg received from Sullivan, a grandfather figure to the signal-caller, still resonates with him to this day.

"The ultimate factor in his advice to me was that if you get hurt on the first day of practice and can't play again, are you going to be happy going to school there? That was the last question asked when we were talking about committing," said Hackenberg.

Then, why Penn State?

"I grew up in a blue-collar, hard-working family," Hackenberg said. "My parents were always able to give my brothers and I everything we ever needed. We grew up in an awesome house. But competing, hard work, nose to the grindstone. All of those words kind of went in to what my family was when I grew up.

"That type of environment, the blue collar and do whatever it takes to get things done, when you step on campus here, that's what you feel. There are a lot of people on this campus who are that way. It's a great environment for someone like that. The resources are here. The ball is in your court to go out and work to accomplish what you want to do. I love that."

The scholastic standout officially signed a letter of intent to play for Penn State on Feb. 6, 2013, but things were far from smooth between the day he selected Penn State and the day he put ink on the paper to become a Nittany Lion.

While competing at the finals of the Elite 11 in Redondo Beach, California, in July of 2012, news began circulating that a major announcement pertaining to the Penn State football program was imminent. Hackenberg and his father landed in Richmond, Virginia, after the trip on the West Coast, ran to their car and listened to the radio as the breaking news of unprecedented NCAA sanctions transpired.

In the days following the announcement on July 23, 2012, Hackenberg and fellow commits from the 2013 recruiting class had an important decision to make.

The families from that recruiting class, including Adam Breneman, Brendan Mahon, Andrew Nelson and Garrett Sickels, traveled to University Park just days after the announcement to meet with then-head coach Bill O'Brien to find some answers to what might happen. Understandably, the families did not want their sons to commit and then have the entire team leave under the open transfer rule.

"Coach O'Brien sat there in the team room and handled the questions as good as he could," said Hackenberg. "I think he did an amazing job ensuring that the core group of guys understood his vision of what the team was, and then you let guys like Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich take over. And they did. We are forever grateful for those guys because they still gave us a shot to come in here, compete and still be successful at a high level. That's something that often gets overlooked."

Simply put, Hackenberg could have chosen to play almost anywhere in the nation following the announcement of NCAA sanctions. And when he verbally committed to Penn State in February 2012, he didn't sign up for scholarship limitations or a postseason ban.

But none of that mattered to a guy whose loyalty bleeds blue and white.

He wanted to be at Penn State.

Hackenberg arrived on the University Park campus in late June 2013. Less than two months later, the 18-year-old became the second true freshman quarterback to start a season opener since 1910.

"This has been my goal ever since I was little, to be able to play major college football," Hackenberg said back in 2013 when O'Brien made the decision to start him midway through the pre-season. "To be able to start my first ever college game is a huge attribute to the team around me and the coaching staff."

Hackenberg solidified his place in the starting lineup with a two-minute drill touchdown drive in Beaver Stadium during the team's first scrimmage of pre-season camp. Despite being just weeks removed from high school, the stage never looked too big for him.

"It was one of those things where I wanted it, but I wasn't quite sure what 'it' was," said Hackenberg. "I didn't know what to expect. And we didn't have any guys on the team at quarterback who knew what to expect. We kind of went into the process blind as a unit."

Hackenberg threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 23-17 Penn State win over Syracuse in MetLife Stadium during his debut. He went on to set 10 school freshman game or season records in 2013.

"I think looking back, it was an awesome experience for me," Hackenberg said. "For me, it was kind of like, throw you into the fire a little bit and see how you react. As the game went on, we made some plays and it unfolded in our favor. That experience kind of set my mindset moving forward for the rest of my career, just to keep battling and moving forward and push through things. Looking back at it, it was tough, but it was a positive."

That fiber of pushing through adversity is what distinguishes Hackenberg. Playing quarterback at Penn State is far from easy. Expectations for the position are high, no matter what the situation might be. But No. 14 has done for three years what he knows how to do best — battle.

"Understanding that it's the reality of playing this position at any big school across the country. But being able to deal with some adversity and some things that may not have been expected when I first decided to come here, I think that goes back to the competitor inside me to just keep battling and find a way," said Hackenberg.

The circumstances have been far from normal for any Penn State player who has been on the roster during the past three seasons. There have been ups and downs along the way, but that's what Hackenberg takes pride in. As a leader, he has shouldered plenty, but the bond he has forged with the school and football program is powerful.

"When you hear things along the way that your career is going to fizzle because of the sanctions or you should have gone to Alabama, that stuff just angers me," said Hackenberg. "We all made a decision to come here, and we've been pretty successful under the circumstances, and we've stayed relevant when people thought this program was going to die. To me, it's always been moving to the next thing and battle to maintain that level of standard so that this place can be a national championship contender in the future."

Though Hackenberg is a relatively laid back individual, he's a fiery competitor in every aspect of being a student-athlete. And he's a prideful man when it comes to his feelings for Penn State.

"I'm extremely proud of what we have been able to achieve collectively," said Hackenberg. "I'm proud of the guys I've played with every single year I've been here. Every single one of these guys are warriors in my book. I challenge any other program in the country to do what we did with the group of people that we had."

A story about the numbers Hackenberg has tallied or the school records he has set could fill a newspaper, and deservedly so. When his time is up in Happy Valley, the Virginia native will go down as one of the program's all-time greats.

Hackenberg's first three seasons have been marked by big plays, thrilling wins and the program's first bowl win after the sanctions were lifted — a moment Hackenberg calls his most satisfying to date.

But there is far more beneath the surface to what makes No. 14 special.

There is a reason why he has the ultimate respect of any player in the locker room. There is a reason why no matter how many times he's been knocked down, he always gets back up stronger.

"No ego is too big. No number means anything," Hackenberg said. "You have to go out and prove yourself each and every week and each and every day in practice. That's been my approach; prepare like a pro, practice like a pro and on Saturdays, just play hard."

Adversity does not outlast individuals with a mindset and work ethic like Christian Hackenberg.

And no one can ever question his commitment to the process in filling a position he loves at a place he truly cherishes.

"You just want to keep pushing and getting better," said Hackenberg. "You just want to keep trying to out-play the expectations. You want to keep trying to out-play the limitations that people put on us. That's what I live for. I want to keep out-dueling those expectations."

(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Penn State-Illinois Beaver Stadium Pictorial.)

Last Updated November 16, 2015