The walk-on opens his drawer, resting his eyes on the folded piece of paper that he reads everyday.
The walk-on just finished up another standard afternoon of practice as a freshman Penn State quarterback who sits below sea-level on the depth chart. He understands why he isn’t starting, but he’s still frustrated that he can’t work his way out of the cellar.
It’s out of his control. The walk-on wasn’t recruited by Penn State to be its next starting quarterback, so nobody’s watching him. The coaches see him as a career practice player.
The piece of paper reminds him otherwise -- in five words, the walk-on’s future is scribbled on the top.
“To start at Penn State.”
For the walk-on, those words represent an event that is written in stone. At some point in the future, he will walk off that blue bus first. He came to Penn State to play football in front of over 100,000 fans at Beaver Stadium, not in front of alumni and injured players at the Lasch practice field.
Most know him as the walk-on, and they are just fine with that. A select few know him as Matt McGloin.
McGloin knows how he got here. McGloin knows what he’s capable of. Soon, he’ll make the doubters know his name.
Better than the big kids
At age 10, McGloin stood among a cluster of guys getting ready to play backyard football in his hometown of Scranton.
He looked up to every one of them, literally. They were at least seven years older than him and many inches taller. McGloin’s two older brothers, six and 13 years his senior, would pick the teams.
For a while, little Matt was there only because he would cry if his parents tried to drag him away. He was in shoulder pads from the time he was 4, playing midget football from the time he was 6.
But at 10, he might as well have been 18.
“I guess when I started to realize that I was getting pretty good was when [my brothers] would start to pick me before their friends,” McGloin said.
McGloin’s fiery, competitive nature comes from his two brothers. He would try to beat them in everything, despite the size disadvantage. If McGloin lost, he simply broke stuff to discharge his anger.
“When we were playing a video game, I’ve broken so many [controllers] losing to my friends or my brother,” he said. “I’ve thrown stuff at my brothers, we’ve put holes in the walls, we’ve done everything.
McGloin, a three-sport athlete through high school, started playing basketball for his mom as a kid. Cathy McGloin didn’t coach him, but she put on her jacket in the winter and watched him from her porch. Across the street, Matt would shoot around by himself in the bracing, Scranton cold.
He toed the mound for his dad, who was the local Little League President. As a high school pitcher, McGloin hit 90 miles per hour on the radar gun and matched that heater with a wicked curve.
But McGloin showed his true colors during Scranton autumns. He passed for 5,485 career yards and 58 touchdowns as a three-year starter, achieving nearly half of those stats in his senior season. He was the Scranton Times-Tribune’s 2007-08 Athlete of the Year.
To this day, McGloin doesn’t understand why not a single college wanted him.
McGloin’s inability to pull an offer was the first of many trials he would face as a quarterback.
He refused to settle for a small school. He’s not the type of athlete who could get fired up by 4,000 or 5,000 fans.
Penn State wasn’t even in the picture for McGloin until his senior year, when offensive line coach Dick Anderson came knocking. McGloin visited the campus in February 2008, and coach Joe Paterno told him over the phone that he’d love to have McGloin as a walk-on.
It’s not often that a young high school kid is unimpressed when a coaching legend asks him to play on his team -- scholarship or no scholarship.
McGloin felt disparaged.
“It was the typical thing they were going to say to a kid who didn’t have any offers,” McGloin said. “ ‘Just come here and run our scout team for four years.’ At the time, I wasn’t thinking that. If I’m coming here, I’m coming here for a reason.”
He decided to attend Penn State with that mindset, but it was a mindset very few shared with him. He redshirted his first season and played nominally his second as he patiently bided his time for an opportunity to grab the starting spot.
In the spring of 2010, a quarterback controversy publicly endured until the week before the season started, McGloin said Rob Bolden won the job the moment the true freshman stepped onto campus in the summer.
McGloin didn’t understand at the time how Bolden could have such a leg up on him before ever taking a snap for Penn State.
“They’re going to bring in this kid, who’s a four-star recruit and all that garbage,” McGloin said. “You’re going to rate a kid based on what he does against high school kids who aren’t even going to play at the next level? What they’re rating is potential. You don’t know what a kid’s going to do when he gets here.”
To add even more insult, McGloin was slotted behind Kevin Newsome on the depth chart.
“When they brought in Kevin Newsome, I knew I was better than him,” McGloin said. “I knew I was better than some of the guys they had and were bringing in.”
McGloin said he wasn’t frustrated personally with Joe Paterno or quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, but he thought it was unfair that neither gave him an explanation.
He assumed the starting role seven games into the 2010 season after Bolden suffered a concussion against Minnesota. McGloin was a more efficient passer than Bolden for his half of the campaign, but his season will likely be remembered by an abysmal Outback Bowl against Florida in which he threw five interceptions.
Penn State’s 2011 quarterback platoon system made even less sense to McGloin.
“I still played a lot last year, but I never understood why they would start [Bolden] and bring me in to finish the game,” McGloin said. “I never got an answer for that either. It was out of my control.”
After Joe Paterno was fired in wake of sexual abuse charges against Jerry Sandusky, interim head coach Tom Bradley named McGloin the starter. However, McGloin’s season ended on a poor note yet again as he suffered a concussion and seizure following a locker room altercation with former wide receiver Curtis Drake.
But in June, new coach Bill O’Brien named McGloin the undisputed starting quarterback at Penn State for the first time in McGloin’s career.
“It was just a sense of not having to look over my shoulder every two seconds, worrying if I don’t complete this pass, I’m not going to play on Saturday,” McGloin said. “That’s the point where it got to [in 2011].”
He’s the guy
Matt McGloin is now the face of a team with a fan base that is seeking a genuine face more than ever before.
“As for being the starting quarterback and having all eyes on you, as a 22-year-old kid that’s definitely tough,” McGloin said. “But at the same time, it’s a great challenge and it’s a great honor.”
McGloin said he’s matured over the summer under O’Brien, both as a person and as a quarterback. He said he’s learned a ton of new things about football from O’Brien and watching New England Patriots film.
However, McGloin is quick to emphasize he’s not Tom Brady, he’s not trying to be Tom Brady, nor will he ever be Tom Brady, whom he refers to as “arguably the best quarterback of all time.
“I’m just trying to be the best Matt McGloin I can be,” he said.
Who is Matt McGloin? He’s certainly not a walk-on in spirit, even if he was in fact.
His passionate disposition could be taken the wrong way. He’s driven to do what he needs to do, and do it well. That sometimes translates into his assertive personality, which he takes in stride because that’s who he is.
At practice recently, McGloin said the football slipped out of his hands. He said something to O’Brien but O’Brien had the last word. McGloin had to bite his tongue so the situation wouldn’t escalate. But he thinks a shouting match is overdue, and he just wants to get it over with.
An incident such as that has the potential to explode in the media, but the fact is McGloin and O’Brien would likely shake it off the next day and pretend it never happened. It’s just their way of controlling their emotions.
It seems that as the team has adjusted to O’Brien’s leadership, it has adjusted more to McGloin’s as well.
“He’s vocal, but he also shows [leadership] with his actions, too,” said senior Matt Stankiewitch, Penn State’s starting center and McGloin’s roommate. “He’s the first one to meetings and he’s going to be the last one to leave meetings. He’s going to be calling the meetings. He’s going to be calling the offense and making adjustments. That’s just him, that’s Matt McGloin.”
Heading into Penn State’s first game against Ohio, O’Brien is positive McGloin is the man he wants under center.
“He's definitely made a ton of progress,” O’Brien said. “This is a guy that the more you're around him, the more you enjoy coaching him.
“But Matt is competitive; he's smart; he's understanding defenses better; he's understanding what formation, what play we're in, and what the best plays are to run versus the defense that he sees.”
Now, McGloin has to consistently translate those qualities into a game, and this is the most ideal season for him to do that. Bolden is gone and Paul Jones appears to be several lengths behind him on the depth chart. The coaching staff that he says wouldn’t give him a chance is gone.
Against all odds, ratings and perceptions, Matt McGloin is the starting quarterback.
He can check that off his piece of paper. Right below it: “Don’t let them win.” That will remain unmarked until at least Saturday.
“There’s so many people who want to see me go back home to Scranton and do nothing,” McGloin said. “They would love to see me fail. I never wanted to do that. I never wanted them to believe that they got to me. I never wanted them to think I was washed out. I never wanted them to win.
“If somebody has influenced me, it’s the people who don’t like me and the people who want to see me fail.”