In 2009, Derek Day made two of the most rewarding phone calls of his life within days of each other.
Both were to his father.
The first was during the third week of October. Day was a redshirt freshman who hadn’t seen the field. Penn State was fresh off a 20-0 win over Minnesota, but an away game against Michigan loomed on the horizon.
Day had three words for his father.
" ‘Dad, I’m traveling,’ " he said.
" ‘Well, I’m going,’ " Dwayne responded.
" ‘Well, if you’re going, then I’m going,’ " Lori, Derek’s mom, added.
So Lori and Dwayne Day traveled to Ann Arbor, knowing full well they would likely watch their son hold his helmet on the sidelines for three hours. But the Days wanted to support their son, and how often do you get an excuse to watch a football game in the Big House? They went all out, tailgating on the golf course across from the stadium.
Ninety minutes before kickoff, Dwayne’s cell phone rang. It was Derek.
The worst-case scenarios ran through Dwayne’s mind. What could Derek have done? Did he hurt himself? Is he OK?
Dwayne answered, and his son had a few more words for him this time.
‘Dad, you might want to get in your seat because I’m starting on special teams today," Derek said.
Dwayne hasn’t missed a Penn State game — home or away — since.
Even though Day didn’t have a tackle in 2009, he played in four games. He’s come a long way since then.
Day carried the ball eight times against Ohio, amassing 36 yards as the Nittany Lions’ No. 2 tailback. His performance will likely be remembered by a bruising run up the middle in the first quarter. The initial hit took his helmet off, but the Bobcats needed a second hit to bring him down.
"I felt my head and I looked down at my gloves and there was a good bit of blood on my gloves," Day said.
Senior fullback Michael Zordich, Day’s friend, said he thought Day "wouldn’t be all there" as the trainers helped him up and he jogged off the field. But when Day cracked a joke, his lead blocker knew he was fine.
"As an offensive lineman, you can appreciate having someone who runs as hard as he does behind you," senior tackle Mike Farrell added.
Day had seven carries for 27 yards his entire career leading up to last Saturday.
And this week, he may be Penn State’s starting running back.
Bill O’Brien said he’ll make a decision on Thursday or Friday on whether he’ll start Bill Belton, who injured his ankle against Ohio. If Belton can’t go, he said he will probably start Day.
Now a senior at Penn State, Day broke his leg during a playoff game his senior season at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, causing several FCS schools to rescind their scholarship offers to him. Penn State was making him the same preferred walk-on offer that the FCS schools were now trying to sell him.
Day "ran on" to the Nittany Lion roster, and he never looked back.
"Once he made a visit to Penn State… It had always been a dream of his, so it was a pretty easy decision." Dwayne said. "The comment he made was, ‘Let me prove to them that I belong on the field.’ It was nothing but hard work."
He just wanted to make an impact on the field in whatever way he could. He initially joined the squad as a defensive back, but he transitioned into a special teams player his sophomore and junior seasons. Day accounted for 17 tackles and a forced fumble during that time.
Bill O’Brien named Day the special teams captain last Saturday because he knew how key Day was in that facet of the game.
But in the past few months, Penn State’s coach saw Day capitalize on Silas Redd’s transfer and improve his ground game exponentially.
"As we watched him run the football in the spring, you could tell he had good vision, good cutting ability," O’Brien said. "He's a tough kid, and he caught the ball pretty well out of the backfield."
So with Belton day-to-day, the Lions may find themselves with two former "run-ons" in backfield against Virginia.
Day says he’s prepared to start if he’s called upon to do that. Dwayne, as usual, will watch his son from the stands. But this Saturday, he may not be the only one watching the obscure Penn State special teams player. He could be one of 61,000 people watching Penn State’s starting running back.
"I’m a relatively big guy, but I can cry with the rest of them," Dwayne said. "Tears will be in my eyes, guaranteed."