Some coaches didn’t even know his name.
And when the coaches did become familiar with Jake Fagnano, the former walk-on said he still didn’t garner much respect from the staff early in his career.
“[As a walk-on,] you’re definitely the bottom of the food chain, and you know it,” Fagnano said. “You learn fast that you have a long way to go.”
The fifth-year senior safety endured a trying journey before his final season at Penn State, complete with injuries and limited playing time. Yet, Fagnano emerged as a formidable option in the secondary this season, highlighted by his standout performance on Senior Day that included a late-game interception.
Although Fagnano’s lengthy career had many ups and downs, his emotional attachment to the team began before he even attended elementary school.
Penn Stater from the start
Young children sometimes go back and forth in regard to their favorite sports teams, often siding with the winning team.
Jake’s father, Phil, said his son was not one of them.
“He was always in tune with the Penn State way of football, being tough and overcoming the odds,” Phil said. “As a kid, he would get upset when Penn State would lose in his very younger days.”
The young Fagnano grew up in a Penn State-decorated room in his Williamsport home and quickly began to associate himself with the program.
Phil added that the emotional style of play under coach Joe Paterno inspired his son to want to play in Happy Valley as he began playing the sport.
“[Football is] a little war going on out there,” Phil said. “I think he liked those players and he enjoyed that type of atmosphere. He felt like when Penn State was losing, he was losing.”
Yet, despite developing into a talented safety, Jake’s most attractive athletic abilities appeared on the baseball diamond. He was a dominant pitcher, who topped out at 94-mph, and received several offers to play at the Division I level.
Due to injuries, the football offers were not as extensive, and Jake received just a walk-on offer from Penn State.
Phil, who played college baseball himself, told his son to follow his dream, even if that meant having to rise from the bottom of the depth chart as a walk-on.
“I always told him, ‘If you try and fail, you’ll be okay,’ “ he told his son. “ ‘If you don’t try, you will cry.’ ”
Rising to the forefront
As expected, the safety’s road to his final destination was not easy.
After redshirting his freshman year, Jake saw brief playing time over his first three active seasons. He totaled just 14 tackles prior to this year and his father said the secondary coach at the time, Kermit Buggs, wasn’t a fan of his son’s playing style.
“He had to overcome the coaches,” Phil said. “I’ll tell you flat-out, Buggs didn’t want him on the field. He didn’t care for Jake for whatever reason. But Jake knew that, given enough time, he would break through.”
The safety benefited from the fresh faces joining the coaching staff this season under coach Bill O’Brien, with John Butler becoming the new secondary coach.
“He knew all along that he could play, if given the opportunity,” Jake’s father said. “And coach O’Brien allowed that to happen.”
Fagnano didn’t enter the season as a starter, playing behind Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, but he did impact several games when relieving the starters. For instance, he had nine tackles against Ohio in week one, more than half of his career total entering the season.
The safety’s biggest impact of the season, however, did not come until the final two games when he started the first games of his career in place of the injured Willis.
He recorded five tackles against Wisconsin on Senior Day, and most grabbed a potential game-deciding interception — the first of his career — with five minutes left in the game and the Nittany Lions up, 21-14.
Although the Badgers ultimately tied the game up to send it into overtime, Fagnano was a strong part of the defensive turn-around in the 24-21 victory.
O’Brien said after the game he understood how important it was to the senior to leave such a lasting impact on his final collegiate competition.
“I personally enjoy watching Jake play because Jake plays the way that safeties should play,” O’Brien said. “He’s a tough kid, tough tackler…It just means a lot to him and a lot to us to watch him play the way he did tonight and make that interception.”
Looking back on his career, the senior said walking on to the program under the previous staff was not easy, but it forced him to work harder in order to earn his worth, and ultimately a scholarship.
Similar to his hard-fought interception on Saturday, Fagnano has rarely had things handed to him — but if you ask the safety, that’s just the way he wants it.
“It’s been a tough journey,” Fagnano said. “I’ve had bumps and bruises along the way. Things went my way, things didn’t. And the interception just tops everything, all the hard work that I put in as well as all the hard work the seniors put in.”