Gregg Garrity’s fully-extended body hauling in the game-winning touchdown of the 1982 National Championship has become one of the most recognizable images in Penn State football history.
However, if it weren’t for a little negotiating by his father, Jim, a former Nittany Lion, this historic play likely would have never come to fruition for the walk-on player.
The eldest Garrity was former coach Joe Paterno’s first-ever recruit, a bargaining chip no other borderline player’s parent could come close to matching.
“Basically, that’s how I got myself in there,” Gregg Sr. said of his father’s influence. “Because I can guarantee you I wouldn’t have been able to get in there if it wasn’t for my dad being good friends with Joe and him just giving me a chance. And that’s all it takes.”
Though Paterno’s tenure — one that saw 26 father-son combinations — has ended, Penn State’s tradition of retaining legacy commits has continued under the watchful eye of Bill O’Brien.
Most recently, the coach reached from a familiar pool, bringing in Gregg Garrity Jr., as a walk-on for the incoming class of 2013.
But that wasn’t the first such recruit he has landed.
O’Brien and his staff have already successfully recruited Richy Anderson Jr. (who enrolled early this spring), son of former running back Richie, and Jonathan Warner (a rising redshirt freshman), son of former All-American running back Curt Warner.
Whether talking to first or second generation Penn Staters, the common sentiment in regard to O’Brien’s ability to bridge this gap so quickly is largely the same.
The coach’s intelligence and pure coaching ability allow him to continue this tradition — one that the younger generations are equally happy to extend themselves.
Penn Staters from the start
Many children grow up hearing stories from their grandparents about how cheap movie tickets were when they were kids or how much things have changed over the years.
Not Gregg Garrity Jr.
His grandfather, a receiver who played from 1952-54, would tell stories of his days on the gridiron in Happy Valley.
“He told me how great it is to play at Beaver Stadium and to play in the blue and white jersey,” Gregg Jr. said. “Not only football wise, though. [He told me] it’s a great school where you can get a great education to jumpstart your career in whatever it may be.”
Jim began the chain of Garrity’s to enter the program at the beginning of Paterno’s stint as an assistant, when the young coach began recruiting under head coach Rip Engle.
Next, of course, was Gregg Sr., who was admittedly lucky to even make the team. But thanks to his father’s tight relationship with Paterno, the middle Garrity walked on to the team and made the memorable touchdown that helped the Lions win the 1983 Sugar Bowl — Paterno’s first championship as head coach.
Naturally, Gregg Jr. grew up in his North Allegheny home being introduced to “the Penn State way” more than most. His father joked that he and his mostly-Penn State affiliated family exposed his son to the storied tradition of the school so much that they “ruined him.”
“He’s had a lot of experience going to Penn State games when he was little and experiencing the 110,000 people,” he said. “So, when we go to any other college games, whether it be smaller colleges or whatever, it just doesn’t feel the same to him.”
However, Gregg Sr. made sure to note his son was not pressured into making a decision, something fellow first-generation Penn Stater Curt Warner stressed when describing the decision process for his son, Jonathan.
The elder Warner, of course, was a driving force behind the 1982 championship season, running for more than 1,000 yards his senior season before being drafted No. 1 overall by Seattle in the 1983 NFL draft.
Yet, despite having a great experience in Happy Valley and wanting his son to have an opportunity to do the same, he said it’s not something one should force upon a son.
“I think it has to be their decision,” Warner said. “They have to take ownership of it because you don’t want to have some issue later in life when your son comes back to you and says, ‘Hey, I was forced into it.’ Then, there’s some type of animosity or some type of ill-feeling toward it. That’s not the case.”
Instead, the letterman said his son was grateful for the realistic expectations he gave to his son, who chose to travel from Camas, Wash. to continue the tradition.
The former Lion great said the main objective left for his son, a wide receiver who redshirted last season, is to leave his own legacy.
“He has to make it happen on his own,” Warner said. “I’ve already had my time. I can’t relive my time with what we did. He has to kind of take it upon himself and adjust accordingly.”
New era, same tradition
Although the fathers of these players all had ties to the football program, none had previous ties to O’Brien or the new regime he ushered in.
Paterno was the coach they played for. He was the one who continued the Penn State tradition for several decades, frequently retaining legacy commitments, whether the Wisniewski’s, Shuler’s or most recently, the Mauti’s and Zordich’s.
Warner said there has certainly been a lot of change since he was on campus, but even with a penalized program and coaching change, he still didn’t hesitate to encourage his son to join the program.
“I wasn’t really worried about that as much, because the history and the tradition is there,” Warner said. “It’s hard to take away those particular elements that have been nurtured and have been built upon over the years.”
Meanwhile, both Warner and Garrity said they saw an immense effort from O’Brien to reach out to their sons, which helped make the decision even easier.
O’Brien addressed the importance of continuing the legacy tradition on National Signing Day Wednesday when he discussed the next recruiting class of 2013, which includes legacy commit, Richy Anderson, who enrolled early this spring.
The second-year coach said utilizing the program’s broad letterman association in this way will continue to be a focal point moving forward, since the sons not only have athletic genes, but also great character.
“They have a passion for Penn State because they’ve grown up watching how much it meant to their dads,” O’Brien said. “Obviously, they have to be able to play and they have to be good students. But, that’s something that we’ll definitely continue to look at, no question about it.”
Rich Mauti — a letterman and father of former players Michael and Pat — could certainly attest to the importance of the continuation of prior tradition in the future.
The former wide receiver said while it would have been easy to neglect the tendencies of the coaching staff before his, O’Brien’s decision to embrace the past rather has galvanized the program.
“It’s a powerful thing for him to understand it,” Mauti said. “He’s utilized what Joe had built there and what everybody had built before him, the university and the community and all of the people that have made things successful there. And he’s building on that.”