Two young Penn State fans could barely contain themselves as they cheered on their new favorite player from the first row of MetLife Stadium.
“Hey, Hack! Over here!” they relentlessly exclaimed last Saturday.
The poised Christian Hackenberg glanced in their direction and pointed toward them with a smile, before promptly continuing his pregame routine.
All of this occurred before the 18-year-old quarterback had taken a single snap at the collegiate level.
The long-awaited Hackenberg became just the second true freshman quarterback to start a season opener at Penn State in the past century against Syracuse, although it may not have seemed like it — the quarterback led the Nittany Lions to a 23-17 win with 278 passing yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse.
The demeanor of the Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy graduate was immediately apparent, from his relaxed look in pregame warm-ups, to the way he responded after being replaced on the Lions’ third series.
After the game, coach Bill O’Brien praised the quarterback’s football intelligence, but was sure not to take too much responsibility for Hackenberg’s polished playing style.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Fork Union and Micky Sullivan and all the guys who coached him there,” O’Brien said. “They did a really nice job with him because he’s a well-coached guy coming in the door here. And he understands things.”
Yes, Hackenberg’s heightened ability to perform in high-pressure situations began to develop well before his arrival in Happy Valley in June.
From executing military drills in high school to having a camera in his face throughout much of his senior year as a top quarterback recruit, Hackenberg has already been thrust into the spotlight.
So, this is nothing new.
Every morning before school at Fork Union, Hackenberg suited up.
Although he did not live on campus like many of his classmates, he was required to be in uniform each day — and if his uniform did not pass daily inspection, he was not permitted to go to class, Micky Sullivan, Hackenberg’s high school coach said.
“It’s a very structured environment,” Sullivan said of the military school. “There’s not a lot of room for flexibility, not a lot of room for guys who want to be show-offs.”
Hackenberg, the oldest of four brothers, was born in the Pennsylvania coal region of Schyulkill County, but his family — parents, Erick and Nikki, and three younger brothers — moved to Palmyra, Va., when he was in elementary school.
He attended the local public school, Fluvanna County High School, as a three-sport athlete his freshman year, before Erick had his son transfer to Fork Union.
Erick said the reasoning for the switch involved athletics, since Fork Union’s post-graduate prep school brought in more than a hundred colleges per year to scout for Division I talent. With Erick being a former quarterback at the University of Virginia and Nikki playing volleyball at Lehigh, Erick said they both saw first hand how athletics could provide “a means to an end.”
However, he said the switch equally dealt with academics, since Fork Union provided much more of a challenge for his bright son.
“It was more so a combination of the structured environment from an academics and a discipline standpoint, and the opportunities he’d have athletically, the people he’d be around,” Erick said.
As one might expect, military schools present a much more regimented daily schedule than most high schools.
According to the military school’s website, “Cadets build character, and learn leadership, independence, confidence, responsibility, and discipline in a setting that encourages mental, physical, and spiritual growth.”
A typical day, Sullivan said, requires students to attend class from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., then participate in marching drills for 45 minutes — and that’s before athletes even suited up for practice.
Hackenberg’s godfather, Gary Steele, also attended Fork Union, and he said in addition to premier athletic competition, the academy offers life lessons on “the body, mind and spirit, helping to keep yourself on the straight and narrow,” he said.
“It teaches you how to be regimented in your approach to life, whether it’s football, academics or your professional life,” Steele added. “So, it gives you a really strong foundation.”
Sullivan said as a result of this foundation Fork Union offered off the field, he saw Hackenberg mature before his eyes while on it.
In the public eye
As expected, with a sense of discipline at Fork Union also came a heightened athletic platform, as Sullivan’s squads were perennially some of the best in Virginia.
Hackenberg jumped onto the scene his sophomore year, when he succeeded the prior starting quarterback by the end of the season and helped lead Sullivan’s squad to a state championship.
Similar to his current situation at Penn State, Hackenberg was a newcomer playing with teammates at least a year or two older than him — an environment in which he thrived, Sullivan said.
“I think Christian has always had that kind of demeanor,” Sullivan said. “He accepted the mantle of being a leader. He wanted to be a leader.”
Hackenberg nearly doubled his passing numbers his junior season, throwing for 2,164 yards and 20 touchdowns, and his notoriety naturally began to increase. Listed as a five-star recruit by most scouting services, and a consensus top-five quarterback nationally, Hackenberg began to see scouts pouring in for his games.
He was invited to several elite camps, such as the Elite 11, as well as Nike’s Opening camp in Oregon. Hackenberg’s Fork Union squad also opened his senior season on ESPN.
Hackenberg committed to Penn State in February of his junior year and that summer, Penn State’s football program was slapped with unprecedented sanctions.
Then, Sullivan said, is when Hackenberg’s resolve was truly tested.
“People were after him all the time, saying, ‘Why are you staying?’ “ Sullivan said. “And then we went through the year having people at ballgames on TV with microphones and all that kind of stuff. So, it was a constant thing all year last year.”
Despite some recruits decommitting from Penn State after the four-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions were announced, Hackenberg not only stuck to his commitment — he reiterated it to the national media several times over, serving as one of the main ring leaders of the recruiting class.
Hackenberg’s father described the situation as one of the most unique and crazy occurrences in college football history. However, he cited O’Brien’s already tight relationship with Christian as a big reason for his son remaining committed.
“It took a lot of conversation and trust. It took a lot of soul searching, a lot of thought processing,” Erick said. “But, [O’Brien’s] relationship through that process was vitally important, because I think it became much easier for all of us through that process because of coach O’Brien and who he is and how he handled that.”
Once the dust settled on Hackenberg’s senior season at Fork Union, the Penn State commit had obviously already received his fair share of air time.
So, when O’Brien placed him in front of a major throng of media members following the victory on Saturday — a rarity for any true freshman in college football — the coach had no worries about how he’d handle it.
“Here is a guy, just like a lot of these guys in the freshman class that could have gone anywhere,” O’Brien said at a press conference Tuesday. “He had scholarships to over 50 schools, and he committed to us before the sanctions came out, and he stuck with us when the sanctions came out. Down the road, no matter what happens in his career, 10 years down the road…all of these guys are better men for having done that.”
O’Brien cited the well-spoken young quarterback’s maturity as the main reason for making available for questions, saying, “Why wait?”
And Hackenberg’s father said this poised demeanor is a primary result of already spending time in the spotlight, something that is helping the Nittany Lion quarterback as it only becomes brighter here in State College.
“When you look at why he is that way, a lot of it is the life experiences that he’s been through up to this point really helping him, along with who he is as a person,” Erick said of his son’s demeanor. “He’s been through a lot.”
But, the stakes are higher than they ever have been for the 18-year-old, who now has more than just a few stars next to his name — and more than just two young Penn State fans looking up to him.
John Stuetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnStuetz_PSU.