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For Penn State football's Micah Parsons, the journey has helped shape a mindset

Buffalo, Micah Parsons (11)

Linebacker Micah Parsons (11) hypes up the crowd before the game against Buffalo at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. Penn State defeated Buffalo 45-13.

It was halftime of the 2018 Blue-White game and Penn State was completing its tradition of introducing every member of the upcoming freshman class.

When it was Micah Parsons’ turn to be introduced and his name rattled around the stadium, Parsons spread his arms, the fans got to their feet and gave the loudest cheer of anyone introduced that day.

At that moment, it was clear, Parsons was no normal freshman. He would not have a normal career and wouldn’t leave a normal legacy behind at Penn State.

And that starts with Parsons’ mindset which he developed his freshman year after hearing a word of advice.

“Only you decide what your future is going to be and that stuck with me,” Parsons said. “You can be a special player and a special person, but only you dictate that. That took home because most of us as people, we let people dictate our futures. We let people hold accountability in our lives when we don't have to and it's really just us.”

“You think of all the influences you had as a kid and as you are growing up and people coming into your life saying different things and telling you how you should change, but really, you should just be yourself and show them why I am a boss.”

Parsons is now in his second season in Happy Valley and has appeared in every game the past two seasons for the Nittany Lions.

But even after being selected as a freshman All-American by multiple media outlets last season, Parsons is still chasing the lofty expectations that came with him to Penn State.

“Coach Franklin is big on visions and I had a vision for myself and this program,” Parsons said. “My vision was to be that guy that you see on the jumbotron like during the introductions.”

“I envision myself being a leader on this team. I envision myself being the best linebacker in the country."

Micah Parsons quote 1

This goal, of being the best, was one that Parsons formed long before his time at Penn State and long before he was a highly touted five-star recruit.

It was one that formed in Harrisburg.

***

Parsons started playing football when he was five years old for the Harrisburg Packers and even though he didn’t know what he was doing on the field, a love of the game of football was formed.

“His first year was the funniest because he was just a big kid and he didn't really know all the plays but he would just tackle everybody,” Terrence Parsons, Micah’s father said. “The defense, the offensive players, his teammates, he just liked to be out there on the field, like you would literally have to pull him off because he just wanted to be out there.”

When Parsons was eight, he moved with his father out of Harrisburg and to Central Dauphin, a place that would play an important role in shaping who Parsons is today.

As Parsons grew older and tried a variety of sports other than football including basketball, wrestling, track and baseball, one thing became clear.

Parsons had a different attitude, a different approach to sports than other kids.

“Everything he played it seemed like he was at the top of his game,” Terrence said. “It's that thing inside of him that says ‘I have to be the best, I have to be the leader.’ That's something that was born with him.”

“It's not something we could teach him.”

This attitude helped Parsons dominate on the football field in high school at Central Dauphin, one of the traditional powerhouse school districts for athletics in southern Pennsylvania and started to gain some attention around the country, especially from Penn State.

"I remember when James Franklin got the job and he made the statement that we are going to keep the best players in Pennsylvania at home,” Terrence said. “Then, his sophomore year around November, Penn State called and offered him a scholarship. It came quick.”

In February, Parsons committed to Penn State, a decision he wanted to make for a year prior.

“In ninth grade, he wanted to commit but I was out of town and said, ‘no you can't commit, it's too early, you still have three years,’” Terrence said. “He said, 'but if I commit, I can start recruiting other kids.’ Yeah but you could still recruit kids but you need to see some stuff.”

“10th grade year he went up here, he committed and he didn't tell me that he was going to commit because I might've talked him out of it.”

Micah Parsons quote 2

But in 2016, his junior year, Parsons faced adversity.

Parsons moved in the middle of the football season back to the city of Harrisburg from Central Dauphin after disciplinary action was taken by the school district.

At Harrisburg, Parsons did everything. He was a star defensive end, just like at Central Dauphin, but he was also a running back, the kicker and the punter.

And this is when his recruitment took off.

All of a sudden the handfuls of offers that Persons received turned into offers from Ohio State, Alabama and Oklahoma.

Parsons was quickly labeled a five-star recruit, the top player in Pennsylvania and a top-10 player in the country by all the major recruiting outlets.

And then his decommitment from Penn State came.

“He decommitted because he didn't really get to see enough to say this is where he wanted to be the next three, four years of his life,” Terrence said. “So, I just told him ‘this is your decision but ask Franklin if you decommit, will your scholarship still be on the table or will you lose it?’”

Micah called Franklin and asked him this difficult question and the response was one full of belief and trust in Parson’s decision.

“Coach Franklin said 'until you tell me you don't want to be here the offer is on the table,’” Terrence said.

Throughout the entire recruitment process, Parsons’ father had his doubts about whether Micah was as talented as everyone made it seem.

“I remember when he was maybe seven, when we were watching football, he made this comment that he was going to play in the NFL and I just laughed, but now it could be a reality. It's still hard to grasp,” Terrence said.

“You just have to keep praying and take it one day at a time, because you never know what God's plan is for us.”

Penn State and Franklin rode out Parsons’ recruitment process, until on Dec. 20, 2017, Parsons posted a video on his Twitter account that concluded with him opening the gates at Beaver Stadium and walking on the field. Parsons wasn’t going anywhere.

***

Although, it didn’t come as easy as Parsons thought, the transition, even for one of the top recruits in the country to the college game was hard.

“Everyone believes they are ready but when you get on campus and you go through the workouts, you go through the playbook, you are never really ready,” Parsons said. “That's my biggest message when I go back home and kids ask me 'How’s college?' I say you need to get beyond mentally prepared.”

Micah Parsons quote 3

“Whatever you think you are doing, do 10 times more because it's never what you think it's really going to be. Some people get shocked when they get here. So the mental aspect of just going through the playbook and going full speed while you are trying to do that is just extremely hard.”

One thing that Parsons immediately grasped and worked hard at was the academic side of college football and now Parsons is on track to graduate from Penn State next December.

On the field however, Parsons credits Jarvis Miller, a linebacker who transferred to UMass, as someone who helped his transition and develop him into the football player he is today.

“[Miller] brought out a competitive attitude in me that I wasn't used to,” Parsons said. “In high school, I never really lost at anything.”

“So I came here and he was beating me in drills. I was just a young buck, he's clowning me so when summer came around and I got in shape and getting faster and stronger and started beating him so we brought out a side of each other.”

And it was a side that was important for Parsons to learn.

“I think that just showed him what college football is,” Miller said. “You aren’t always going to be the biggest, strongest, fastest and that got to the forefront really quick really quick when he got to college.”

“I think those winter workouts really shaped and molded him.”

The mental side of adjusting to college football took longer for Parsons to grasp but one piece of advice that Parsons received from Mark Dupuis, a graduate assistant with the Penn State football program, changed Parsons’ mindset.

According to Parsons, Dupuis pulled him aside after a practice and told him that he wanted to tell him a story when he had some free time.

Parsons said he kind of blew it off, but after dinner that evening, he returned to the Lasch Building to hear the story.

A decision that Parsons said “changed my perspective on everything.”

Dupuis told Parsons that he is a killer, which confused Parsons at first.

“He said the way you approach things like this is how you are going to change your level of game,” Parsons said. “Thing about a killer, he is sloppy, he might leave some evidence. He is going to get caught, he is going to make some mistakes.”

Dupuis then told Parsons that the next step is being a “serial killer,” but that Parsons should strive to be an “assassin” on the football field.

“An assassin never gets caught,” Parsons said. “You don't even know he is there. He is a perfectionist.”

Micah Parsons quote 4

“If you look at your game the way you look at that he said it will change how you look at things and that just changed me forever.”

Now in his second season at Penn State and leading the team in tackles, Parsons considers himself a “serial killer”, but is always striving to reach that next level.

“I believe there is always something you can learn,” Parsons said. “Even the greats aren't assassins yet. You can become close to an assassin and maybe at one point in the year you can be an assassin. I looked at my game and dang, I really want to be an assassin. I want to be a great player. It changed me."

And this growth from Parsons is something that the Penn State coaching staff is seeing every day.

“I think fundamentally, he can get a lot better I think in terms of commanding the defense and leadership,” Franklin said. “He can get a lot better. He is nowhere near his ceiling, he really isn't.”

And that is the scary thing about Parsons. Despite leading one of the top defenses in the country in tackles in his second season at the college level, he isn’t near his ceiling.

In fact, most of his teammates don’t even know what his ceiling is, including highly touted defensive end and expected top prospect in the April’s NFL draft Yetur Gross-Matos.

“The ceiling, I don't know,” Gross-Matos said. “I don't know what that would look like for him.”

“Every day he goes out there, I feel like he surprises me more and more. He's just someone who just keeps growing.”

Parsons is still growing as a person and as an athlete, but the 20-year old already has the self-awareness of what he means to people.

He is aware that he isn’t a normal student, a normal linebacker, or a normal Division I football player. He knows what he is capable of and the impact he has on others.

“When we go around and take pictures with the kids, some people when get up to somewhat famous in the people's eye, they don't want to be bothered, they walk away, he's not like that,” Terrence said. “He tries to talk to the kids, tries to make a difference.”

This desire to make a difference was on display following Penn State’s loss to Kentucky last season in the Citrus Bowl. Parsons lingered on the field after many of his teammates left, talking with fans, tossing his gloves to kids, showing that football is much more than a game.

“Those people flew all the way out to Florida, those kids look up to me, so I feel like they deserve anything. I'm down to help any kid that needs help or hits me up and wants help,” Parsons said. “I feel like those are the next generation, if they see me do that then they are going to follow in my footsteps and say ‘wow, he really took his time even though he lost to really help me’ or give something to me so them doing that they are going to be more willing to help and give to others too.

“If you set a positive image and be a good role model in a public setting and in a private setting then I feel like you can be a great person.”

Parsons isn’t normal. From the way he carries himself, to his journey to Penn State and his actions on the field, Parsons isn’t normal and the legacy he leaves behind, won’t be normal either.

"At the end of the day, football doesn't last forever and everyone knows that,” Parsons said. “You want to leave a positive image and show that it is more than just a game.”

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