Monday, August 3, 2009

To Honor and Serve

Rick Slater with me at the Golf Outing--Rick is on the right.

Saturday was the 3rd Annual Penn State Football Letterman’s Golf Outing and 128 former Penn State Football players took part. Student-Athletes from teams in the 1950s all the way through the current decade gathered for golf, but more importantly to catch up with former teammates and to meet other people who share a proud tradition.

Gathered were people who have gone on to do different things with their lives, some as doctors, others working on wall street, others as teachers, others coaching, and others as lawyers—just to name a few.

It was great to catch up with so many great people. Former teammate Bill Spoor was a walk-on who earned a scholarship while playing at Penn State. He works at Goldman Sachs, but that is only part of his story. He has since endowed a full scholarship at Penn State so that “he can pay back what Joe Paterno gave me”.

But there is still more to his story. He and his wife are heading back to Africa where he is hoping to buy some land, establish a school and help young people to come to American Universities. His goal is for them, once they graduate, to go back and be the inspiration for others to do the same.

The young people who get those types of educations will be the people who change the course of history. He hopes to raise $10 million from foundations to get it done—and anyone who knows Bill does not doubt for a minute that he’ll make it happen.

But there is more…..

At the dinner following the Penn State Football Letterman’s Golf Outing, Justin Kurpeikis got up to introduce a very special former Penn State Nittany Lion. It would turn out to be a moment that none of us there will ever forget.

He introduced one of his teammates—Rick Slater. Most Penn State fans will not recall his name, number or what position he played—but they should know his name for what he’s done since college.

Rick’s path to becoming a Penn State Football student-athlete was an unconventional one. He graduated from high school in Flint, Michigan in 1988. Before coming to Penn State, he served 8 years in the military, primarily as a Navy Seal. He enrolled at Penn State in 1997 and decided to try and walk-on to the football team—at the tender age of 28 years old.

He made the team, and although he didn’t see a lot of game action he made lasting impression on all of us. He became a great influence on a lot for younger players who looked up to him once they knew this “old” guy’s story.

When I’d walk through the locker room, Lavar Arrington, Brandon Short, Justin Kurpeikis and other guys who were big-time players for us would be gathered around his locker listening to him tell stories. I remember hearing one about a monkey in Panama who refused to get out of Rick’s jeep.

In the summer work-outs the toughest part of the running is the phase when our guys finish by running twelve 300 yard sprints. To accommodate the team they used to have three running groups, one at 6 a.m., one at 7 a.m. and one at 8 a.m. Rick would show up at 6 a.m. and make all the times for the 300 yard sprints. Then he’d stick around and do it again and again—passing the times for ALL thirty-six 300 yard sprints.

Through that, he earned the respect of his teammates, but also in so many other ways.

He became the oldest college football player in the country during the 1999 season when he started camp as a 30-year old junior.

In his senior year an injury ended his football career, but he went out for the boxing team. All he did was go out and win the National Championship in his weight class.

As Justin Kurpeikis introduced him, he explained that after college Rick was going on with his life until September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on this country changed the course of Rick’s life. Rick knew what he had to do—he re-enlisted as a Navy Seal.

By the time he stood up to speak to the group assembled last night, he had completed a total of 5 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and will be heading back again. But even those facts aren’t what hit us all.

It was what Rick said to all of us.

“The fact that we all played for Penn State and for Joe Paterno, in my mind, makes us all brothers. My time on this team is among the most meaningful things I’ve ever done in my life. We are all better men for having played for Joe Paterno and these coaches.”

Then he pointed to the belt he was wearing, and we all recognized it as a belt you would wear in your football pants.

“This belt I’m wearing, is the belt I wore in my football pants on Saturdays at Penn State. I wear it today, but this belt has also been with me ever since I left here. It’s been with me when I jumped out of airplanes at 25,000 feet on oxygen at night, it has been on all my missions. I wear it for all the guys who played at Penn State—all the guys who played before me and all the guys who will play after me.”

Needless to say it was completely silent as he spoke those words. It was a recognition that we are all part of something special, something that will always be a part of us—no matter what we do or where we go. It was the recognition that here was an example of someone who even in the midst of war, has a part of Penn State Football and what he learned here with him.

Most important it was a reminder to us all that while we live our lives in this country—lives of relative safety and enormous freedoms, there are still those putting it all on the line for us every day.

The words that Rick Slater spoke will stay with me for a long, long time. They are words I will surely share with the young men I get to coach this fall, and every fall I coach here at Penn State.

The last stanza we sing of the Penn State Alma Mater contains the words:

“May no act of ours bring shame, to one heart that loves they name. May our lives but swell thy fame dear Old State, dear Old State.”

You may not know his name, but his actions as a soldier for this country have swelled the fame of Penn State. He has certainly made me proud, and all of his brothers who played here before him, with him and after him are honored to count him among our legions.