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The 'Hack' would be proud

  • 20131014-125210-pic-472850799.jpg
    AP PHOTO Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) celebrates with teammates Penn State beat Michigan 43-40 Saturday.
Published October 14. 2013 05:00PM

It's no secret that the last couple of years have been tough on the Penn State football faithful.

The dismissal and ultimate passing of legendary coach Joe Paterno, the sordid Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the incredibly harsh NCAA sanctions against the school, had combined to greatly diminish the joy coming from Happy Valley

But the clouds are slowly lifting. Coach Bill O'Brien's handling of a difficult situation has been remarkable and the NCAA's recent decision to lessen some of the penalties on the program has allowed in some light.

But when it comes to the darkness that was permeating through the Penn State program, the most illuminating ray of sunshine might have come from a highly-touted teenage recruit.

Christian Hackenberg's verbal commitment to Penn State back in 2012 was greeted with tremendous fanfare. After all, Hackenberg was considered the top quarterback prospect in the nation by several recruiting services.

But just a short time after Hackenberg announced he was heading to Penn State, the NCAA sanctions came down. It was a tough time for the program. Some recruits backed out of their commitments and a number of players on the team transferred out. But the No. 1 recruit never wavered.

Christian Hackenberg's allegiance to the program made him a star before he even stepped on the field and once he did, that star grew brighter.

The Family

I remember Christian as an energetic pre-schooler when I was covering the Marian volleyball team his mother coached.

Although I don't know Christian, I know his family.

I interviewed his father Erick when he was quarterbacking successful Marian football teams in the late 1980s and talked to him on numerous occasions when he was an assistant on the Colts' grid staff from 1996-2001.

I had even more opportunities to interview Christian's mother Nikki when she was helping mold the Marian volleyball team into a District 11 and state power a little over a decade ago.

I also know his uncles and his maternal grandfather, Dr. Richard Miller. Dr. Miller was a standout athlete, starring in football at Lehigh University. Both of Christian's parents were Division I athletes. Erick attending the University of Virginia to play football and Nikki playing volleyball at Lehigh University. Actually, it seems like every member of the Hackenberg and Miller families was an outstanding athlete in their own right.

With that type of gene pool to work with, it's no surprise that Christian Hackenberg is extremely gifted athletically.

Remembering Barry

Last month when the Nittany Lions played Eastern Michigan in their home opener, former Jim Thorpe Athletic Director Victor Pituch attended the game and spent time tailgating with Christian's family prior to kickoff.

Pituch enjoyed the pregame festivities and also watching Christian and his PSU teammates put a 45-7 beating on Eastern Michigan.

But for as good a time as he had, Pituch couldn't help but feel like something was missing.

Pituch recently stopped by the TIMES NEWS office to talk about it

"I hired Christian's grandfather Barry Hackenberg as head football coach at Jim Thorpe when I was the athletic director, said Pituch. "I couldn't help but think how much Barry would have loved to watch his grandson play college football."

Barry never got that chance, however, passing away in 2007 after suffering a heart attack.

Pituch gave Barry Hackenberg his first high school head coaching job back in 1970 when Hackenberg was just 29 years old. He coached the Olympians for six years. He later moved on to be the head coach at North Schuylkill High School and also served as an assistant coach at Marian.

"I can't recall what kind of record we had when Barry coached," said Pituch. "But what I do remember is how enthusiastic he was about coaching football and how I good I thought he was for our kids. That's why he got the job."

Enthusiastic is a great word to describe Barry Hackenberg or "The Hack" as most people knew him..

Whether you were interviewing him on the field following a football game or talking to him during a random meeting in the grocery store, his excitement made every conversation memorable.

Barry was enthusiastic about everything he did and everything he talked about. But nothing got Barry more excited and enthusiastic than family and football.

He could talk about those two subjects forever and as his friends could tell you, it often seemed like he did.

His pride in sons Erick and JD were obvious.

Erick passed for nearly 3,000 yards during his high school career at Marian. Later, after transferring from Virginia, he enjoyed a standout career at Susquehanna University, putting him on the radar of several NFL teams at the time. JD was a two-way All-state lineman for the Colts who graduated in 1991 and went on to play Division I football at Army.

The pair played on what were arguably the two best teams in Marian history. Erick on the 1986 Colt team that went 13-0 and is the only unbeaten team in school history. JD played on the 1990 Colt team that beat Farrell for the school's only state championship.

Barry could probably recall every pass Erick threw during that undefeated season and also tell you every tackle or pancake block that JD was credited with during Marian's state title run.

Barry was knowledgeable, funny, engaging, and memorable. Everyone who knew him has a favorite Barry Hackenberg story and most have a lot more than one.

Watching from Above

Saturday night, I was out at a restaurant and ran into noted District 11 official Herbie Welsh. Welsh, who was good friends with Barry Hackenberg, was at the table next me and we both had our eyes on the Michigan-Penn State game that was on the TV.

As Christian Hackenberg tossed his third touchdown pass of the first half in what turned out to be a dramatic four overtime victory for the Nittany Lions, Herbie turned to me and said "What do you think the Hack would be like right now?"

It's a question that has been asked to me or that I have proposed to others dozens of times in the past couple of months.

Saturday night, Herbie and I both smiled when he brought the question up. We both knew the answer. Everyone who knew Barry knows the answer.

There is no doubt that Christian's family and friends are enjoying the outstanding start he has had to his college career.

But there is also little doubt that no one would have been enjoying it more than the Barry Hackenberg.

Honestly, can you imagine, what the "Hack" would be like right now?

A lot of words come to this writer's mind when thinking about the answer to that question. But I think the one word that fits best is .... Proud.

Because nothing made Barry more happy than talking about family and football and Christian is the perfect combination of the two.

I have no problem believing that Barry was watching from above as Christian led Penn State on its improbable game-tying touchdown drive in the final minute of Saturday's game and then willed them to victory in the overtime marathon. I also have no problem believing that every minute since the game ended he has been analyzing it and talking about with anyone who would listen.

After all, that's exactly what you would expect from a proud grandfather.

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