Donnie Collins: One last swing for the great Trace McSorley
STATE COLLEGE — It’s a difficult in a couple of column inches to sum up years worth of meaning. Be it the meaning of a team or of a win or of a moment of some other kind.
It’s especially challenging when it comes to breaking down what a man meant, what a leader brought to the table when bringing it to the table meant everything in the world to everybody around him.
In the aftermath of his final game at Beaver Stadium, in the place he took Penn State to new heights and where he probably can be etched now into the Mount Rushmore of Penn State football, Trace McSorley certainly required the best of words.
“It was about our program leader in wins as a quarterback walking off the field, never taking a snap here again,” senior linebacker Koa Farmer said after Penn State’s 38-3 throttling of Maryland on Saturday night. “Obviously, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s his last snap.’ But I couldn’t get too emotional. Because I’m going to be with Trace for a long time. ‘Til I die.”
You don’t often hear a player say something like that about a teammate. That’s a compliment reserved not always for the most dominant players, but the ones whose value doesn’t begin and end with a stat line, or a won-loss record.
McSorley transcended the numbers over the last few seasons when other players didn’t. He’s not the athlete or the football player or the spectacle Saquon Barkley was, by any stretch. Barkley felt more like a shooting star in the night sky, indomitable for a moment, uncontested in his splendor.
More like Derek Jeter was to the Yankees and Gerry McNamara to Syracuse back in the day, McSorley’s career arc had more the feel of a snow plow chugging through a blizzard. Tough-minded. Singular in purpose. Getting the job done however he had to get the job done.
The last few weeks, on a balky knee he injured in the first half against Iowa, he didn’t look himself. The swarming Michigan defense that looked to be no match against Ohio State on Saturday overwhelmed him. He did enough to beat Wisconsin two weeks ago, and the passing game at his charge slumped badly against Rutgers last week.
But that’s the thing about the great leaders. You see their warts and you worry about their deficiencies. They’re too small or slow, or just not as athletic as those around them, and you wonder every week if it’s finally the time it all collapses around them. Then, they give you something masterful.
Saturday, McSorley was masterful again. The knee problems looked like a thing of the past as he ran for 64 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 11 carries. The arm looked fresh again, as he threw for 230 yards and 18.2 yards per completion.
He came into the game as Penn State’s career passing leader and wins leader. On Saturday, his second rushing touchdown gave him 29 in his career, the same total the program’s only Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti, had. He also set the standard for career completions, and when you’re the program leader in passing yards, rushing yards, completions and wins, it says something about what kind of player you are.
Funny thing was, few were talking after the game about what kind of player McSorley is.
“This is probably not going to be the sexy quote you guys are looking for,” head coach James Franklin said, “but with Trace, it’s consistency. He’s the same guy every day. The guy hasn’t had a bad day in five years. Hasn’t had a day where he has had an issue academically or an issue with his girlfriend or an issue with his family and he brought it into the Lasch Building. He’s the same guy, from the day he stepped on campus, from the recruiting process, to now.
“You know what you’re getting with him; he’s going to be a great teammate, he’s going to be always a class act, he’s going to be unbelievable downtown in the community. And he’s going to compete like hell on Saturdays and prepare like nobody else.”
The love for McSorley could be felt in the fourth quarter, when McSorley left the field for the last time at Beaver Stadium to raucous applause from a soggy, freezing crowd that braved the elements to see him off.
It could be felt from McSorley himself, who penned a full-page letter thanking fans for their support in the game program, then organized a postgame lap around the field with his fellow seniors to say thank you once more.
After his postgame lap, he took a knee in the end zone, said what looked like a prayer, then did a push up, kissing the ground before he sprung up and jogged through the tunnel one last time.
He says he didn’t think much about what he accomplished, but he understands what he has done. He remembers that TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia on the first day of 2016, when he relieved injured Christian Hackenberg and what most everyone saw was a too-short kid who didn’t pass the eye test, and he remembered he didn’t feel as if the expectations on what he can do were all that high.
“It was just kind of like, ‘Hopefully, this works out.’ I think that was the sense among a lot of people,” McSorley remembered. “I went from there was nothing to lose, to I guess there was a lot to lose. But I’ve always been like this. And I’m not changing.”
That first touchdown run of the game against Maryland, a 3-yard run off tackle untouched, made that much clear. He did the same touchdown celebration he has always done. He took a swing of his imaginary baseball bat, then put his right hand over his eyes as if he were looking off into the distance. It was high. It was far.
Now, he’s gone. Into history, and the lofty place in Penn State lore he earned long ago, but kept on earning anyway.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollinstimesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.