The Hackenberg Legacy: Resiliency, Superstars and Beef Jerky
"It’s hard to say what Hackenberg meant to Penn State. His most important contribution may have come before he even put on a white, blue-striped helmet."
The first time I ever sat down for a one-on-one interview with Christian Hackenberg, we talked about golf, hunting, beef jerky and Brett Favre.
They were a few of the former Penn State quarterback’s favorite things. The first two, he used as an escape from football – the passion and pastime that often dominated his thoughts and feelings so much so that he had trouble focusing on other things early in his career.
So "Hack"– as his teammates and coaches affectionately called the 6-foot-4, rocket-armed quarterback – would meet his dad Erick on the tee boxes of Penn State’s courses or retreat into the woods where his tree stand awaited in his hometown Virginia woods.
Even players with seemingly unflappable moxie need their own times for solitude, too. And it’s hard to believe Hackenberg didn’t need them more than your average player.
He wasn’t average. He was a superstar from day one – at least that’s what the narrative was.
Recruiting writers have a tendency to anoint players based on their high schoolexploits. It often gets lost in the shuffle of sites that are trying to sell subscriptions that five- and four-star designations mean diddlysquat to linebackers and passrushers who are eager to smash some rookie who was a hotshot in high school.
But Hackenberg didn’t enter the fray as a true freshman who displayed some air of entitlement. He competed with Tyler Ferguson and won the job outright. Then he proved his worth on the field.
His freshman season, in which he completed 231 of 392 passes for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in Bill O’Brien’s offense, ended with an exclamation point.
I’ve covered Penn State games since 2008 and have never seen a better game played by a Nittany Lion quarterback than the one Hackenberg put together against Wisconsin that season. O’Brien chided reporters after the Nittany Lions beat the Badgers 31-24 in a game in which Penn State was a three-touchdown underdog. No one picked Penn State to win the game. But Hackenberg picked apart Wisconsin’s secondary for 339 yards and four touchdowns – rocketballs all over Camp Randall Stadium.
The future was bright. Hackenberg would be a Heisman Trophy candidate sooner rather than later. Penn State would be a team to reckon with despite sanctions that limited its depth.
But that wasn’t how it played out.
O’Brien left. The sanctions took their toll on the offensive line depth. Hackenberg was beaten and battered and smack-talked on message boards and local radio shows.
He always answered the bell, however. I can’t remember Hackenberg not getting up from one of more than 100 sacks. I can’t remember him not calling into his weekly conference calls. I can’t remember him saying a bad word about anyone. In fact, Hackenberg always took the criticism and blame on his shoulders.
It’s hard to say what Hackenberg meant to Penn State. Although his final two seasons didn’t play out the way many thought they would, his most important contribution may have come before he even put on a white, blue-striped helmet. It would’ve been easy for him to decommit after the NCAA announced its sanctions in the summer of 2012. But Hackenberg stuck to his guns and became the most important true freshman in the history of the program.
Penn State needed a solid season and positive on-field momentum in 2013 more so than any other after the negativity that swirled around the program the year before. He delivered.
Unfortunately, all the pieces didn’t come together and you could make a case that poor offensive coaching and lackluster play from some of his teammates let Hackenberg down.
But he wouldn’t say that. That’s why the Dzunnamed sourcesdz who criticized Hackenberg after he interviewed with NFL teams and claimed he threw coach James Franklin under the bus were never really substantiated. Because that never happened. That’s not who Christian Hackenberg is.
He was always toughest on himself. That’s why when we talked about golf and hunting, Hackenberg even harshly critiqued his own short-iron play and admitted he could probably do better in the woods too.
This commitment to excellence and humble disposition is why the New York Jetsselected him in the NFL Draft earlier this year. They believe they have a superstar in the making and it’d be a good bet to put money on that being the case.
Sometimes things don’t always go as planned or as you’d hope they’d be scripted. It’s cliché to say you have to keep bouncing back and getting up. But that’s what Hackenberg did better than anyone.
If that’s his legacy, then I’d say it’s an honorable one. It’s easy to enjoy success. It’s much harder to handle mediocrity tinged with failures with grace. Someone who can do that won’t fail for long. That’s why Hackenberg will always be remembered in a positive light by those who watched him play in Happy Valley.