Ice Cream with O'Brien and the Lions

Pediatric cancer patients and survivors had a chance to check out the Penn State football facilities Saturday. Included on the tour was an ice cream social attended by the new coach and his staff.

In the middle of one of the most important recruiting days of the year, the new Penn State football coaching staff set time aside to enjoy a little ice cream and pay tribute to a good cause.

At the Lasch Football Building Saturday afternoon, first-year Nittany Lion head coach Bill O'Brien and his assistants attended an ice cream social with some special young visitors -- 25 pediatric cancer patients and survivors (and their families). The kids are on campus for PSU's THON charity dance marathon at the nearby Bryce Jordan Center, and were given tours of the football complex as part of a Make-A-Wish program.

The world's largest student-run philanthropy, THON raises money and awareness for the fight against pediatric cancer.

“This means a lot to these guys,” O'Brien said of the 40 Penn State players who provided tours of the football facilities. “Raising money for this cause and raising money for the families that need help, and also raising money to help find a cure for this horrible disease is what's really important to us on this weekend.”

O'Brien and his staff attended the social in the players' lounge of Lasch Building even as more than 40 recruits were in the squad room elsewhere in the building, learning about the program from team and school administrators (including acting athletic director Dave Joyner). There were so many prospects on campus that a nearby turf field had to be opened to provide additional parking space.

But even after he finished speaking to the THON visitors, O'Brien took time to sign autographs and shake hands.

“The football team was phenomenal in organizing all this -- above and beyond what I expected,” said Tyler Pierce, a Penn State junior and one of the THON family relations captains charged with escorting the kids to and from Lasch. “Our football team was generous to allow this opportunity. But having never been in Lasch Building before, I thought, OK, we'll have a meet-and-greet with the players, maybe a word or two from a coach. But to have Bill O'Brien come and speak to us, that was phenomenal. To have him come out to the event, it was touching that he cared that much.”

The tours included visits to the massive weight room, coaches' offices and the academic support area. While in the weight room, players and kids posed for a “team,” photo. Then came the social in the players' lounge, where everyone ate Penn State Creamery ice cream and cookies, knocked balls around on the pool tables or watched sports on the HD televisions. Many children tried on the players' football equipment, which was obviously much too big for the youngsters.

There was a lot of smiling and laughing.

Senior defensive end Pete Massaro said the THON tours are as much fun for the players as they are for the children.

“It's all about the kids,” he said. “It's great for us to get out here and be able to hang out with them a little bit. A lot of what these kids have gone through is tougher than anything we'll go through the rest of our lives. So it's great for us to be with them for the day and kind of cater to whatever they want to do.”

Massaro has missed two of the last three seasons with torn ligaments in his knees. He admitted the time spent with the young cancer patients really puts his own problems into perspective.

“What they've been through is a lot worse than what I've been through,” he said. “At such a young age, too. Hats off to the way they've dealt with it and they way they've continued to live their lives.”

Asked what the kids seemed to like most about the tours, Massaro laughed and nodded in the direction of a group of kids devouring the sweet stuff.

“They seem to be enjoying the ice cream and cookies right now,” he said.

Started in 1973, THON has helped raise more than $78 million through the years for the fight against pediatric cancer. Organizers hope to raise $10 million for the cause this year.

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