Penn State middle linebacker Jason Cabinda was last seen lying face-down in Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium in the waning moments of the Nittany Lions’ 55-16 regular-season-ending loss the last Saturday in November, having been discarded like so much ballast after attempting to tackle MSU’s Jack Allen — a 296-pound center playing running back, just because — on a rumble to the end zone.
Allen’s nine-yard touchdown run, a grand moment for the Big Ten champions-to-be but obviously something less for Team Unrivaled, was also a rare one for Cabinda, seeing as things tend to always be looking up, up, up for the sophomore. He has made a team-leading 92 tackles heading into the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia, most of them after shifting from the weak side to the middle to replace an injured Nyeem Wartman-White the second week of the season, but the feeling is that he is capable of so much more.
And that he will be intent in seeking it.
He is forever pushing, forever seeking to be pushed, his fire having been stoked not only by a single mom (and Cameroon native) who is a teacher and author, but also a globe-trotting high school coach whose horizons extend well beyond the practice field, as well as a star-crossed ex-Penn State quarterback bent on teaching others about tiptoeing around life’s landmines.
The result is a young man, not quite 20, of unusual focus and confidence. As Cabinda said, not the least bit self-consciously, “I just think I’ve always been a lot more mature than my age.” His high school coaches nicknamed him “All Business,” because while he knew how to have a good time, he was well aware of when he needed to buckle down.
At Penn State, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has already favorably compared the leadership skills of the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Cabinda to those of Mike Hull, the middle linebacker in 2014 and a measuring stick for those who have followed. Head coach James Franklin has likewise praised Cabinda’s level-headedness — in addition to his on-field acumen he is a finance major, with hopes of one day working on Wall Street — and has trusted him not only to man a crucial position but also to be one of the team’s spokesmen.
“Jason,” Franklin said early in the season, “is a man.”
Maybe the man, in time.
Cabinda, a devotee of ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentaries, said that if one were to be done about him, it would be called “Building Blocks,” for while he has had more talented teammates coming up, he has continued to strive, continued in his quest for something better.
“I had to work my ass off,” he said.
His mom, Natalie, would accept nothing less. She and her husband De-Gaulle brought their two young daughters, Linda and Loretta, from Cameroon to Buena Park, Calif., in 1994, after the political situation had become untenable in their central African homeland. Jason was born in California on March 17, 1996.
The family moved to Charlottesville, Va., in 1999, then to Flemington, N.J., two years after that. But when Jason was in second grade Natalie and De-Gaulle divorced, after 17 years of marriage. Jason first wanted to be with his father, who moved to Chicago. Instead, his mother was granted custody.
Didn’t take him long to see the wisdom in that; he has alternately called Natalie “my hero,” “my rock” and “a saint.”
“She’s really everything for me,” he said.
Back in Cameroon, she had been as hard-driving as her son would eventually become, never accepting mediocrity in the classroom or anywhere else. Among other things she claims to have been “highly competitive” in ping-pong, to the point of winning a university championship.
“I’m very optimistic,” she said. “I’m always very optimistic.”
She taught English as a Second Language at a New Jersey high school and junior college while raising Jason and his two sisters, six and seven years older, respectively. Still teaches, in fact, and earlier this year released a book entitled Regroup. Refocus. Rebuild. Helping Families Navigate from Breakups to Breakthroughs.
She has been endlessly supportive of her son’s athletic endeavors. Growing up he played basketball and lacrosse, in addition to football, and continued playing lacrosse his first two years at Hunterdon Central High School.
But football was his meal ticket, and he found two male role models in head coach Matthew Perotti and defensive coordinator Tom Bill.
“Both guys I was able to look up to as father figures,” Jason said, “being that at the time, I didn’t really have that very prevalent in my life.”
Perotti, who just completed his 12th season as the Red Devils’ boss, doesn’t completely buy the fact that Cabinda was in dire need of male guidance. Rather he believes that the younger man, mature as he was even as a sophomore, was always receptive to advice, no matter the gender of the person giving it.
Certainly Perotti and Bill both offered distinctive voices. Perotti, a native Philadelphian, graduated from Shippensburg in 1981 and earned his Masters from Temple five years later. In between he spent a year traveling around Europe, Asia and Africa on a shoestring budget.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you have to walk outside your box, just to see what your box looks like.”
While he ran into anti-American sentiment in some places, he more often found himself marveling at the kindness of strangers — how people pointed him in the right direction if he was lost, fed him if he was hungry, gave him a place to sleep if he was tired.
And, he said, “The poorer places you were, the kinder they were. … People would literally open their doors for you. I’ll never forget that.”
He reached out to Cabinda in similar fashion.
“I just loved the young man,” Perotti said. “He’s always been capable of being the gentleman off the field and the animal on the field. When you can find that in a 10th-grader, you’re finding something kind of special.”
Bill had been “a legend in our town,” Cabinda said. All-State QB. All-American in lacrosse. But after arriving at Penn State in the late ’80s, he was cited on three occasions for alcohol-related offenses, and entered into a rehab program. He later returned to the team, but after graduation relapsed. Another rehab stint followed, and the 47-year-old has been clean and sober since Feb. 21, 1993.
Now a married father of three, Bill serves as a counselor for the Hunterdon County Educational Services Commission, and is a lacrosse assistant in addition to his duties under Perotti. He does not hesitate to talk about what he calls “my stuff” — how despite all appearances he was nothing more than “a scared little kid” as a younger man, leading him to the bottle.
“Inside I never felt I was as good, or any good, compared to the way my life was going,” he said.
He can only hope that his message gets through to his players, that he can help them make smart decisions. And Cabinda, for one, believes that is the case.
“You talk about being able to take a negative and make it into a positive,” he said. “The role he’s playing in so many of those high school athletes’ lives is just huge.”
Like Perotti, Bill fondly recalls Cabinda’s high school days, saying that he “ran like a wild man” in his guise as a running back, while also anchoring the Red Devils’ defense at outside linebacker. He missed a month his senior year with appendicitis but returned in time to key a run to the Group IV state title, the capper a 21-0 championship-game victory over a Manalapan squad featuring wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, now Cabinda’s teammate at PSU.
(All the while Natalie hovered. When the Red Devils practiced, she jogged on the track surrounding the field. “Now,” Perotti said, “I miss seeing her. She was there all the time.”)
The recruiters had, naturally, taken notice of Cabinda by then, and while his coaches tried to give him space as he made a decision, Bill couldn’t help but mention his alma mater.
“I certainly would, at least once a day, put the plug in there for PSU,” he said.
Cabinda nonetheless verbally committed to Syracuse, only to flip after attending Penn State’s White-Out victory over Michigan in 2013, a four-overtime thriller.
Upon arrival in Happy Valley last year, he gravitated to older teammates like linebacker Ben Kline, his roommate in preseason camp, and Hull, his road roomie during the season. They taught him the ropes, hastened him along the fast track.
Idle the first four games, Cabinda made his debut against Northwestern in Week Five and was active the rest of the way, even making a start at Illinois — a game notable for another reason: His dad was in the stands.
It was the first time De-Gaulle had seen his son play in person, and it represented the beginning of a thaw in their relationship.
“It wasn’t very good for a while,” Jason said. “This year, really, has just been better. We end up talking each week now, and he’s been to a few of my games.”
Cabinda began this fall as a starter at weakside ’backer. Then Wartman-White crumpled to the turf with a knee injury in the second quarter of the season-opening loss at Temple, and on the bus ride back to State College Cabinda suggested a move to Shoop.
Franklin only learned about that later.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said.
Same for all that has followed. Things are looking up for Jason Cabinda. For the most part, they always are.null