One season late in Joe Paterno’s long career at Penn State, the annual naming of team captains proved to be a bit of a head-scratcher. It was 2007, and among the trio of veterans tabbed as captains was senior quarterback Anthony Morelli.
If ever there was a polarizing player, both inside and outside of the program, it was the strong-armed, strong-willed QB who often seemed to struggle in big games yet had a knack for coming across as a bit aloof. Not a bad person, by any means, but not the sort to win any kind of popularity contest.
When asked if Morelli had REALLY been voted in by the players, a key figure in the program at the time dropped the following classic line:
“Well, the players voted for the captains. But Joe counted the votes.”
Nearly a decade (not to mention two head coaches) later, the Nittany Lions unveiled their 2016 captain Tuesday night. And this time around, it is pretty easy to see why all three men — center Brian Gaia, linebacker Brandon Bell and special team’s ace Von Walker — were voted in.
But just as a bit of a reminder, let’s take a closer look at what each of them has done and meant to the program.
A fifth-year senior, Gaia was recruited by Paterno’s staff as a defensive lineman. He signed with the program (and new coach Bill O’Brien) in February of 2012 even after the Sandusky scandal broke and Paterno had been fired. After PSU was hit with NCAA sanctions in the summer of 2012, he stuck with the Lions even though he could have transferred immediately without penalty.
After a redshirt in 2012, he emerged as a backup defensive tackle in 2013, playing in every game. But then O’Brien left for the Houston Texans. And while he is rightfully credited with helping to save the program, O’Brien had to make some tough choices when it came to the allocation of remaining scholarships and personnel. And the one area hit the hardest was the offensive line.
So leading into spring ball of 2014, new head coach James Franklin asked Gaia to move over to the offensive line (he had been a two-way star in high school). He did so. And even though it was not an easy transition, he went on to start 25 straight games at guard. Gaia and the rest of the line received heavy criticism as star QB Christian Hackenberg was sacked nearly 100 times over the last two seasons. But Gaia kept grinding away.
With veteran Angelo Mangiro having graduated and a new, up-tempo offense needing a center who could move, Gaia was asked to relocate to the middle of the O-line prior to spring practice. As well as PSU has recruited up front the last couple of years, it is very difficult for young linemen to make all of the calls required of a center. Though he had never played center in his life, Gaia had been down in the trenches long enough to understand what the job would entail.
So he moved again.
Gaia is a workout warrior who sets a great example in the weight room and informal offseason drills, but we very respectfully submit that he will never be mistaken for a future pro. And if he proves us wrong, we’ll be the first to stand and applaud.
But when you look at what he’s done for the good of the program, often at the expense of his own success, it is obvious why his teammates hold him in such high esteem.
Bell committed to Penn State in June of 2012 — as the super-high profile Sandusky trial was going on. Wrap your head around THAT.
He did not waver when the NCAA sanctions came down just more than a month later, and in fact took to social media to try to help convince other recruits to pick the Nittany Lions.
After mainly handling a reserve role as a true freshman in 2013, Bell has been a starter at OLB the last two years. And he has played through a couple of different injuries.
Quiet off the field, he is clearly the energy guy of the linebacker corps once the game starts. He dances between plays. He is vocal with teammates. He trash-talks with opponents.
“The energy that he gives off to the rest of the defense,” fellow LB Jason Cabinda said last year, “is infectious.”
“I don’t know anybody I went against that had that type of fire, talking like that — or is like Brandon Bell,” said safety Marcus Allen, who echoed Cabinda in saying that Bell’s approach is “contagious.”
Another way of looking at it is that, even when the sanctions were impacting Penn State the most, Bell was not about to let Linebacker U lose its swagger.
In 2005, LB Paul Posluszny became Penn State’s first two-time captain since the great Mike Reid and Steve Smear in 1969. Since then, only Christian Hackenberg (2014-15) has earned that honor.
And make no mistake, Walker — a former walk-on — earned the right to be mentioned among some of the program’s greats.
A native of nearby Mill Hall, Pa., Walker joined the Lions as one of O’Brien’s “run-ons” in 2013, when it appeared Penn State would be relying heavily on walk-ons for years to come. Walker quickly became the face of the non-scholarship strategy.
He played in every game in 2013, seeing action on offense, defense and — mainly — special teams. But even as the sanctions were eased and eventually lifted — meaning PSU would not have to depend on walk-ons nearly as much as anyone initially thought — Walker kept on doing what he does.
And that is setting an example anywhere he plays. We are talking about someone who has seen game action as a linebacker, defensive back, running back, kick return man and kick coverage man.
Walker was named special teams captain in 2015 and was tabbed with the honor again this fall. And if you were wondering why, well, now you know.