Holiday Column

In his first opinion piece for Fight On State, editor and co-publisher Mark Brennan catches up with Jamaal Tate, the Nittany Lion basketball player who overcame alcohol dependency issues to rejoin the program.

Ah, New Year’s Eve. A time to reflect on the year that was. A time to project to the year that will be. A time to share a few drinks and celebrate the holiday.

And the perfect time to honor one of the least likely — yet most effective — role models at Penn State.

He is 22 years old, ancient compared to the other athletes on the Nittany Lion basketball team. He carries too much weight, too many tattoos and not enough hair. Hell, he doesn’t even play ball anymore.

“To make myself feel better, I say my metabolism slowed down,” he explained with a smile when asked about his thick build. “I’m 50 pounds heavier than the last time I played.”

And he’s an alcoholic, albeit of the recovering variety.

Meet Jamaal Tate, perhaps the most important member of Coach Ed DeChellis’ program. This even though he surrendered his roster spot recently to focus on graduating (in August) while keeping his disease in check.

“Sometimes we don’t give a guy like him enough credit,” DeChellis said. “This has not been an easy road for him. To his credit, he has done well academically. He’s done tremendous in his sobriety. And he’s really tried to help this basketball program and get himself in shape. I have the utmost respect for him.”

Here’s why.

Tate arrived at Penn State in 2000 following an All-State career at Linden (N.J.) High. A 6-foot-6, 210-pounder with range, he was a key reserve on a veteran team as a rookie.

How key? He set what was then a personal scoring best with 12-points on 4-of-4 shooting from the arc — all of it in the second half — to lead the Lions to an opening-round Big Ten tournament win over Michigan. The victory all but clinched an NCAA tournament bid. A loss would have sent PSU packing to another NIT.

Seniors Joe Crispin, Gyasi Cline-Heard and Titus Ivory parlayed the opportunity into the school’s first trip to the Sweet 16 in half a century.

“It seems like yesterday,” Tate said. “I hope I’ll always remember it as that. It was just a great feeling. It was spectacular.”

His fall from grace was equally stunning. Expected to be a mainstay on the 2001-02 rendition of the Nittany Lions, Tate posted 18 points in an early loss to Clemson and a dozen more in a defeat at Temple a few days later. Then his game imploded. In the final 22 outings that year, he reached double figures twice. Meanwhile, he was held scoreless on three different occasions.

Minus four starters from the Sweet 16 outfit, and with one of the athletes expected to pick up the slack not doing so, Penn State stumbled to 7-21.

Tate actually regressed the following year. After scoring a total of 13 points in the first five games of 2002-03 — and going 5 of 31 from the field in the process — he walked away from the team and the university to deal with personal issues.

And that was the last the public heard from Tate for the next nine months. Much happened during his time away. Dunn resigned under pressure following another 7-21 season. DeChellis was hired to replace him.

Then, in September of 2003, Tate was back in the news, admitting “drinking has had a direct effect on my health, academics and basketball to the point where I had to leave the team last season and withdraw from school.” He went on to explain he had stopped drinking months earlier, and was in position to re-enroll for the fall semester. A world of pressure was lifted from his shoulders.

“It was some great humility for me to take responsibility for my actions,” Tate said. “Also, in the process of getting my life back together, I learned that helping others helps you. The best way you can help yourself recover from something like this is helping other people. I hope I did. Even if I touched one person, it was good. It was better than me keeping it secret and trying to do everything behind closed doors.

DeChellis remembers his conversation with Tate at the time: “He said. ‘Coach, I just want to get this off my chest, so I can walk around campus and not have everyone ask me what’s wrong, and every time I see a media guy I’m fearful he’s going to ask me about this. It’s time for me to say what it is and come clean.’ That takes a lot of guts. I think the kid has been remarkable.”

Remarkable, too, has been the support Tate has received from so many people at the university. Dunn and DeChellis are at the top of his list.

“I owe them both,” Tate said. “Coach Dunn helped me out a lot before he left. When Coach DeChellis got here — and this is why I respect him so much — for him to come in here as a new coach, and you have somebody who’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, it would be easy just to wipe them away, to say they can genuinely mess up the team.

“But he sat there with me and held my hand through the whole thing and made sure I was all right. He called me all the time, checking up on me, making sure I got my working out in. He was just there. It was total support. I couldn’t hide from support. It was everywhere, from the whole program. [Athletic director] Tim Curley. The faculty. Everybody who had anything to do with me helped me.”

Yet as Tate’s mind and spirit healed, his body changed. Without the daily workouts required of a major college basketball player, he beefed up. He checked in at 260 pounds last spring, when he approached DeChellis about re-joining the Nittany Lions for one last season of eligibility.

DeChellis laid down ground rules: Stay off the sauce. Hustle to get on track in terms of progression toward degree. And work yourself into shape.

Tate stayed clean and put his academic house in order. Shedding the extra weight was another issue. Though he began playing informally with the Nittany Lions in June, the excess baggage would not come off as hoped. He hit 245 by the time the preseason rolled around, but could not get lower.

On the first day of practice, he was beating one player in wind sprints — 6-11, 280-pound center John Kelly. DeChellis shouted at Tate for lagging behind, but quietly respected him for not giving up.

“You don’t play for a couple of years, and it’s not easy,” the coach said. “But he’s given his all and I’m very proud of him for that.”

Bigger and slower than before, Tate was moved from wing to the unfamiliar position of power forward. Though he managed only eight minutes per game through six contests, his shooting percentages (44.4 from the floor, 33.3 from the arc, 100.0 from the line) were all substantially better than those he compiled in his first two-plus seasons.

Understated almost to a fault before his problems surfaced, Tate became a vocal leader in the locker room, in practice and on the bench. He was a calming influence — and delivered five points — in PSU’s unlikely win at Rutgers Dec. 1. But, after missing a Dec. 11 loss to Pitt with the flu, Tate felt he received a message from his body.

So he approached DeChellis to tell him he didn’t think he could go any more.

“I had a full plate,” Tate said. “I just wanted to make sure I finished up everything OK. I have three classes left next semester and an internship in the summer. My body is breaking down. It’s a hard transition. Something had to go. Unfortunately, this is it.”

But not entirely. Rather than abandoning the team, Tate will stay on to mentor the Nittany Lions on basketball and non-basketball matters. He’ll attend every practice and sit on the bench in street clothes for home games.

“He loves the guys on this team, and that’s the hard part,” DeChellis said.

“We’ve got great relationships. I just can’t not be around them,” Tate added. “Plus, I’ve got a lot of knowledge at this level.”

Tate is, after all, the only surviving link to the last great moment in Penn State basketball history. He’s living, breathing proof that the Nittany Lions can not only compete at the highest level of the game, but also thrive.

To say that’s what makes him a great role model, however, would be to miss the point.

Because all of the really important stuff happened after he reached the pinnacle of his athletic career.

“Things have changed since then,” Tate said. “Before everything happened, to me it was all about basketball. But I’ve learned all aspects of life are important. I’m looking forward to graduating and getting out there and getting a job.”

This is so much more than a happy new year for Jamaal Tate.

It’s a happy new life.


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