Thirty-one athletes gathered for the 34-member team's first practice, a session that was as much about the kids getting to know one another and their coaches as it was about X's and O's.
The only thing we've had [until now] was a press conference, said Bob Palko, the energetic soul who is head coach at West Allegheny High and this year's leader of the Pennsylvania squad. Now it's an opportunity for the kids to start something special, to start a journey as a team.
It's not just a football game, it's not just two teams, he added. It's the tradition of football in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Three future Nittany Lions will represent Pennsylvania this year — kicker Kevin Kelly, linebacker Sean Lee and receiver Knowledge Timmons. Defensive back Justin King also made the team but can't play because he enrolled in college a semester early.
It's a good experience, Timmons said. I've looked forward to playing in the Big 33 since ninth grade. It's good to play with all this talent around me. It's different because you can see the guys, sit down with them and talk with them. This is one of the best experiences someone can have.
Player registration was at 10 a.m. Sunday, then the team headed to the Lasch Building for a squad meeting. About 30 minutes later, Palko put the athletes through stretching exercises himself — cracking jokes all the while — before everyone worked on position drills and then a brief period of offense vs. defense before lunch.
Everything was done with helmets but no pads, and much of it at three-quarters speed, so it was next to impossible to tell how different players stacked up against one another.
The team then broke for lunch at the Nittany Lion player lounge in the Lasch Building. The athletes huddled in small groups to gobble down cold-cut sandwiches and fruit while watching ESPN on big-screen TVs, and even shot some pool and played foosball.
It's great, Kelly said. You get to meet kids from all over the state. They are the best at their positions and they're going to be playing for some of the best schools in the country. It's really cool.
The afternoon practice session was laid back, as well, as the athletes spent more time getting a handle on the coaches' terminologies and philosophies. Live hitting will have to wait until the week leading up to the July 23 clash at HersheyPark Stadium in Hershey, Pa.
Thanks to Sunday's session, though, the Keystone State crew will hit the summer drills with a better appreciation for each other and what the Big 33 is all about.
It's great, Lee said. There are so many great players who have come before us. It's a great honor.
• Three players could not make it to Sunday's practice for various reasons — linemen Vince Bazzone from McKeesport and Mike Turkovich from Valley Forge, as well as running back Ernest Williams from Monessen.
• You heard it here first: Kelly is generously listed at 5-foot-9. But while warming up with his teammates, he showed a nice (left-handed) throwing delivery. The kid can definitely handle passing off a fake field goal.
• After working on field goals by himself, Kelly joined the offensive linemen. He didn't do any physical work, but grabbed a blocking pad and helped with drills.
• Lee is listed at 220 but does not appear to be quite that heavy. Yet he said he has no intention of playing safety, because he is coming to Penn State to be a part of the Linebacker U. tradition. Palko said Lee brings many of the same intangibles as current PSU 'backer Paul Posluszny.
• Timmons has the speed to play wideout or defensive back at Penn State. He said he believes he may contribute on both sides as a rookie, but hopes to settle into one position by the time he is a sophomore. He practiced with the receivers Saturday.