Ivan Schmidt's Wonderful Life

It was the fall of 2001, and Ivan Schmidt held the knife in his right hand while staring down at his left wrist. Everything in life had caved in on him since the previous February, when the receiver signed a letter of intent to attend Penn State on a football scholarship. Now he wanted to end it.

He was still back home in Wilmington, Del., at the time, a low SAT score having prevented him from meeting initial eligibility standards with the Nittany Lions. The fallback plan had been to attend Kiski Prep in Saltsburg, Pa., for a year to get the score up, just as former Penn State star Curtis Enis had done. But a meddling stepfather intervened, made demands on the prep school and the university, and the whole deal fell apart. With the assistant coach who recruited him to Penn State — Kenny Jackson — having left the staff to take a post with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Schmidt felt as though he didn't have a friend in the world. He most definitely had no direction.

“So I just sat there one day,” he explained. “I had the knife in my hand, ready to do it. But then a voice in my head said, move to Connecticut. I'm a spiritual person, so I knew it was God telling me to go.”

Sadly, the foresight and perseverance certain athletes show on the field can be lacking away from it. And for a while, Schmidt had that problem. He was not only a star receiver at Brandywine High but also among the best high jumpers in the nation, having cleared 6 feet, 11 1/2 inches. It took extraordinary vision to excel in both realms.

At the same time, his family life was a mess, his head spinning. In the middle of his high school career, his mother moved the family from Media, Pa., to Wilmington, to be in the same house with his stepfather. After his scholarship to Penn State fell through, it became unbearable.

“I had a problem with my stepfather, obviously,” Schmidt said. “Me and him didn't get along too well, and then me and my mom started to go at it. Then I felt I didn't belong there anymore. I came this close to committing suicide.

“I was out of school and I just kept getting yelled at for so many things,” he added. “It's hard to hold your temper when people are always in your ear about something. It just drove me crazy. I'm just glad I got out of there.”

He did so only after the voice told him to move to Connecticut, to be with his natural paternal grandmother, Darlene Schmidt, in Bridgeport. His head finally clear, and with Darlene serving as his “guardian angel,” Schmidt used his football work ethic to rebuild his life. For the rest of that fall, he delivered appliances with an uncle.

Before long he began looking for schools. With the help of another uncle, Pastor Dewey Browder, he found Southern Connecticut State in New Haven. Browder's wife Kendra attended SCSU and vouched for its academic credentials. The Owl athletic department, with a strong football program and outstanding track program — both at the Division II level — spoke for itself.

“I called the track coach, and he said they couldn't get me in,” Schmidt said. “Then he asked how high I jumped in high school, and I told him 6-11 1/2 and I won nationals as a junior. The next day he came to my house and got me to sign all the papers.”

“After going over his results, we realized who he was,” SCSU track coach Jack Maloney said. “We knew exactly who he was.”

So Schmidt enrolled at SCSU for the spring semester of 2002. He sat out a year because of the low SAT score, but he used the time to get his grades in order and his body back in shape. As a redshirt sophomore in 2003-04, his track career took off. He set a school record in the high jump with a leap of 7-2, and he finished third at NCAAs during the indoor season and fourth at nationals during the outdoor season. He won five Northeast-10 Conference championships that year (two high jump, two triple jump, one long jump) and grabbed the IC4A high jump crown.

On the football field, Schmidt was a backup in 2003, making one catch. He was closing in on a starting position heading into the 2004 season before sustaining a slight tear of the ACL in his right knee. He missed the entire season and was hobbled throughout the indoor and outdoor track campaigns. He skipped the 2005 football season to concentrate on track, but he still kept a close eye on the fortunes of one gridiron outfit — resurgent Penn State.

Though Schmidt is not necessarily tight with the other Class of 2001 members, he has always felt a connection to the Nittany Lion program.

“I'm a Penn State fan,” he said. “I always root for Penn State, every time. And every time I see 'em on TV, I tell my roommates, that was supposed to be my school. I regret not being there right now, but with everything happening at home, I just had to do what I had to do.”

Speaking of things back home, Schmidt's former stepfather is no longer in the picture, and Ivan is working on patching things up with his mother. “We get along pretty well now,” he said. “At least we talk.”

Academically, he is progressing toward a degree in recreation and leisure. And athletically, he began his senior indoor season in early December, winning the high jump at the Yale Invitational by clearing 6-11. He now has his sights set on NCAA indoor and outdoor championships.

Once his collegiate career is complete, he may attempt to embark on a professional track career in Europe. Then again, he may give football one last shot, this time at the pro level. To do that, however, he would require surgery on his right knee to repair the ACL, thus providing the necessary stability to play that sport.

“Me being who I am, I love football so much, that's one thing I would love to do again,” Schmidt said.

One thing he will never do again? Pick up a knife and start looking at that left wrist. Having cleared some tall obstacles athletically and personally, Schmidt knows the key to his future likely lies in another part of his body.

“Wherever my legs can take me, that's where I will go,” he said.

The next issue of Fight On State the Magazine mails in early January. It includes a special extended section on the Penn State football program's Class of 2001, a group whose wild, five-year ride included some amazing stories. This story is an excerpt from that section, which also includes updates on every player in the class (even those who left the program years ago), a profile on the first class member to make an NFL roster, the lowdown on why the Orange Bowl may not be the last trip to Miami for three seniors and much more.

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