Long Shot Pays Off For Camper

Nittany Lion fan Michael Falgiano parlayed good luck at the racetrack into a fantastic voyage with the Penn State football program. He is one of a host of men participating in the first annual PSU Fantasy Football Camp on campus this week.

Though New Jersey native Michael Falgiano grew up a Penn State football fan, he knew playing for the Nittany Lions would be a long shot. He just didn't have the size to compete at the major college level. So while his high school pal Shawn Mayer accepted a full ride to PSU, Falgiano was content to play his college ball at UMass.

Kind of.

Because while he enjoyed what he described as a “decent college career,” he always wondered what it would have been like to don the Blue and White. As the years went by, the odds of him ever seeing the inside of the Penn State program became longer and longer, until it seemed they were non-existent.

But that all changed in late April, when the 29-year-old took a business associate to Meadowlands Racetrack to play the ponies. After experiencing what he called a “boring day,” he was set to leave when he noticed a horse with an interesting name running in the eighth.

“I had $20 left in my pocket,” Falgiano explained. “There was a horse running in the eighth race named Big Blue Joe. So I said, what the hell? I put my 20 bucks on it and wrote out two other horses in a trifecta.”

No word on whether the horse was wearing blinders and black shoes. But he reportedly did have a rather pronounced nose. He went off as a 25-to-1 long shot. Realizing the $20 bet was probably dog meat, Falgiano hoofed it for the exit.

“I actually left,” he said. “I walked out and was listening to it on the speakers.”

Big Blue Joe had the lead on the backstretch. He was still there on the final turn.

“One of my good friends said, man, you better go inside, this horse is gonna win,” Flagiano said. “As I walked in, sure enough, here he comes. And he won.”

Flagiano also hit the trifecta. The payout: $6,300.

Talk about horse sense. Or is that horse cents? In any event, there was unbridled enthusiasm.

“We started jumping around and screaming,” he said.

When he settled down, Falgiano saw meaning in his bit of good equine fortune. He bet on Big Blue Joe because, obviously, the name reminded him of Penn State coach Joe Paterno. And he remembered that this was the first year the Nittany Lions were offering a fantasy camp, where fans could get up close and personal with the program for just over $4,500.

“So right from there I went up to the Internet café and signed up because I had the money,” Falgiano said. “I went home and told my girlfriend, 'I'm packing my bags and going to camp.' She's still not too happy.”

The 2006 Penn State Football Fantasy Camp began Wednesday afternoon and continued with full days of practice, tours and meetings Thursday and Friday. There is a Blue-White Flag Football Game at Beaver Stadium Saturday and the proceedings wrap up Sunday morning.

Falgiano is one of 30 men who signed up for the camp, ranging in age from 29-67. One had to drop out for business reasons and another could not show because of an injury.

From the looks of things, however, the remaining 28 are having a blast. Friday morning they had a practice near the Lasch Building where PSU assistant coaches Larry Johnson, Bill Kenney, Brian Norwood and Jay Paterno went over the ins and outs of special teams. The campers had a chance to run back kicks against a group of former Lions including John Greene, Eddie Johnson, Rick Sayles and Rich Rosa.

Whenever someone made a mistake, the assistants and former players took turns doing their respective versions of Joe Paterno's high-pitched practice screams.

“I'll send you straight back to New Jersey, or wherever you're from!” shouted one coach in mock anger after a player was offside on a kickoff. Everyone on the field laughed at the dead-on impersonation of the legendary head coach.

Near noon they broke for lunch at the team training table in Pollock Hall. There were more meetings in the afternoon, including a session where recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary spent 45 minutes breaking down Penn State's recruiting philosophy.

Then there was a punt, pass and kick competition, and finally a practice session in Holuba Hall where the 28-men were broken into two teams -- the Blue and the White -- to begin final flag game prep. Wives, kids and even parents watched from the sideline, taking photos and working their video cameras.

For Falgiano, the experience has been amazing.

“This is a great opportunity,” he said. “You never get to see the inside [of a program like Penn State]. And you never get to be a part of Penn State and get on the same field such great stars have been on. And the coaches are awesome. To be here working out in Holuba Hall and the Lasch Building … you can go to 150 games in Beaver Stadium, but you'll never get to see the inside of that building or the inside of this facility, and even meet the players. You'll never get this chance anywhere else in the world.”

If it seems like a long shot that you'll ever get the chance to enjoy the same experiences, you can do so if you pony up nearly five large to attend the 2007 camp. Even if it doesn't seem as if you can afford it at the moment, you never know when a few extra bucks may fall into your lap.

Just ask Michael Falgiano, who, against all odds, is having the time of his life.

Even if his girlfriend was not thrilled at the prospect of the big purchase.

“I'll make it up to her when I get home,” he said. “I promise.”

Check out Steve Manuel's photo galleries.

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