Mother Knows Best

When Penn State's Josh Gaines was torn on which school to attend, his mom made the decision for him. Years later, he hopes to enjoy a happy homecoming.

Wilma Holder threw the letters in a pile and tore them up. By the time she was done, only one letter remained intact — the one from Penn State.

And that, Josh Gaines explained, is how he came to be a Nittany Lion. Holder, his mother, simply wasn't going to let him go anywhere else.

“She didn't have a reason. When she does stuff, she doesn't really explain anything,” said Gaines, now a fifth-year senior defensive lineman. “I was confused. But I wasn't upset at all.”

Gaines was a four-year starter at Northrop High in Fort Wayne, Ind., and had plenty of recruiting mail to sort through while making his college decision. Among the letters that ended up shredded on Holder's floor was presumably one from Penn State's opponent this week, Purdue.

Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller had wanted Gaines, who was a first-team All-State selection in 2003. Gaines remembers him standing in the family's kitchen, flashing his bowl rings. “I was in awe that this guy actually came to talk to me,” he said.

But Joe Paterno made an even bigger impression, if not on Gaines then definitely on his mother. “It was just him by himself,” Gaines said. “He bypassed all the flashiness … and he won over my mom. I didn't have a choice.”

It's worked out pretty well since then. After redshirting as a freshman in 2004, Gaines emerged as Tamba Hali's backup during his first active-duty season and became a starter the following year. He's currently ranked seventh on the team with 18 tackles including five tackles for loss and three sacks.

Gaines is old enough to remember how Tiller was greeted when he took over at Purdue, how fans regarded him with suspicion when he began talking about bringing his spread offense to the Big Ten — and not just to the Big Ten but to the very field where bruising runners like Mike Alstott had once plodded.

But after 10 bowl appearances in his first 11 seasons in West Lafayette, Tiller is viewed not as a crackpot but as a visionary, the first coach to truly embrace what has since become a familiar sight in the Big Ten.

The Nittany Lions certainly expect to have their hands full on Saturday, with senior quarterback Curtis Painter having already thrown for 1,113 yards through four games.

“They're a great offense,” Gaines said. “They've got a great quarterback who seems like he's been there forever. They run great routes and spread the ball all over the field. It's going to be a tough matchup.”

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