Nittany Lions Happy to Help

Penn State football players pitch in during the Pennsylvania Special Olympics championships on campus.

During a time when they are enduring what most consider the toughest workouts of the year, Penn State football players could find a lot of ways to spend their free time.

Yet many, while recovering from their morning workouts, decided to spend Thursday evening volunteering with the Pennsylvania Special Olympics, which had its opening ceremonies at Jeffrey Field in State College.

While the athletes that represent counties from across the state proceeded through the gates and onto the field, they were accompanied by Nittany Lion student-athletes who played the part of honorary captains. One of the captains, Penn State senior linebacker Sean Lee, felt such participation is little to ask in return for what the Nittany Nation does for them.

“We have so many great fans that support us through thick and thin,” Lee said. “We work out a lot in the mornings with the team, so we are tired, but we feel that it is our responsibility to give back. There are so many fans here right now that root for us, so to come out and support them is great.”

Lee was glad to be a cheerleader at the Special Olympics and the role is familiar to him. The 2007 All-Conference pick spent PSU's entire 2008 Big Ten championship campaign on the sideline while recovering from an ACL tear, and he is anxious to get back on the field and carry over the success of last season.

“We want to be the best,” he said. “We had a great team last year, but this year we want to win them all and the only way we can do that is to try and get better every day. If we are able to do that, the wins will take care of themselves.”

If anyone can appreciate time as much as Lee, it is Jerome Hayes. The 2009 campaign will be Hayes' final year of eligibility after his past two seasons were cut short, also due to knee injuries. Expect to see him in a similar role to the one Tim Shaw handled in 2006, as a stand up defensive end. Hayes finds himself returning to the lineup with the opportunity to help fill the void left by the departures of top pass rushers Maurice Evans, Josh Gaines and Aaron Maybin, who have all moved on to the NFL.

“When you lose three players like that, obviously it is going to be tough,” Hayes said. “Fortunately for us, we have enough great athletes on this team to come in and pick up where they left off.”

Hayes was in attendance Thursday and shared the enthusiasm of his teammates at the chance to give back.

“We just like to show everyone that we are not these untouchable athletes that don't care about much other than ourselves,” he said. “We all love to come out here and show all of the fans that we appreciate them as much as they appreciate us.”

While Lee and Hayes will be welcomed back to a defense that loses six starters from last season, one of the biggest questions on offense will be who will step up to help Daryll Clark and the passing game.

The name Andrew Quarless practically bounces to the minds of Penn State fans after the tight end had two disappointing seasons, following a breakout freshman year. Like Lee and Hayes, this is Quarless' final chance to make his mark on the program.

“This year has been looking good to me so far,” Quarless said. “All I can worry about is this upcoming season, I have to keep working hard, playing hard and we will see what happens.”

Quarless has frequented coach Joe Paterno's doghouse throughout his career due to trouble on and off the field, but his attitude and his presence at the Special Olympics showed that his heart is in the right place.

“Just to put a smile on someone's face by showing up and signing autographs is what we came here to do,” Quarless said. “It is really a great event and I am happy to be a part of it.”

Along with Quarless, receiver Brett Brackett figures to be a key component in this season's revamped passing attack. Brackett caught 13 passes last season for 160 yards and a touchdown. Now he will be one of the more familiar targets for Clark. Brackett, who is a converted quarterback, says he is settling into his position and that he feels confident in the new crop of receivers. They only need some time to develop.

“So far things have gone well,” Brackett said of the receivers. “We are trying to get better each day. Our communication is developing and our timing has continued to improve.”

Like his teammates, Brackett enjoys the opportunity to use his status as a Nittany Lion to give back.

“As Penn State Football players, we are in a position to help people who are less fortunate than us,” Brackett said. “We have a lot of things going for us, so to help make other people happy means a lot to all of us. It is why we decide to spend our time after practice here, instead of doing other things.”

So it is fitting that these four are found helping out at an event that is the epitome of overcoming odds. Each has their own challenge to rise above, and how they go about it will be a determining factor of the fate of the 2009 Nittany Lions.

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