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Column: Recruits united by loyalty

Whatever success Penn State's football team has on the field during the next few seasons might wind up being the result of a meeting that took place in the Lasch Building last summer, shortly after the NCAA hit the program hard with four-year sanctions.

Mahon, Sickels, Nelson and Breneman stayed united even after the NCAA sanctions hit Penn State.

A sizable portion of the players who had committed to play for Bill O'Brien, along with their families, were concerned about what the future might hold. They wanted -- needed -- some answers.

"They called and they were upset," O'Brien said. "They were upset because the Penn State that they had committed to changed relative to the sanctions. They all got in their cars and they drove here to State College and they sat right in this room (the team meeting room)."

O'Brien answered the questions he could. He promised to seek out the answers he didn't know.

"That was an emotional 15-20 minutes," said Erick Hackenberg, the father of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. "People were crying."

Eight committed prospects were in the room that day. All promised to maintain their commitment to the program. Seven of those eight signed letters of intent in either early January or last week.

Those tears and that uncertainty wound up serving as a cement that further strengthened the bonds of the 2013 class.

"That definitely brought us closer," Christian Hackenberg said. "We had quite a few emotional conversions. We wanted to prove everyone else wrong that we could do it, we could go out and just make the statement that Penn State's still here, we could still be competitive in the Big Ten and win a lot of football games. It just brought us tighter as a class."

The players on the 2012 Penn State team were given a choice last July. They could stay and play 1-4 years without a postseason, or they could try their luck at another program. Those that stayed, particularly the senior class, earned the admiration of their fans, the players who came before them and several of their peers around the nation, not to mention that of their fellow teammates and coaches.

The players who committed, though, had a much different decision to make. They could have gone elsewhere without feeling as though they had abandoned the program; after all, they hadn't signed anything. Hadn't played a down in a Penn State uniform. They were the ones who would be with the team through the vast majority of the sanction period. Many were still being recruited by other schools anyway, and all had other options. And a few decided to take those options.

But those seven players, and several others, though rattled by the sanctions -- "I was expecting a two-year or three-year bowl ban," said Garrett Sickels. "When they said four, it felt like I got punched in the stomach." -- were ultimately not dissuaded.

Players like Sickels, Hackenberg, Adam Breneman and Brendan Mahon -- all of whom attended that meeting at Lasch -- have received credit, and rightly so, for helping keep the group together, not only for maintaining their own commitments but for working behind the scenes to keep the rest of the class intact as well as expand it. But O'Brien, in typical fashion, was not about to single out a handful of players during his Signing Day news conference.

"To me, they were all important," he said Wednesday. "Within the walls of this football building, all of these guys were extremely important to our football program and to our university, our athletic department, because they committed to us during what a lot of people think is a tough time for Penn State."

O'Brien said he doesn't see it as a tough time for his program. The players who joined it last week either agree with him or are ready to do what they can to help the Nittany Lions through that tough time, away from the stadium as well as in it.

"Penn State football is not just Penn State football. It represents more than that," Mahon said. "You truly are a face of the university and you're looked upon to do the right things and represent the community. You're not just representing yourself."

The members of Penn State's Class of 2013 are now representing a school they had come to believe in and remain faithful to before they were officially a part of it. The sanctions made it a smaller group than O'Brien might have liked, but he would gladly trade the numbers for the knowledge that those who signed wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

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