Inside Man: Young Mitch reporting from Penn St practice

I know college students have a reputation for sleeping in, but I have to say, don’t lump me in with that crowd.

Last Friday, Penn State football held its first practice of the season in the early hours of the morning. It was 5:15 a.m. and, after making the team as a walk on, I was ready to go.

Soon after, at 5:30 a.m., I actually woke up from my dream.

Yes, I was actually at the practice, but it was in my usual role as sideline reporter.

With the temperature well below freezing and a pack of coaches screaming in every direction, my role on the sideline was just where I wanted to be.

Recently, I started working at a student-run blog, Onward State. So far, I’ve written about a pretty interesting scope of topics: Penn State to start a Beekeeping Club, West Halls Guitar Man, you know, the hard-hitting stuff. While none of these have gotten me a Pulitzer, the blogging experience does give me access to Penn State sports. It’s a pretty good deal.

On this particular morning I started my hike from my apartment on the far side of town to the Lasch Building where the first practice of the year was being held.

Practice started outside. It was very, very cold, and snow had to be shoveled off the field. That didn’t stop many members of the team from practicing in shorts and T-shirts, which is what happens when kids go to college and don’t have mothers nagging them to “put on a coat before you catch a cold.”

There was a fair amount of press on the sideline, eager to see the members of Penn State’s early recruiting class. With sanctions in place to limit Penn State’s scholarships from 25 to 15, several recruits ducked the system, enrolling at Penn State in January to be considered 2012 recruits. Among these early recruits were ESPN’s No. 1-ranked tight end Adam Breneman and JUCO quarterback Tyler Ferguson, who will likely start for the Lions this year.

Just when the sun started to rise, practice was moved inside to the team’s brand-new lifting center. It was pretty incredible to be inside. Photographers were free to roam around, chronicling the new recruits’ first practice and snapping pictures of all of the emotions that Bill O’Brien showed (just one: grumpy).

At the end of practice, members of the press were taken to the football team’s club room for breakfast. Until that point, I thought I was living the college dream, because the 22-inch TV in my living room gets free cable. But these guys have got it made. Big screen TV’s on every wall, leather furniture, pool tables, a private tutoring center, free vending machines and a (juice) bar. With all of the support that they receive, it’s amazing that some of these athletes still manage to get into trouble. With the ridiculous amount of tutors on call at every moment, it’s even more alarming that (ex-)members of the team can’t pass their classes.

The biggest thing that I came away with from the day was the realization that Bill O’Brien really knows how to recruit. Even with crippling sanctions in place, ESPN ranked Penn State’s 2013 recruit class 24th overall, led by the No. 1 QB pocket passer in Christian Hackenberg. While Hackenberg seems to be the real deal, I expect him to be redshirted.

For the fans, football season seems like it’s a long way away. But Friday’s practice shows that the team is already working hard to build off of last year’s unexpected success.

It’s quite an experience going from covering Warren County sports to Penn State football.

As far as Division I colleges go, Penn State is a pretty close-knit place, but it’s still not even close to the Warren County community. The guys that are shooting Warren County sidelines make up pretty small circle. You have the newspaper guys and a couple photographers: Wayne Repke, Carl Leichtenberger and Denny Kyser. It was always nice chatting to these guys on the sidelines of games, and I have to say, I appreciate the fact that they never pushed me out of the way to get the good shot, something that happened multiple times in the short two hours I was at Penn State practice. Then again, maybe that says more about my inability to be in the right place at the right time during a Warren County sporting event.

Penn State’s practice made me appreciate the sanctity of high school sports even more than I already do. The guys at State may not be professional athletes (yet), but there is a big difference in the motivation to play sports. Sure, there are guys that are doing it for the love of the game, but when you’re playing for a 40k scholarship and practically unlimited perks for four years at college, the game changes.

College sports are great, but if you want to see real sports being played it’s not always going to be somewhere where photographers wait around to see someone do a pushup. It’s anywhere there are kids that are genuinely playing the game because they love it.