Why Christian Hackenberg's legacy will endure at Penn State
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Christian Hackenberg leaned up against a concrete wall outside a locker room in EverBank Stadium, he removed his baseball hat and made direct eye contact with those piled around him. He often had to adjust the wrapping a trainer had done for his right shoulder, which he sprained in the second quarter of Penn State's 24–17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday.
After answering questions for more than five minutes, he casually slipped in that his time at Penn State was complete, that he would be entering the 2016 NFL Draft.
"We just felt, my family and I, that it was the best for me. I felt like my role here at Penn State and my job has been accomplished. It's in good hands moving forward and I'm proud of that."
The past three years or so have not been pretty for Hackenberg, who was once a touted high school recruit with more than 10 offers on the table. He committed to Penn State before the NCAA sanctions that resulted from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, but remained committed when he knew could very well never play in a bowl game. And after starting his second bowl game in blue and white on Saturday, Hackenberg said he was humbled by his experience at Penn State.
"You can count on one hand how many other programs would have been able to survive what we survived across the country and thrive the way we did," he said. "Just to be a part of that is really humbling."
Hackenberg was explosive in his first season. With Bill O'Brien at the helm, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. He became someone Penn State fans could look forward to each Saturday during a time when Happy Valley was supposed to be a dead zone. He was a symbol that the program wasn't hopeless.
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"I think from my freshman year from when I made my decision until now, I wouldn't have realized how impactful it would be within the Penn State community," he said.
And then O'Brien became head coach of the Houston Texans. Hackenberg had to learn an entirely new playbook when James Franklin was hired.
In his second season, he barely threw more with 2,977 yards, but his number of touchdowns decreased to 12. His third season wasn't much more impressive. He was sacked 103 times in three years, some of which were hits that would make any football fan cringe. But he didn't sustain his first serious injury until his final game, a game he wasn't even supposed to play in when he committed.
Hackenberg admitted he had a little breakdown after he was forced to head to the locker room early with a trainer in what he knew would be his final game as a Nittany Lion. "But it was good," he said.
Some say he should have followed Connor Cook's path and played through his senior year, others say he doesn't owe Franklin anything by staying. There really isn't a right a wrong answer.
Ultimately, Hackeberg just did what he thought was best for him.
"I don't really know how it's going to turn out," he said. "All I know is that every time I stepped in that building, every time I had an opportunity to represent the university and the football program, I tried to do it to the best of my ability. I hope that that was good enough for those people."
It wasn't a poetic or memorable finish, but Hackenberg was certainly a savior in helping pull Penn State out of darkness.
That said, his story is nowhere near complete. For the talented, if raw signal-caller, it maybe just the first chapter or two.
Kristen Nelson is SI's campus correspondent for Penn State University. Follow her on Twitter.