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July 27, 2012
It wasn't a head-to-head battle for the services of a five-star prospect. It didn't mark a major coup on the recruiting trail, either. On the surface, it was a lightly recruited linebacker with zero name recognition deciding to play football in the Big 10 Conference.
Still, when a sonogram photo of a stranger's unborn child showed up in his Facebook inbox, Brennan Franklin was smacked with a reminder that his college choice moved people he'd never met, in a town 2,200 miles away.
On Wednesday afternoon, Franklin, a 241-pound linebacker from Peoria (Ariz.) Centennial High School, became the first player to commit to Penn State after the school was pronounced dead at the hands of NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Understandably, the traffic going into State College, Pa., these days pales in comparison to the congestion on the road that leads away. Franklin doesn't much mind being the only car on his side of the highway, though. He'll leave for his new school next Friday and arrive there with no hope of playing for a championship of any kind.
Turns out, that's fine by him. He was aware of both the stakes and the stigma. It's just that he didn't much care. And the more you talk to him, the more you get the feeling he never will.
"It wasn't even a tough choice," Franklin, a member of the class of 2012 said. "I wasn't going to play in a bowl game anyway if I would have gone I-AA or to New Mexico or Indiana. Plus, it's Linebacker U, and I'm a linebacker."
The Nittany Lions are banned from the postseason for the next four years, but this move wasn't based on bowl games. Instead, the decision was about a mostly overlooked football player with offers exclusively from FCS programs showing he can compete on college football's highest level.
The sonogram photo only reinforced his motivation. When Franklin sat down at his computer and found it among his unread messages on Thursday, his confusion, though warranted, only lasted a few seconds.
Written under the photo was a short note.
"Our first born son will be named for the first commit of the new era of Penn State football," the female Penn State fan wrote.
Facebook provided more feedback as the hours passed. One supporter sent a pledge to have a Franklin replica jersey made. Another promised to paint the new linebacker's number on his chest before every home game. There were also messages from fans of other teams telling him all about the mistake he had just made.
"That was the regular, normal stuff," Franklin said. "Some people were excited and some people were hating on Penn State."
This is Penn State University after the scandal, a program looking for something -- anything -- to cling to. On Wednesday, it was Franklin, a recruit without a single star or anything near a BCS-level offer. That said, it's the intention, not the act, that has Nittnay Lion supporters sending thank-you notes to a player their football program would have unapologetically turned away a year ago.
"I had no idea I would affect so many people," Franklin said. "I knew it was a big deal to me, but I didn't think other people cared as much."
When Franklin, a lifelong Penn State fan, and his family tell you the choice was easy, it's genuinely hard to fathom. That is until Franklin's father makes a point so many in State College, Pa., had forgotten until recently:
There are more important things than football.
"I don't think anybody can really argue the quality of a Penn State degree," Brennan's father, Brandon Franklin, said. "We didn't have any reservations."
In a way, it's poetic. The Nittany Lion program has been irreversibly tarnished by something that had little to do with football. Its first baby-step toward rebuilding fits the same bill.
"At Penn State, I feel like I have a whole community and a whole town supporting me," Brennan Franklin said. "That's what's going to push me to be the best I can be."