In his new book "For The Glory," Ken Denlinger follows the careers of the 29 freshmen who composed Penn State's football class of 1992 -- from their arrival in Happy Valley in 1988 to their departures four years later -- or earlier. In this excerpt, Denlinger looks at the most celebrated member of the class, quarterback Tony Sacca.

Early December is, on the surface, the quietest time in college football. By then, the 11-game season is over, and empty stadiums, such as Penn State's, resemble gray aircraft carriers in dry dock. Starting to focus on Christmas, alumni and student fans are either grumbling about what should have been or gloating over successes that have earned for their schools an invitation to one of the bowl binges that will begin in a few weeks and end New Year's night. For most players, the ones not involved in bowl practices, this is unrippled calm, a brief national timeout from hitting and being hit.

College coaches, however, are anything but serene, their considerable energies not being recharged so much as redirected. For them, December is the most important part of a very different kind of season, one that also demands the utmost in strategic planning and persuasion technique: the recruiting season.

The hectic weeks between the final game and the middle of February will be the culmination of a wooing process that has been going on for several years, the gathering of the next fall's freshman football players. During what amounts to a kind of two-minute drill, college coaches spring about the land in a not-so-polite competition to secure commitments from a couple of dozen of the most desirable high school seniors.

Penn State says that it does not recruit anyone not capable of playing regularly for two seasons. Paterno usually starts the final thrust process by deciding what positions will need reinforcing in a couple of years. Quarterbacks were a priority for this class, and he focused on five in hopes of signing two.

When told the recruiting parade would be passing her way, Tony Sacca's mother, Peg, exclaimed: "You mean little old Delran!" The Sacca home is a large colonial; the six-member Sacca family is exceptionally tight. Recruiters were more intense about charming this household because, in no special order, the three high school quarterbacks coveted most in the fall of 1987 were: Todd Marinovich and Brett Johnson from the West Coast, and 6-foot 5-inch Tony Sacca, of 213 Sharrow Vale Road.

The difference between Sacca's junior and senior seasons was staggering. "All of a sudden eyeballs popped out," said Delran Coach Jim Donoghue. "He broke the South Jersey record for touchdown passes, with twenty-four, and must have run for six or seven more touchdowns. {Notre Dame coach} Lou Holtz was in my office looking at films. Tiny and scruffy bags under his eyes. He looked at eight films. Finally, he turned to {assistant} Foge Fazio and said: 'You're right. He's the best in the country. Let's go get him.' Quick as you could imagine, Holtz got himself straightened up, looked like he was ready for the Johnny Carson show and was off for the {Sacca} home."

Holtz and most other coaches were impressive. What stuck to Peg Sacca's mind was some advice from Paterno. "Joe had stressed that if you're hearing from schools saying you'll go right in there and play, that's not really a good idea," she said. "I liked that. I remember thinking, 'There's no way you can go from high school right in and play as freshmen.' "

The quarterback order for the start of fall practice was junior Tom Bill, senior Lance Lonergan, sophomore Doug Sieg, and Sacca, a redshirt probability. Then Sieg's uncooperative back went gimpy, and Paterno became uncommonly bold. Even before Lonergan suffered a thumb injury that would sideline him for much of the season, the coach had called Sacca into his office. The 6-foot 5-inch freshman with the rifle arm was being moved from no-play status to second team, behind Bill.

Never had the coach done such a thing. Still tucked in the mind of Sacca's mother, Peg, was Paterno saying less than a year earlier that he would never force anyone into action before he was ready. And with his general lack of maturity, inconsistency and inattention to detail, Sacca seemed the freshman most in need of a redshirt season.

Sacca would try anything on the field -- the toughest pass into the tightest coverage. But he was surprisingly mild in the huddle and away from football. In the dorm someone would suggest pizza, and Sacca would say: "Sounds good. You order." This is a leader? Sometime in the future, perhaps, but certainly not yet.

Still, everything worked decently well for two-plus games. Near the end of the third quarter against Rutgers, however, with the Nittany Lions trailing by 21-10, Bill suffered a dislocated kneecap. Out for the season.

The number 19 trotting onto the field, the 18-year-old still unfamiliar with most of campus and not inclined to attend many of his classes, was suddenly in control of State's mighty machine. This was in no way Sacca's team, yet he was at its throttle. "I remember listening to the radio for the Rutgers game," Peg Sacca said. "Everybody else had gone to {younger brother} John's high school game. And when Tom Bill went down and Tony was going in, my dad phones and said: 'Well, is that your kid up there?'

"I said: 'Oh God, yes!' "

Pulling the Strings

Sacca's role as a starter ended after the eighth game, a 51-30 blowout by a West Virginia team that would have its legitimate hopes for an unbeaten season and a national championship pricked by Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Healthy now, Lonergan started the final three games of the worst Penn State season (5-6) in half a century.

By late in their third season, the class for football purposes had boiled down to this: Sacca and everybody else. Sacca had become the central player. During the class's 33-game experience, Sacca had drawn the most attention and had played the most minutes. He also had endured the most humiliating put-downs by Paterno.

Sacca had almost transferred more than a year earlier, before his sophomore season, when Paterno on the eve of preseason drills in 1989 announced which players would be wearing which colored jerseys for the first practice. When Sacca was set for second-team green, he was furious. He had replaced the injured Tom Bill three games into the 1988 season and figured: "I beat him out."

Paterno disagreed. True, sophomore Sacca had more ability but redshirt junior Bill was the more complete quarterback. Sacca could throw; Bill could lead. Sacca drifted in practice; Bill learned. Sacca would don green for the fall; Bill would be in blue. "Tony doesn't understand what it takes to be a leader," Paterno said before camp started. "He's a likeable kid, a bright kid. But very, very immature. Somebody asked him in the spring if he'd be here for summer school {when quarterbacks and receivers frequently work on patterns and timing}. He said: 'You're kidding?' And he thinks he should be playing."

In one respect, however, this slightly immature 19-year-old knew exactly what was going on. Of all the players in his class, Sacca was the one with the most leverage. He could actually make demands on Paterno. And he knew it.

"During the first week," he said, "I wasn't allowed to run the first team at all. So on Sunday, after the first scrimmage I went to Jim Caldwell {the soft-spoken quarterback coach} and said if I'm not gonna get the shot to win the job, I'm leaving. I hadn't told my dad yet. But I had told my high school coach. Three days later, I was splitting time with Tommy with the first team {and both were wearing blue}. He'd run the first half of practice; I'd run the second."

Was Sacca serious about leaving?


Sacca stayed and tough-talked his way into what he wanted. His position coach, Caldwell, thought that cockiness was a facade, observing, "He has a lot of defense mechanisms. When you're young and inexperienced, you try and hide those fears. Try and act as if you're not afraid, not scared. In the situation he was playing in last year, as a true freshman, in front of 85,000 fans, I know he was shaking in his boots a bit."

Sacca reflected on his two-year career: "You take a beating mentally. It's tough to come in and play right away. Pressure. The media gets on you because your stats aren't that great {his two-year percentage, on 283 passes, was a less than mediocre 38.9}. You're in awe of everything. Joe lots of times thinks I don't care. That's not right. Talk to anybody. The pressure'll get to you, even though you don't show it. It's always there and you always have to worry about it."

'Fed Up'

Over breakfast in early December 1989, Paterno had all but given Sacca the quarterback job. During the spring of the class's third season, he applied all the pressure he could muster to make sure the junior quarterback was up to keeping it. The coach would prod; the quarterback would resist. Finally, during a lackluster practice on the hot afternoon of April 17, 1990, Paterno erupted. Alone among 40,000 empty seats halfway up the west side of Beaver Stadium, Paterno noticed more nonchalance and yelled, "Sacca, you're the biggest quarterback flop in Penn State history!"

Say what? There had been other verbal volcanoes, but none that had spewed down from Paterno and over the players quite so heavily. Nearly all the starters at some point in their careers had been told by Paterno, loudly and in front of their peers, that they couldn't possibly play for Penn State. ... Still, even by Paterno's lofty sarcastic standards this outburst was wicked, and it got repeated by the players. Among themselves and to Tony, and always in as close to Paterno's high-pitched voice as possible, they would say, "Sacca, you're the biggest flop in Penn State history!"

In truth, Paterno had been even harsher in private with Sacca. "I'm about fed up with him," Paterno said a day later. "He's gonna drive me up the wall. I had a real tough meeting with him yesterday. He's one of the toughest kids I've ever had to coach at that position. Very immature. Silly. I got my message across, that he's not doing anywhere near well enough."

No Motivation

It did bother Sacca that he had not progressed more rapidly as a quarterback. With three years of a four-year career complete, he was still a very mediocre passer. The pros would take a chance on him, of course, because of his size and exceptionally strong arm. No NFL team had him rated as more than a middle- to low-round prospect.

Still, there was nothing Sacca could do to alter the past, so why get overly concerned? This attitude could be seen as both charming and frustrating. On the one hand, a part of him had resisted making corporate football all-consuming. He loved the games, loved taking chances, loved putting his ability on the line at the most critical times with millions of people watching. He tolerated practice and loathed watching film. Nothing outside football remotely excited him. Studies were a way to stay eligible; his real major was hanging out; he rarely dated.

Also nagging at Sacca was a great desire to excel at a higher level of football, and he knew that his lousy work habits might make that impossible. He recognized this enormous contradiction, the pulls between total fun and becoming an adult. He had turned 21 in April.

Sacca recently had spoken with his quarterback rival, Tom Bill, who had gotten a tryout with the Buffalo Bills. "He had a screwy way of gripping the football and would never change here," Sacca said. "For the Bills, he changed. Maybe that'll happen to me when I go away. All of a sudden I'll become this very studious football player. But it hasn't hit me yet."

In the first game of the 1991 season, Sacca threw five touchdown passes in a 34-22 victory over Georgia Tech in the Kickoff Classic. A national television audience had been impressed. ... College football commentator Beano Cook predicted on ESPN: "Tony Sacca will win the Heisman Trophy."

A record crowd of 96,672 in Beaver Stadium gave farewell ovations to those Nittany Lions making their final home appearance on Nov. 14, 1991, against Notre Dame. During the 35-13 rout, Sacca completed 14 of 20 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. As always, Sacca was among the last to leave the dressing room. As always, he joined his parents and other friends and relatives. This time, Peg Sacca did not immediately walk to Tony. She wanted to say something special and she wanted to do it alone.

Earlier, Sacca's father had said he thought Tony's career had gone quickly. Peg wasn't so sure. The tough times still seemed vivid: Tony being forced to play as a freshman and not doing all that well. Tony being yanked for Tom Bill as a sophomore and again as a junior. But, oh my, how grand the turnaround had been. As a senior Tony was leaving Penn State with every important single season and career passing record. In a few minutes, Tony was free and he saw her walk toward him. "Hi Margaret," he said, still playful as he extended his arms. She hugged him and whispered: "I'm really proud of you."

Sacca and Paterno ended their player-coach relationship in a warm way. On the first day of spring practice, Sacca was watching his suddenly former teammates work out and Paterno joined him on the sideline. Quietly, Paterno mentioned how much frustration Sacca had caused him and also how much he respected Sacca for playing so well under so much pressure.


Tony Sacca did not win the 1991 Heisman Trophy. A second-round draft choice of the Arizona Cardinals, he played sparingly his first two seasons, then was released after head coach Joe Bugel was replaced by Buddy Ryan. Sacca felt the salary cap was a factor both in his release and not being picked up by any other NFL team prior to training camp.

Sacca today spends time at the beach and in contact with his agent while both his younger brothers, John, who transferred from Penn State to Eastern Kentucky, and Ralph, a freshman at Rutgers, still are deeply involved in football. He is hopeful that NFL teams will become disenchanted with their backup quarterbacks early in the upcoming season and come calling.