Much like he had throughout his career, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno spoke out against freshman eligibility in a newspaper article published in June 1986. One month later, a boy was born who would grow up to play for Paterno and help restore luster to the coach's legacy -- as a freshman for the Nittany Lions.
It has taken a teenager as precocious as Derrick Williams, the Upper Marlboro native widely regarded as the nation's best high school football player last season, to bend Paterno, the coach with two national championships at Penn State who has never been eager to talk about freshmen, much less play them in critical roles.
The arrival of Williams and his summer camp buddy Justin King has injected speed into the offense and confidence into the huddle. Times have changed in Happy Valley, where the offense is now potent and the 16th-ranked Nittany Lions are again relevant, off to a 5-0 start for the first time since 1999. Excitement has been restored; more than 50 tents are set up outside Beaver Stadium in anticipation of Saturday night's game against No. 6 Ohio State.
"It has been a good experience for me," Paterno acknowledged. "The freshmen have obviously caught the imagination of everybody, and they should. They have done some things that have been exciting."
It was an unlikely union, a 19-year-old prep celebrity and a 78-year-old coach some surmised had lost touch with the game. At Eleanor Roosevelt High, Williams received more than 50 Division I scholarship offers, saw his every move dissected on Internet message boards and was expected to contribute right away in college.
Paterno, on the other hand, fielded four losing teams the previous five seasons, prompting critics to call for his retirement and label him a relic. The offense had stalled; the nondescript uniforms symbolized to some a program stuck in football's dark ages.
But in a letter Paterno wrote to Williams, dated March 9, 2004, Paterno outlined a vision that is starting to materialize this fall. "Derrick we are one or two 'big play' skill people away from a team that can compete for the National Championship in 2005. When I say everyone on our staff believes Derrick Williams is the guy -- remember they have seen in person at our camp what you can do. Before I retire I want to have one more great team that can win a National Championship."
At Penn State's camp as 10th graders, Williams and King, who hails from Pittsburgh, first talked about attending the same college.
"We didn't just want to jump on a bandwagon of a team," Williams said. "We wanted to make an impact. I think we're doing that right now. We were looking for a group of guys who wanted to win."
The confidence Williams exudes has been infectious since he enrolled in January. After each practice, he said, Penn State players gather and say "Rose Bowl," the site of this year's national championship game. Throughout the offseason, Williams often called quarterback Michael Robinson just to say two words: national championship.
"That motivates me and Mike," Williams said. "Me and Justin and a lot of freshmen came out here like, 'We can win the national championship this year.' "
Penn State has not had so much as a winning record since 2002; but when he considers the Nittany Lions' shot at a national title, Williams asks, why not?
"He gives us speed, he gives us attitude, he gives us a little bit of swagger, " said Robinson, a fifth-year senior. "That's one thing about these freshmen: They have not lost much. They don't know what a loss feels like. I think that's one of the things they have taught us older guys."
Along with confidence, Williams also has demonstrated a respectful disposition. Williams said the only player he has modeled his game after has been his older brother, Domonique, who played for North Carolina before transferring to North Carolina A&T. When asked about Paterno's history of not playing freshmen immediately, Williams said, "If I didn't play, I wouldn't play. I would not be mad at all."
After just five games, there is little chance of sitting, as Williams has blossomed into a dynamic playmaker from multiple positions. He has scored three touchdowns the past two weeks, including the 36-yard game-winning reception against Northwestern two weeks ago.
Last week, he scored the first two touchdowns, both runs, in a 44-14 rout of Minnesota. First he scored from the tailback position, then he scampered into the end zone on a reverse.
Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel called Williams an impact player who not only performs, but also helps "raise everyone else up." He likened him to Buckeyes' playmaker Ted Ginn Jr., a preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful.
Immediately following the Minnesota victory, Williams's family waited for Derrick near the Penn State locker room. His father, Dwight, hugged reporters and hollered, "This is why he came here!" and called Paterno "one sincere individual."
"They haven't seen anything yet," said Rick Houchens, Williams's high school coach. "The bigger the stage, the better Derrick plays. He has been groomed for this. He is the true meaning of a playmaker. The only guy I see who does what he does is Reggie Bush," the returning Heisman finalist at Southern California.
The Northwestern game, Paterno said, was the first time he has allowed freshmen to talk to the media after a game. On Friday before the Minnesota game, however, a television station wanted to interview some of the players. I "blew my stack," Paterno said. " 'No way.' "
"I hate all the publicity that high school kids are getting," Paterno said. " 'When are you going to announce? When are you going to do this? When are you going to do that?' Yet having said that, they go through it as high school kids so they are a little bit more mature about how to handle it when they get to college.
"The kids we have gotten who you people want to talk to all the time, who are freshmen, seem to be a little bit more poised and able to handle it. So far, so good."
Staff writer Dan Steinberg contributed to this report.