Big man in a small town

FORK UNION, Va. -- Christian Hackenberg has woken up this sleepy town.

With cows grazing nearby and residents numbering less than 1,200, scouts and media have descended upon a tiny community that boasts one gas station, a single grocery store and an antiquated drive-in theater.

Hackenberg's name has been splashed across national headlines, but ESPN's No.1-rated signal caller just grins and shrugs at the accolades. Still, he said, Friday morning at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy was special.

Instead of chatting with nationally regarded coaches, Hackenberg was joined by close friends and family as part of the American Family Insurance Selection Tour for the 2013 Under Armour All-America Game. More than 400 cadets, clad in black T-shirts and polos, filed silently into the chapel while Hackenberg nodded to them.

"I feel like it's a good accomplishment for me," said the Penn State commitment, "but I think a lot of this honor belongs to my teammates who helped me look good. It's something that I'll remember, definitely."

Hackenberg's path from here to Penn State has been paved with questions, but the No. 16 overall recruit in the ESPN 150 reiterated Friday that's where he's headed. He takes the six-hour drive to Happy Valley, past endless cornfields, at every opportunity.

State College, a sleepy town in its own right, reminds him of Fork Union. And he doesn't want to leave home.

He already feels like part of the Penn State family, and the university contains everything he searched for: Academics, coaching and a familiar lifestyle. He charted the pros and cons for every school, on a piece of loose-leaf paper he still keeps in his room, and he said every box next to PSU was checked.

He felt a tingling in his chest when he arrived at University Park in February, a "gut feeling." And, seven months later, that feeling still hasn't left.

"With or without bowl games, it's still Penn State," he said. "Nothing I liked about Penn State has changed."

Hackenberg pulled the coveted red-and-black Under Armour jersey over his head Friday and stepped up to a converted pulpit to address his fellow cadets. He thanked them for their support, and they burst in applause when he mentioned a state championship.

Plenty of state-title winners and college standouts have walked through those chapel doors -- Eddie George, Vinny Testaverde, Don Majkowski to name a few -- but none were ever on the tour list for the Under Armour game.

"This is a great honor for Christian," Fork Union head coach Micky Sulivan, "but this is also a great honor for the school."

The academy, flanked by single-lane roads and chirping crickets, has seen plenty of NFL players walk onto its field -- and Sullivan believes Hackenberg could be next. The ESPN 150 prospect said his father wants him to redshirt so he can better learn from Bill O'Brien, but Hackenberg said he's not yet sure what he wants to do.

He wants to compete, and O'Brien told him a lot of that's up to him. If Hackenberg grasps the playbook by August, he said he'll compete. And he's confident that will be the case.

But, whatever he decides, a close-knit Fork Union will almost certainly be watching.

"He already has people talking," athletic trainer Devon Fraker said.