Whole Lotta Hell To Pay

Six months of rehab should have been enough, he thinks, to show that his knee bears no ill effects from the hit that forced him to leave the Orange Bowl on a cart. He should have been out there, on the artificial turf in Penn State's Holuba Hall this July afternoon, jogging downfield with a 100-pound plate in each hand, doing chin-ups until his sweaty mitts slip off the bar, and flipping a tractor tire the size of a fishpond.

Lift for Life, an exhibition of strength so fraternally diabolical that it could have been hatched only by football players, is an annual charity event for the Kidney Cancer Association. It was here that Paul Posluszny would finally compete again, defending the title he and three teammates won last summer, and in doing so, hush all the whispers about the right knee that has sidelined him since January. But the day before the event, Penn State's training staff told its frothing star to sit this one out. No need to risk injury, along with the Nittany Lions' chances this season.

So in his place stepped a stout 19-year-old named Andrew Shaw—the little brother of linebacker Tim Shaw and not even a student at Penn State. There was no way the poor kid could have known what he'd signed up for: 11 gut-turning events, just two minutes of rest between them, all designed to make muscles fail. Maybe it was the 1,000-foot virtual ascent on the VersaClimber. Or it could have been the 200-yard tussle with "Coach Buddy," a dolly outfitted with an air brake to simulate 300 pounds of resistance. Either way, before he even got the chance to wrestle with the tractor tire, Shaw was being peeled off the turf, reaching for a bucket, any bucket, to puke in.

Forgive Paul Posluszny for making poor Andrew Shaw the first accidental roadkill on his path back to football. That should have been him out there. You don't have to tell that to the 2,000 or so people who paid 10 bucks a head to see Mr. Penn State sweat again. At the silent auction table, a signed photo of Posluszny titled "Red, White and Blue" is getting heavy action. (It eventually raises $300.) It features the senior All-America linebacker's mug in profile, highlighted by a thick splash of blood from the bridge of his nose to his cheeks.

He is in the building, fulfilling the peripheral responsibilities incumbent upon the unchallenged leader of the Big Ten champs. As linemen growl in pain on the turf behind him, Posluszny gives short media interviews on the sideline, all of which include the inevitable questions about his knee, which he very politely answers. Then it's on to handshakes with boosters who, again, gently pry into the state of the joint, which he even more gently addresses.

After a while, he is discreetly ushered past the ropes to the back of Holuba, away from the fans who ceaselessly mob him for autographs. Posluszny would sign for all of them if his minders would allow it. As the weights clank and the on-field groans get louder, Posluszny sneaks between the ropes to get closer to the action. He shouts encouragement, then clenches his jaw. "Those 100-pound plates are no good," he whispers as an aside.

Missing competition, even an insane, painpromising burlesque like this, eats at Posluszny. This was going to be his first chance to throw down with the team since its Orange Bowl win, when he leaped over a cut block and came down with partial tears in his posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. "Before I hit the ground, I knew something was wrong," he says. "It was the weirdest feeling I've ever had—like if I just moved it one way, something was going to explode. It was not cool." He begged to go back in as the trainers carted him off the field. Rehab started almost immediately after. No surgery was needed, but a lot of sweat was.

A player mythologized for his training intensity began by staring down the modest goal of flexing his knee enough to slowly pedal a bike. Through this off-season, Posluszny has replayed the sequence of events that sequestered him in physical therapy. "I would think, You know what? The play before I got hurt, I dropped an interception. The interception went right here," he says, raising his hands to his shoulder, revealing a network of popping veins, "and it skimmed off my hands and went out of bounds. Next play I get hurt. If I just catch that ball, none of this happens."

But it all did. And the latest consequence lies nearly immobile by the Gatorade cooler in the form of Andrew Shaw.

WALKING PAST rows of brick neo-Federalist academic buildings, his Aliquippa's Hopewell High ball cap pulled low on his forehead, Posluszny claims to have anonymity on campus. Which isn't wrong, exactly, as long as you see the world as he does. As he pauses on his walk to receive fist pounds from teammates, he just doesn't notice the furtive glances from everyone else.

Part of Posluszny's oversize status comes because he seems to do everything right. He's on time, if not early, for everything. He's unfailingly polite. He carries a 3.57 GPA in finance. When, on first meeting him, people invariably say to the 238-pounder, "I'd thought you'd be bigger," he responds with only a bashful grin. Even the tattooed young woman behind the bar at Champs Sports Grill, who claims less than zero interest in the football team and its players, offers that she's heard "pretty good things about him." It doesn't hurt that he looks like a cross between actor Brendan Fraser and a polar icebreaker. PSU's linebackers coach, Ron Vanderlinden, isn't kidding when he says, "He's the kind of kid you'd like to be your state senator, your governor, to marry your daughter, live next door to you—the whole thing."

How does the saying go? When one door closes, a window opens. On the way out of Miami, with an early departure to the NFL now out of the question, Posluszny took it upon himself to punch a new opportunity through a wall. "When we got on the bus after the game," says assistant strength coach Jeremy Scott, "he looked right at me and said, 'I want to lift as soon as we get back.'"

It was not long after that Posluszny's teammates became weight-room casualties of the linebacker's beeline back to football. When the Nittany Lions reassembled after their two-week post-Orange Bowl vacation, Posluszny was waiting for them in the gym. Being held out of spring practice left him free to lift three times a week to the rest of the team's two. He put a hurt on any teammate who tried to keep up with him. Set 'em up, knock 'em down, nothing personal. When he wasn't rehabbing the knee, he was tending to the muscles of an already stacked upper body. He ate five lean meals a day and packed on 10 solid pounds. While his teammates ran through practice, Posluszny stood next to Vanderlinden, asking questions, watching, learning. And while they ran agility drills, Posluszny ran his own with Scott, focusing on specific exercises to increase his speed. "He looks like a beast," says Vanderlinden, "and now he's a half step faster." Call it irony, but injuring his knee may have made the best linebacker in college football even better.

The Nittany Lions need every ounce of all he has. Posluszny dominated last season because his speed helped him to roam freely and to follow his instincts to the ball. But this is a different year. The Nittany Lions lost All-America defensive end Tamba Hali and the entire starting secondary to graduation. And even though ticket demand has been so great that the school considered adding temporary bleachers to the 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium, many folks wonder if Cinderella is due for a rough morning after. No one outside of Happy Valley is predicting Penn State can repeat last year's 11–1 run. In fact, most preseason polls rank the Nittany Lions on the fringe of the Top 20. Critics cite a new quarterback, those holes on defense and, of course, one bum knee. "People say, 'All right, you guys aren't going to be good,'" Posluszny says, a slow smile creasing his flatiron jaw. "I say, Fine. Line up. Prove it."

That's just it. Last year's success proved nothing to those who think Penn State will revert to the team that went 3–9 and 4–7 in Posluszny's freshman and sophomore seasons. Posluszny's voice drops an octave as he leans back in his chair in a study hall off the players' lounge, where even the felt on the pool table is Penn State dark blue. "It was bad," he says of his first two seasons. "Coming to Penn State, you expect you're going to do really well every year."

But when the Lions did start to win again, that success brought more attention to the linebacker who tackled everything that moved. Posluszny was the first player in conference history to be named Big Ten Player of the Week three consecutive times. His 256 career tackles leaves him just 88 short of breaking Greg Buttle's school record, and he's been called the best at his position in the history of Linebacker U. by none other than Jack Ham. When the postseason awards were doled out, Posluszny came away with both the Butkus, for best linebacker, and the Bednarik, for best defensive player.

Still, if last winter you asked the average patron at a pub with GameDay on the flat-screen who the best linebacker in the nation was, most would have answered Ohio State's A.J. Hawk. Hawk, who was chosen fifth by the Packers in the NFL draft, should be the one with the Butkus on his mantel they say. In truth, either could have won; both deserved it. The difference-maker was the moment their teams met in prime time on national TV, a 17-10 mutual pounding in which both teams scored the fewest points they would all season. In that game, Posluszny had 14 tackles, including a sack. He was clearly the best player on the field.

Don't tell that to Posluszny, though. "Hawk should've got those," he says of the awards. For once, he's not just being polite. "Let me put it this way: I watch film of A.J. Hawk to get better. I don't think he watches film of me."

IN THE long corridor outside the locker rooms in Penn State's Lasch Football Building, there's a line of portraits of every Nittany Lion All-America, dating back to the single-wing days—the unis haven't changed much—and on through John Cappelletti, Matt Millen and LaVar Arrington, to the blank spot underneath Tamba Hali. That's where the photo of Paul Posluszny, All-America 2005, should hang. He won't let them put it up yet. There's still work to do.

So apologies are due in advance to Akron running back Dennis Kennedy, who'll likely be the recipient of the first lick of Posluszny's 2006 season. And it's nothing personal if, in his second game, Posluszny knocks the gold dust off of Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn's fairy tale. "Like with any great quarterback, I'd love to get a piece of him," Posluszny says. Because with every whisper about his rehabbed knee and every doubt about the mettle of his teammates, the best defensive player in college football becomes more driven to prove his worth, to get better.

Even under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus, that means hell will be paid.