Micah Parsons could hardly wait to see his face on the massive video board atop Beaver Stadium. He imagined how cool it would be to hear 107,000 fans roar when he was announced as a starting linebacker for Penn State — as a freshman.
Parsons rolled into Happy Valley last year with much fanfare and no shortage of confidence. A five-star prospect whose roller coaster recruitment was laid bare on social media, he had much to prove as a player and a person. Parsons won over the skeptics, coming off the bench in 12 of 13 games and still putting together the greatest freshman season by a linebacker at the school that proudly touts itself as Linebacker U.
It has been 19 years since Penn State had a linebacker selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Parsons has all the attributes to end that drought.
"He's a generational player," said LaVar Arrington, the last Penn State linebacker to be a first-rounder.
Parsons is still waiting for that first home start, though. Despite being the first player to lead the team in tackles as a freshman, Parsons had a lot to learn. It was not enough to practice hard. He needed to focus when he was not participating. Parsons could make plays because of his freaky athleticism, but after playing defensive end in high school he was taking introductory courses at linebacker. Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Parsons was at the 100-level last year and is now working on 200.
"Oh, yeah, I'm definitely 200-level. I would say I'm pushing 300-level. I'm probably 300-level, to be honest with you," Parsons said.
Definitely no shortage of confidence. Parsons' father, Terrence, said his son needed to be humbled last year.
"And he was a little bit, you know, not happy at first because again this kid has always been the star. Always been on the forefront," Terrence Parsons said. "Now it was like, hey, everybody's a star here. You got to work now and that's what I was worried about because you know he really never had to work. He was playing with God's gift."
Pry said not starting Parsons was not an attempt to teach him humility. It was about getting Parsons to understand what is expected of those at the top of the depth chart.
"It's an approach. It's the in-betweens. When we're not doing a rep (in practice), what's the behavior? It's not the rep. It's the other times. It's trying to get the most out of every opportunity to learn and to grow as a player and recognize that you need that time," Pry said. "You have to take advantage of that."
Parsons was offered a scholarship by Penn State when he was in the ninth grade. The Harrisburg native wanted to commit right then, but Penn State coaches told him he needn't rush. That was the start of a long and winding road to Happy Valley. When Parsons finally signed in December 2017, Penn State coach James Franklin said the book of his career "will probably be five chapters on my career and then 15 chapters on the ups and downs and twists and turns, and the journey of Micah Parsons."
Parsons verbally committed to Penn State in February 2016. He decommited in April 2017. There was a serious flirtation with Ohio State. Parsons named his dog Brutus (like OSU mascot Brutus Buckeye). The Ohio State courtship ended awkwardly after Parsons tweeted, while on a visit to Columbus, that the Buckeyes should make a quarterback change from senior starter J.T. Barrett to Dwayne Haskins.
Then Parsons visited both Oklahoma and Georgia in December 2017, just days before signing with Penn State.
Parsons said he was not ready for the attention that came with being a high-profile football recruit in the social media age.
"The more success you have the quicker you got to grow up and the quicker you realize that the better you're off," Micah Parsons said.
Terrence Parsons said Micah would lament about not being able to act like a kid.
"I said, 'Yeah, you're right," Terrence Parsons said. "You've got two ways to look at this: You could be a kid now and you might have to work a couple of jobs like me and your mom do or become an adult right now and then your dreams can become reality and you can be the biggest kid in the world."
Franklin said he never thought about cutting off Micah Parsons.
"I mean obviously there's frustrations and there's ups and downs and all those types of things," Franklin said. "But we felt like between myself and coach Pry we had a really strong relationship with the kid, with the family, with the high school coach. That if we didn't overreact that we'd have a chance to get him back."
Other players and recruits took notice of all the drama Parsons stirred, including fellow 2018 Penn State signee and linebacker Jesse Luketa.
"When coach Pry told me I was going to room with him I thought, 'Damn, this is going to be interesting,'" Luketa said. "This is a guy who's going to want everything, the attention on him."
Luketa and Parsons are like brothers now. Luketa's biggest complaints about Parsons are his roommate's obsession with the video game Fortnite and his propensity for late-night orders of chicken wings.
"And he tries to guilt me and tell me to eat them with him," Luketa said. "I can't do that. I have to watch. His metabolism is different. I don't get it."
Parsons is different. At 6-foot-3, and around 250 pounds, Parsons has speed like a running back. He made 83 tackles last season despite only one start: He was pressed into the lineup at Rutgers when a veteran was being disciplined.
Parsons will play weak side linebacker, but he has skills to line up almost anywhere. Franklin expects to use Parsons as the secondary returner on kickoffs this year.
"He's got elite characteristics," Franklin said.
Parsons has been on Arrington's radar for years. This spring Parsons and Luketa visited Arrington, who is now the head coach at Maranatha High School in Pasadena, California. Terrence Parsons said Micah's relationship with Arrington is "heaven sent," providing his son insight on what it's like to live in the spotlight and think beyond football.
"I love Micah's way," Arrington said. "He's a very cerebral person. Very, very intuitive."
Arrington won the Butkus Award in 1999 as the nation's top linebacker and was selected No. 2 overall by Washington. He is Linebacker U royalty along with Hall of Famers Jack Ham, Dennis Onkotz and Shane Conlan, and more recent stars Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor. Arrington said Parsons could top them all.
"Who does he resemble the most? It could be a lot of different people because of his capabilities; he can play middle backer or he could play outside backer. He could play d-end. I mean, hell, he could play safety if you want it," Arrington said. "Who do you compare him to? He's the first Micah Parsons."