Senior Farrell fulfilling destiny on Penn State's offensive line
The senior class held Penn State's football program together when NCAA sanctions threatened to tear it apart, and it has propelled the Nittany Lions to six wins in their last seven games. It includes two legacy players — outside linebacker Michael Mauti and running back Mike Zordich.
There is another player in that group who was seemingly born to play for Penn State, and evidence of that can be seen in pictures of offensive tackle Mike Farrell when he was a baby: His parents dressed him in a blue and white sweat suit.
“He was a Penn State football player from 11 pounds,” Farrell's mother, Christine, said.
Farrell may overshadowed at times by Mauti and Gerald Hodges, the outside linebackers who rack up both tackles and accolades, as well as quarterback Matt McGloin, who is etching his name in the Penn State record books.
But it would be hard to find a player who has been more unsung than the Shady Side Academy graduate. Farrell has played both right and left tackle this season — sometimes both in the same game — and the 6-foot-6, 305-pounder has emerged as a stabilizing force on an offensive line that will be tested Saturday at Nebraska.
“He's definitely the vocal senior leader of our offensive line,” said right guard John Urschel. “Whenever we're starting to struggle in a game, he's definitely the one to say something and let guys know that we need to hold each other accountable and we need to play well.”
Farrell earned the right to speak after overcoming a series of spring practices in which he struggled to keep his weight up and keep up with the pace set by new coach Bill O'Brien. He excelled in the summer weight and conditioning program, and the Pittsburgh native won the starting right tackle job in preseason practice.
A ‘blessing' for offensive line
No game showcased his value more than Penn State's 39-28 win over Northwestern on Oct. 6. Farrell played all 99 of Penn State's snaps, and he alternated between right and left tackle when Donovan Smith was unable to play the because of a broken hand.
“Mike has been a real blessing for us this year,” offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said. “I'm just tickled to death with him.”
McWhorter and O'Brien met with Farrell at the conclusion of spring drills, and each delivered a talk that wasn't stern as much as it was matter of fact.
Farrell himself knew he needed to pick it up, and there were mitigating factors as to why he had struggled during spring drills — and saw his weight dip to 280 pounds.
Farrell spent the semester student teaching at a State College middle school, and that along with the demands of football wore him down. It didn't help that he battled stomach flu several times while negotiating a hectic schedule.
“I couldn't seem to get the right amount of rest and the right amount of nutrition,” Farrell said. “Once I got past that and went back to a regular class schedule, it provided a break for me. With the confidence I had from the summer program, I was able to attack the playbook and the offense we're still learning from Coach O'Brien with more confidence as well.”
Farrell's most important work this summer didn't always take place in Penn State's spacious weight room or on the practice fields outside of Holuba Hall.
He was among the seniors who worked around-the-clock to convince younger players to stick with Penn State after the NCAA hammered the football program with sanctions that included a four-year ban on postseason play and a significant loss of scholarships.
Staying the course
Farrell grew up in a Penn State family. His father, also named Mike, attended the school, as did an uncle and several of his cousins. His younger brother, Chris, is a student there, and Farrell had been attending Penn State games for more than a decade before signing with the school as a high school senior in 2008.
Farrell could have transferred and played his final season elsewhere, but he never considered it.
“He's such an upstanding person that he would never dream of doing that,” his mom said. “Even my father said to me, ‘If they give them the death penalty, he can go somewhere else and play.' I said, ‘That would just kill him.' ”
It may seem like it was his birthright to play for Penn State, but Farrell has had to fight for everything he has earned in football. His coordination struggled to keep pace with his growth spurts as a youngster, and even after establishing himself as a premier lineman at Shady Side Academy, Farrell wasn't heavily recruited because he played at a smaller school.
His perseverance at Penn State has put him in a position to chase his dream of playing in the NFL. He will graduate in December with honors, and his plans also including teaching and coaching.
Farrell, who serves as president of Penn State's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, and the rest of the seniors have three more games left in their careers, and their legacy is secure no matter what happens in those contests.
“I know for myself — and I think the entire Penn State community — we're proud of the whole team for how they've addressed a very difficult situation and done the right thing,” his father, Mike said.
Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.