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December 31, 2012
Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
SAN ANTONIO -- Likening themselves to a balled fist, Brendan Mahon and Garrett Sickels said the Penn State commits are holding together stronger as a group rather than the individuals making up the Class of 2013.
At registration for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, the pair shared a message of strength.
"It is harder to break a bundle than an individual," said Mahon, an offensive lineman from Randolph, N.J. "We are very tight, and we are all ready to be at Penn State."
In the wake of sanctions levied against the Nittany Lions football program for its role in concealing Jerry Sandusky's sexual molestation actions on campus -- sanctions that were deemed worse than the "death penalty" by Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel -- many speculated that the team and its recruiting class would fall apart.
For Mahon and Sickels, as well as fellow four-star prospects Adam Breneman of Camp Hill (Pa.) Cedar Cliff and Christian Hackenberg of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, the period of suspected uncertainty did more to solidify the quartet than separate.
"Nothing about this process was tough for me," said Sickels, a defensive end from Little Silver (N.J.) Red Bank Regional. "Really, every reason I chose to attend Penn State was there after the sanctions as was before them. The history, the stadium, the community and the alumni base all stayed.
"I did not commit to Penn State to get to a bowl game, so that was not something that I cared too much about."
Penn State was saddled with a $60 million fine. The program has to deal with a four-year postseason ban, vacate all victories from 1998 to 2011 and serve a five-year probation period.
Current players were allowed to transfer without restrictions of sitting out a season, or they could choose to sit out but maintain their scholarship status.
The recruiting classes were reduced from a maximum of 25 signees to 15 over each of the next four years.
The current class has 18 commitments, which will force the school into some difficult decisions, but few stand stronger than Mahon.
"What the community did in the face of adversity showed what the program was about and not all of the negative stuff that was put out there," he said. "That was the biggest thing for me, really, the community support."
The positive approach taken by those involved with the Penn State program was not mirrored by those outside of it.
For Sickels, it struck close to home.
"At first, my family was really against it," he said. "They were more negative than anyone recruiting me. My mom and dad were very proud and supportive but some family members from other states weren't as much.
"There were some schools that told me I didn't want to be a part of what was about to happen and that I didn't want to be the first class to go in with the sanctions, but I just told them that my mind was set and that if things changed I would let them know. From there, they pretty well left me alone."
Mahon said he wished it were that easy for him.
"I probably had like 90 Facebook messages," he said. "There were coaches that I had to block, and other people were saying some really crazy stuff."
Coincidentally, it was during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl last year when Bill O'Brien was hired to command the program after Joe Paterno had been fired.
Mahon said the new head coach has been nothing but first class, as he was advertised.
"Everyone was saying such good things about Coach O'Brien, and it has been all true so far," he said. "He is a good person and good coach."
In O'Brien's first season, Penn State went 8-4 and 6-2 in Big Ten play -- had there not been , the team would have finished third in the conference and gone to the Outback Bowl.
The success on the field, according to Sickels, was a sign that the panic over the penalties was premature.
"Winning with sanctions is just what we have to deal with," he said. "The team stayed together and did it last year, and we will have to come in and get it done next year."
Neither player said that the Class of 2013 would be a turning point for the program. The players who stayed at the school paved the way, they said.
"We are not the poster child for Penn State's reclamation," Mahon said. "The program is bigger than that."