A career that has challenged him and identified him will end tomorrow, and maybe, in a weird way, that's starting to make sense. All these years, Penn State fans wanted a quarterback change. Instead, they got a quarterback who changed.
Zack Mills never expected a career like this. He never expected the boos, never imagined the losing, never thought he'd last four years as Penn State's starting quarterback and leave without a bowl win.
But you can divide Mills' career into never and always.
As criticism of Mills became impossible to ignore in his final three seasons, he always handled himself with class. He always accepted blame, even when it was his teammates who deserved it. He always handled himself with a toughness fellow players learned to admire.
Mills enrolled at Penn State in 2000. Only a season later, as a redshirt freshman, he started playing and fans started buzzing. Penn State had its next great quarterback.
"Then," center E.Z. Smith said, "people were saying Zack was the best thing since sliced bread, the savior of the program. Now people are saying he isn't any good."
In 2003 and now, in '04, Penn State has flopped, and Mills never reached the standards that were set so high early in his career. He'll leave Penn State with a losing record as a starter, either 16-18 or 15-19 depending on the outcome of tomorrow's game against Michigan State. But he'll also leave Penn State with an experience few college students could imagine, let alone endure.
Mills said that during his career he has become more humble. He has learned to appreciate the passion of Penn State fans, yet he also has fortified his ability to persist against criticism.
The game tomorrow marks an end for the career of Penn State's most notable player in the past half-decade. He'll run one last time from the Beaver Stadium tunnel -- a moment Mills said he will cherish.
Largely a disappointment on the field the past two seasons, Mills characterizes much of what recently has plagued the Nittany Lions. But Mills, through his demeanor, also characterizes much of what the Lions can take pride in.
"I can say I'm lucky enough to know Zack as a friend," safety Paul Cronin said. "When I look back [on his career], I'll see Zack standing in the pocket, taking a hit, doing everything he can to stay in the game. That's why it's hard to hear those things about Zack.
"He's not one to show the abuse, but you can kind of see it takes a toll on him. You hear people shouting stuff at him during a game, and it's hard."
Mills reflects on his career with honesty, adding that he hasn't yet made peace with his on-field failings. For much of the season, speculation swirled that Mills would be lose playing time in favor of strong-armed freshman Anthony Morelli. Mills' play did little to quiet the Morelli questions. Against Central Florida, Mills was responsible for six turnovers. He currently ranks ninth in the Big Ten in passer efficiency, having thrown for eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Still, as a four-year starter, Mills rewrote Penn State's record book. He owns school records for career total offense, passing yards and completions. With two touchdown passes against the Spartans, he'll own the touchdown record, too.
Mills will graduate in December, then try for a spot on an NFL roster. That's probably a long shot. If that fails, he hopes to find work as a high school coach and teacher. Either way, he'll leave with much more than he started with, which didn't always seem certain.
"What am I most proud about?" Mills said.
"Just coming out there and playing as hard as I can every game and giving it my all regardless of circumstances or what our record was. Just trying to handle myself the best way I can, the way my parents have raised me to.
"I hope that's how people will remember me most -- as a good person."
Chico Harlan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1227.