UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The drive to New York City is four hours or so, much longer if the traffic swells (it almost always does) or if the State College resident's transportation of choice, the Megabus, breaks down.
In those four hours, the landscape transforms from a lush, green college town, dotted with unimposing mountains, to a jungle of concrete. While it's true that few places on this planet are like New York City, fewer are as different from it as State College. Here, is the university. There, is Wall Street, Madison Avenue, neighborhoods filled with different dialects and languages and skyscrapers that stand as tall as the mountains.
Yet the places are connected through Penn State, through football. When the Nittany Lions play Syracuse Saturday at MetLife Stadium, Penn State will return to the outskirts of a city that has helped forge its past and one it shouldn't forget as the program moves into the future.
A Port Authority Trans-Hudson ride and a few stops on the subway from MetLife Stadium is Joe Paterno's old Flatbush neighborhood. Unlike much of Brooklyn, little has changed in recent years. Families still reside in rowhouses, their front yards tiny and green, demarcating a borderline from the narrow streets.
Paterno grew up at a time when Irish and Italian Catholics dominated this southern corner of Brooklyn. They didn't identify you by neighborhood back then; they identified you by parish.
He, his brother and his friends grew up playing football on those lawns and in local parks. When football took him to State College, he missed the city. As we know, he stayed -- for a long time -- and brought some of the five boroughs with him.
Except for a handful of seasons, Penn State has always had a player from Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens or Staten Island on the roster and several times three or four. The 1986 championship team featured Staten Island's Herb Bellamy, the Bronx's Tom Yahn and Manhattan's Deryk Gilmore.
Most recently, Penn State's New York City connections have come from the same Bronx high school, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy graduates Nerraw McCormack, Stephfon Green and Shaine Thompson played for Penn State a few years ago, and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong plays for Penn State now.
Obeng-Agyapong grew up in the northern Bronx by the Hutchinson River, the son of immigrants from Ghana. Football was a foreign concept as he grew up. He and his friends played basketball on courts between his residential area and the river.
"That's all we did," Obeng-Agyapong said. "During the summer, after school, we'd go out to the basketball courts by my house and play basketball."
It wasn't until high school that he finally played football and when he did, he quickly excelled, making the varsity in his first full season at Kennedy. His junior year, he began attracting attention from colleges with his powerful hits and toughness.
In a game against a rival high school, Obeng-Agyapong played through a sprained ankle. Alex Vega, his Kennedy coach who now coaches at the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School, said that in one game against James Madison High School, Obeng-Agyapong hit an opponent so hard the player's ear pads flew out of his helmet.
"It looked like he exploded," Vega said.
The modern stereotype for football in the five boroughs is this: It isn't any good. All the best players are in New Jersey or southern Connecticut.
It is true that New York City kids face a disadvantage in the sport, especially those in the public schools. A lack of funding prevents schools from having junior high football teams. Many players' first exposure to football is in high school.
But Vega suggests football is experiencing a resurgence. More Pop Warner teams have formed at the youth level. Facilities are being refurbished. Obeng-Agyapong remembers how the field he first played on was made of 1980s Astroturf, a surface so tough you would split open the skin on your arm when you hit the ground. That field, he said, has caught up to modern-day standards.
"That's a statement to how New York City football is going," Obeng-Agyapong said.
For many years, Penn State was at the forefront of New York City football. Vega said that when Obeng-Agyapong signed his letter of intent, Penn State was "one of the top destinations for any New York City kid."
"I met [Paterno] twice," Vega said. "One of the things he said to me was he needed to get more New York City kids into the program."
Penn State was at the top of NYC lists or close until 2009 when Doug Marrone was hired to coach at Syracuse. Marrone attended Lehman High School in the Bronx as a teenager. His goal at Syracuse was to make the Orange New York City's team, and he largely succeeded. Syracuse's current roster features eight players from the five boroughs.
Marrone left this offseason to coach the Buffalo Bills and the city is now considered to be open territory, sought after by Syracuse, Connecticut, Rutgers, Penn State and outside-of-the-area schools who show up for top recruits, such as Notre Dame and Ohio State.
The game Saturday will pit two of those schools against each other, just outside the city in East Rutherford, N.J. Obeng-Agyapong has been looking forward to it for a long time, trying the best he can to accommodate all the friends and family who want to see his and Penn State football's return to this area.
"I need as [many] tickets as I can get," he said.psusports
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.