UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- You come in as a child," Dan Connor was saying yesterday, "and you leave as a man."
That, more than anything, is how we'll remember Connor's fabulous career at Penn State, the home portion of which ended yesterday in a 26-19 win against Purdue at Beaver Stadium when his defense didn't allow the Boilermakers an offensive touchdown.
He grew up in front of our eyes.
One day, not long ago, Connor was a punk kid, making crank phone calls to a retired Penn State assistant coach, getting himself suspended and embarrassing his old coach and his program. Today, he's the leading tackler in school history, getting 11 against Purdue to break Paul Posluszny's record, which lasted just one year after Greg Buttle had held it for 31.
At Linebacker U., there is no greater achievement.
"Look at the names under him," teammate Sean Lee said, wide-eyed.
Posluszny. Buttle. Brian Gelzheiser. Dennis Onkotz. John Skorupan. Shane Conlan. Brandon Short. Andre Collins.
All but Gelzheiser played in the NFL, which surely is Connor's next stop.
"It's funny, you come in and you're scared because it's a whole new level of football," Connor said, recalling his early days at Penn State.
Some also are immature when they arrive. That was Connor. Man, that was Connor. He had what Penn State coach Joe Paterno described as "attitude" issues early on even though this kid was so talented that Paterno couldn't keep him out of the starting lineup late in his freshman season, '04. Those issues nearly destroyed Connor's career when Paterno suspended him for the first three games of his sophomore season and didn't start him in the next two after he made those despicable calls to former Paterno lieutenant Joe Sarra.
" 'Youth is a disease, but it can be cured,' " Paterno once said, quoting Theodore Roosevelt.
"After that," Lee said, "it was all business with Dan."
"It helped me grow character," Connor said.
If Connor once made Paterno so angry that he wanted to cry, he nearly brought the coach to tears last week for the right reasons. Paterno choked up at a team meeting Friday night when he thanked his seniors for restoring the shine to a Penn State program that had endured three losing seasons in the four years before they signed on.
"I owe them a lot," Paterno said.
Connor can take as much credit as anyone for the turnaround, which saw Penn State share the Big Ten Conference title and go to the Orange Bowl in '05, play in the Outback Bowl last season and be in position, with a 7-3 record, for another New Year's Day bowl as the topper this season. Getting him was "a big plus" for Penn State, Paterno said. At the time, no one in the program knew just how big that plus would turn out to be or the positive legacy that Connor would leave on the program after he wised up.
"He and [Posluszny] are the reasons I came here," said Lee, a junior and already another terrific Penn State linebacker. "I thought we were very similar players with similar demeanors. From the first day I got here, I watched everything they did and tried to emulate them ...
"With Dan, there just are no weaknesses in his game."
What separates Posluszny, Connor and, for that matter, Lee from the other great Penn State linebackers is their ability to play the run and the pass. Conlan might have been the best run-stopper in school history. Onkotz might have been the best against the pass. But Posluszny, Connor and Lee can do it all. They never leave the field in any situation.
"People don't understand how much we ask those guys to do," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said.
It's not hard to appreciate Connor's tackles record. How do you not respect 379 tackles? Posluszny and Lee know the work and dedication that go in to each and every one.
"He already has left me a phone message," Connor said of Posluszny. "I'm sure I'll be busting his chops a little later. I'll text him after each game we play the rest of the year with my updated tackles total."
Don't get the wrong idea.
Connor was kidding.
There will be nothing malicious about those messages.
All in all, the calls to Sarra probably are the only thing Connor would change if he had his Penn State years to do over. He clearly has no regrets about picking Penn State over Notre Dame and Michigan four years ago.
"This is an unbelievable place to play," Connor said.
Certainly, it's better because of Connor.
The kid who once disgraced Paterno's program has become a man who has made it proud.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .