*Warning: This blog is not sarcastic and probably won’t have any innuendos in it. Enter at your own risk.*
So, a four-year Gamecock that spent one year as a Nittany Lion and would do just about anything if it meant that Penn State would win a National Championship… How exactly did I end up here, you ask?
I suppose that if we want to pin the term “defining moment” on a certain point in my life, it would be the day I decided to hang up the cap and goggles after seventeen years of a half-decent swimming career. My junior season on the team at the University of South Carolina had just commenced, but my mind had been mentally finished with the sport for months before that. My coach was upset, which rattled me as well, but as I walked back to my dorm, my mind couldn’t help but feel as free as it ever had. I was finally done. Just a normal kid going to class. That was it. But what I didn’t consider at the time, as my smile began to break out beneath the tears on my cheeks, were the negative effects that had yet to evolve from this choice.
When I chose to attend USC (yes, I’m gonna call it that — get over it), I did so over Villanova. After I stepped foot on that beautiful, southern campus in the fall of 2011, and stood in awe on the sidelines as freshman phenom Jadeveon Clowney went through his pregame warm-up, I just knew that the atmosphere was one that simply could not be replicated by my second choice. Two days later, I was committed to the Cocks.
My first two years were a bit tumultuous, as any college student’s usually are, but they were also some of the most exhilarating I’ve ever experienced. For the first time in so many years, I was training and competing like the athlete I knew I was supposed to be. My teammates became my instant best friends, and most importantly, the Gamecocks were (surprisingly) pretty damn good at that football stuff. But when I made the decision to step out of that life in September of 2014, it felt like I began attending an entirely different school.
Swimming takes up an insane amount of time, so by nature of the fact that I was no longer on the team, I barely saw my friends anymore. I didn’t know who I was without the sport and constantly being immersed in the team environment. In a very, very short period of time, I felt completely alone. I’d done a terrible job at socializing outside of my team, and by junior year, it sorta feels too late to make friends.
If I wasn’t at the gym (ah, so young and motivated) or holed up in the library trying to catch up on my new accounting major, there was a good chance I was lying in my bed, watching some sort of sporting event (shocking). The place I was once having the time of my life at was now one that I was desperately trying to flee. For two years, swimming had served as a wonderful distraction from the fact that the school just wasn’t meant for me.
Not long after I quit the swim team, I actually tried to transfer to Penn State, but was told I’d have to change my major, after I had just finished doing that at USC. “Sorry, but you should still come here for our MAcc program!” they told me. Ridiculously homesick and beyond frustrated that I couldn’t do anything about it, I scoffed at the notion. What they don’t tell you when you’re a rebellious seventeen-year-old is that when you go to college 500 miles away and you’re a major homebody, you’re eventually gonna regret it. My children will be attending the local community college.
My senior year started out hot, and quickly got sucked down the toilet. I was caught up in a brutal living situation, treated the worst I’ve ever been by girls I’d once considered very good friends. Being in my own apartment made me sick and acutely aware of how alone and depressed I was. Constantly, I wondered what was wrong with me, and I yearned for the comforting presence of my family. And of course, as most seniors are, I was subconsciously paralyzed by the fact that I had no idea what I was going to do with my life after graduation. A series of unfortunate events and negative thoughts had piled up on me, and I didn’t see a way out. So close to the end of my four years, it was a hole I no longer had the energy to escape.
Before the aforementioned toilet-sucking, I’d applied for masters programs, at both USC and Penn State — mostly because I had no idea what the hell my plan was and wanted to prolong my not-adulthood for as long as possible. In early October, Carolina offered me nearly a full scholarship to their highly-acclaimed program, so I went ahead and accepted it without even hearing back from PSU. “Why not?” I thought, “Things are turning around for me down here.”
Later that semester, my friend and I were sitting in my room, probably making a very poor attempt at studying for some awful accounting test or another. Penn State had reached out to me, wanting to do a Skype interview while I was home over Christmas break. I’d been blowing them off, even though I was miserable — I’d made my decision, and I just wanted it to be over. Plus, moving sucks.
I’ll never forget when my friend (who I can never repay for this — shoutout Ali Rafoth) turned to me and asked, “Why aren’t you doing that interview? You hate it here.” And for whatever reason, in that moment, I decided that it certainly couldn’t hurt. That was all it took. I was later accepted into PSU, and took on way more debt than I had initially planned, but it felt right. Once again, I was free to start over.
To say I barely made it to graduation alive would be an understatement, but it was time to close that chapter of my life, pick everything up, and begin anew — two hours from home this time.
As giddy as I was to begin my short year in Happy Valley, I may have been even more nervous. I was the only student in my program that didn’t go to Penn State or one of its branches for undergrad. If I was going to enjoy my time there, I knew I was going to have to become more outgoing than I was previously used to. As a small child, I used to yell at people to get off of my porch and not to touch my stuff. Sounds like a grumpy old man, now that I think about it. But this was do-or-die. Shy Caroline? I don’t know her. That’s the beauty of starting over in a place where no one knows you — you can be anyone you want.
I don’t know if it’s because it had an extremely low bar to clear, or I really just had that amazing of a time, but that single year at Penn State changed my life. I have never needed a positive experience so badly, and it was exactly what I uncovered that year in little ole State College, Pennsylvania. After less than a week on campus, my mom stood next to me in my apartment as I organized my binders (like the embarrassing nerd I am), and remarked that she’d never seen me so happy. She still recalls it to this day. It was true.
Gone was the girl who made herself absolutely sick over exams, couldn’t start a conversation with a stranger, and had honestly forgotten how to have fun and truly enjoy her life — the really fantastic one that she’d always had, but had lost sight of it. As corny as it sounds, I walked around on that campus every single day, took in everything around me, and thought to myself, “This is where I’m supposed to be.” It’s honestly hard to explain. I just loved every bit of my life again — the good and the bad. But it was mostly good. In the two years since graduation, I’ve returned so many times, and the feeling still rushes over me throughout each visit. I’m always sad to say goodbye.
One of the best parts of my time at Penn State was that it just so happened to be the year that the football team finally regained national relevance (for good reasons, this time…). My family is full of Penn Staters, and we hosted some LIT tailgates for each home game. The attendees of these ragers were mostly my sister’s friends, but I didn’t care. I drank too much, made a ton of new friends, and had an absolute blast, every single time.
I loved learning. I loved assistant-teaching. I loved meeting new people, and organizing get-togethers with them. I appreciated the fact that I was the lone outsider that had been let into the Penn State cult (damn straight). I felt like I belonged somewhere again.
I cried, multiple times over, when Trace McSorley got drafted in April. Once again, it was hard to untangle my emotions on the matter. I’m not sure if I lost my shit because he’s the toughest player I’ve ever watched, or because his first season as the quarterback was the also the one that I hold so closely to my heart. Maybe both. In different ways, our lives both dramatically changed that year.
Simply put, the 2016 Penn State football season will forever be tied to the year that made me “me” again, and further shaped me into the person I was meant to be today. And because of that, I will never, ever forget it. I spent more time, blood, sweat, and tears in Columbia, and of course, I’m forever a Gamecock, but State College is my home. That’s why I’m a diehard Penn State fan.