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December 15, 2009

State College player's dilemma: Stay or Go?

MORE: Texas brothers dedicate state title win to their late father | RivalsHigh's Top 100 football teams

The crowd at Beaver Stadium is roaring.

The light at the end of the tunnel is in sight. The click-clack of cleats on the concrete floor creates a pulsating melody. Then, there's the announcement:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, your Penn State Nittany Lions!"

That illustration has been painted in the mind's eye of football players from State College High School for decades.

Well, except for Alex Kenney.

*****

Kenney hates being part of a crowd. He likes to separate himself from the pack much like he does on the football field every Friday. So when it came time to choose the school where he would write the next chapter of his football career, Kenney wanted to get as far away from State College as possible.

"Early in the recruiting process I really wanted to get out of town," he said. "So many State College High School kids go to Penn State. I thought I'd be just another local kid."

Kenney, 18, is a unique case though. Few players have accomplished what he has during his high school career as a running back and wide receiver: eight playoff wins, more than 3,000 total yards gained, and this season, a conference-leading 28 touchdowns scored and the chance to play for a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Class AAAA title this Saturday night in Hershey.

It's the end of a high school career that started slowly.

Kenney played minimally as a freshman, but even then, the team's head coach, Al Wolski, recognized Kenney was a special player.

"The coaching staff knew he could be a (Division I) recruit," Wolski said. "He had so much speed. He just needed to mature."

Kenney did exactly that.

Versatile as both a running back and a wide receiver, he led the team in receiving and touchdowns scored during his sophomore season, accumulating 344 yards on 14 receptions and 13 touchdowns - four receiving and nine rushing. He earned his first all-state selection.

The following year, Kenney truly made a name for himself in a Week Nine showdown between undefeated teams, as State College faced Bishop McDevitt.

Trailing in the second quarter and its offense grounded for much of the first half, State College looked for a spark. They looked for Kenney.

Kenney took a handoff, found an open lane, and sprinted toward the end zone. The end result was an 80-yard touchdown run that helped propel State College to a crucial 20-19 victory. The team would end the regular season with a perfect 12-0 record. Kenney earned his second all-state selection.

Kenney has been the star all season for State College, the No. 37 team in the RivalsHigh 100.

Heading into Saturday night's state championship game against LaSalle, he has capped his scholastic career with a bang, scoring 28 touchdowns in his senior season - 20 rushing, five receiving and three on interception returns while playing defensive back. He leads the area with 12 interceptions on the season and now has 55 touchdowns in his career.

It was clear Kenney's talent and size could take him far beyond the town limits of his State College. Kenney (6-0, 194) is ranked as the 16th best overall recruit in the state and given a three-star rating heading into his senior season, both from Rivals.com. His ability to change a game in one play attracted schools from all over the East Coast. Boston College, Virginia, South Carolina and others were interested.

Last spring, in a pile of scholarship offers, was one from Penn State. The school was determined not to let homegrown wide receiver slip out of its grasp. Still, Kenney remained steadfast in his opposition to attending his hometown university.

*****

All big-time recruits get people pushing them to certain schools. But usually it's just limited to a few fanatics trying to help out their alma mater.

In State College, it's different. The whole town pulls for Penn State.

All big-time recruits get their family pushing them to certain schools. But usually it's just limited to their desire to have their son stay close to home.

With Kenney's family, it was different: His father, Larry Kenney, worked at Penn State as a professor of physiology and kinesiology.

"A lot of people in the community would come up to me and try convince me to go (to Penn State)," Kenney said. "I still wanted to see what else was out there. It was more of a backup (option)."

Slowly that changed.

Kenney looked at the current Penn State roster, which features three successful fellow State College High alums in junior kicker Collin Wagner, sophomore linebacker Nathan Stupar and redshirt freshman defensive end, Matt Kenney, who shares a name but no relation to Alex.

Kenney studied the Penn State record books. He saw names of former State High players who played in the NFL: Larry Johnson, a running back for the Cincinnati Bengals; and Matt Bahr, a two-time Super Bowl champion kicker with the Steelers and Giants.

And then there was Mike McQueary, Penn State's wide receiver coach and recruiting coordinator. He provided a unique perspective for Kenney.

McQueary graduated from State High in 1994, and went on to play quarterback at Penn State for the next four years. The recognizable redheaded coach told Kenney exactly what to expect. As long as he performed on the field, no one would identify him as a "local kid." Instead, they would identify him as a Penn State Nittany Lion.

"Mike McQueary is a great recruiter in my opinion," Kenney's father said. "He was able to give Alex a picture of what it's like to be a hometown football player at Penn State."

Something Levi Norwood was eager to do.

Norwood is one of Kenney's best friends. The two started playing football together in the third grade and remained close even after Norwood away to Waco, Texas. On July 1, Norwood announced his commitment - he was returning to State College to play for Penn State.

*****

On July 14, Alex Kenney announced his college choice. He was going to Penn State.

"My family is right here," said Kenney. "I know the campus very well. My father works as a professor here."

His father is thrilled.

"He started to realize the honor of being offered a scholarship to play football at Penn State and to play for a legendary coach," he said. "In the end, the positives started to outweigh the negatives of staying close to home."

While the football-related advantages were clear, his high school coach thought Kenney's close relationship with his family cemented his decision to attend Penn State.

"His family is very close," Wolski said. "His mom and dad were actively involved in the recruiting process. They definitely played a role in his decision to stay (in State College)."

Kenney's father also feels his son wanted to stay close to one of his "best buddies," his sister, Lauren.

"Alex and Lauren are both competitive and have had their share of arguments and scuffles over the years," Larry Kenney said. "However, they quickly make up and within minutes are watching SportsCenter or a movie together.

"They never stay mad at each other for long and have a strong mutual respect for what each other has accomplished. Alex is very proud of Lauren and cheers her on in soccer, ice hockey, and track. (Lauren is a state qualifier in javelin.) Lauren feels the same about him and is proud of her big brother."

His commitment is a big plus for Penn State.

According to Rivals.com, Penn State's 2010 recruiting class ranks third in the country, behind only Texas and Alabama, this year's BCS National Championship Game contestants.

But while the rest of the commits came from far away, Kenney may have had the longest journey.

"I feel like this is the right place for me,'' he said.

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