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Shaka Toney’s influential voice keeps Penn State teammates positive in an unusual season

The redshirt senior defensive end from Imhotep Charter has tried to keep his teammates going with new lessons that he's learned almost every day.

Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral (0) has the ball stripped by Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney during the second half last Saturday. Penn St. won 23-7.
Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral (0) has the ball stripped by Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney during the second half last Saturday. Penn St. won 23-7.Read moreAdam Hunger / AP

During Penn State’s unusual football season, one that came with adversity, stress, isolation, and a lack of success in the first five games, Shaka Toney made sure he kept encouraging his mostly younger teammates as a captain and influential voice while trying to keep them positive.

It’s part of Toney’s evolution in the five years he has spent in Happy Valley since his arrival from West Philadelphia and Imhotep Charter High School, a time when he said he learned to “stop focusing on the negative” and focusing “on what you can control” while constantly learning.

“I’ve grown every day,” the Nittany Lions’ redshirt senior defensive end said Tuesday in a Zoom conference call. “I learn a life lesson or something new every couple days. I learned how to reinvent myself, adapt and adjust and keep learning. Nothing can bother me anymore. The biggest thing I’ve grown is a positive attitude.

“Life is going to happen either way. Be mad. Be upset. And get over it. How are you gonna fix it? How are you gonna get better? What can you do to help? That’s my attitude. I’m not dead. I’m not in jail. As long as I wake up with a fresh 24 (hours), I’m going to go out and be the best person I can be.”

A major lesson for Toney was dealing with the season as a whole. At first football in 2020 didn’t appear likely. Then once the season began, the Nittany Lions struggled to an 0-5 start, the worst in the program’s 134-year history. The losing hurt deeply, but Toney and other team leaders made sure everyone kept going.

“You’ve got to keep working,” he said. “Don’t let what’s going on with us stunt your growth because a lot of people let losing and adversity stop the progress that they make, especially when it’s good progress. They let other things affect the circumstances. You can’t let other stuff affect your circumstances. You’ve got to go out there and compete and do whatever you’ve got to do to be the best person you can.”

“You have to put the team first. We went to the Cotton Bowl. We went to the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl. But that has nothing to do with these people who are suffering right now. You’ve got to make sure that you’re doing whatever you have to do to give your all to them because they chose you to be the leader. How are you going to lead and say, ‘Woe is me’?”

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Head coach James Franklin has been pleased with the leadership shown by Toney, who will be among 12 players honored Saturday at Senior Day prior to the matchup between the Lions (2-5) and Michigan State (2-4) at Beaver Stadium.

“His message in the locker room with our guys and with our team, before games and after games, after success and after setbacks, has been really strong,” he said. “Shaka’s got strong opinions and beliefs, and he’s really handled those things the right way during the season.”

Toney is a very popular figure in the locker room. Senior safety Lamont Wade, also a captain, calls him “my right-hand man.”

“He’s an amazing leader,” Wade said. “He’s great at controlling a group of men, getting guys under his wing, getting guys to go to a certain standard. There’s something about him, that gravitational pull, whatever it is, that he’s phenomenal with. He’s a 100% stand-up guy.”

The 6-foot-3, 252-pound Toney enters the final days of his playing career at Penn State with 19.5 sacks, good for 10th on the program’s all-time list, with four of them coming this season. He is ranked No. 109 by in the 2021 NFL Draft.

With Saturday’s game and perhaps a Week 9 crossover game in the Big Ten the following week, Toney feels he will continue to learn and pass on lessons to his teammates.

“Hopefully people took advantage of the isolation that we had to have this year,” he said, “the life lessons up and down, understanding preparation and taking advantage of opportunities. I just feel like it was a big learning year.”

Franklin also feels that way.

“I’ve learned a lot from Shaka,” Franklin said. “I hope Shaka’s learned a lot from being a part of this program as well.”

Weekly COVID test results

Penn State’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics reported four positive results from 1,269 coronavirus tests administered to athletes during the period from Nov. 28 through Dec. 4. The testing was not broken down by program.