To sum up his feelings about being named a captain for the 2020 Penn State football season, Shaka Toney pointed to one of his idols — six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
“I remember a clip where he was talking about his biggest honor,” Toney said Wednesday. “Despite all his achievements — and this is championship Tom Brady, not early Tom Brady — he said that his biggest honor was being named captain his redshirt senior year at Michigan. I always wanted that, to truly be seen as a leader that everybody always could look to.”
It came true for Toney. The redshirt senior defensive end from Imhotep Charter High School is one of eight Nittany Lions captains, a development that left him “surprised” and “overwhelmed.” It excited his teammates, especially those who line up with him on the defensive front.
“They went crazy,” he said. "They were throwing their [play] books and stuff in the air. I couldn’t believe it, honestly. I didn’t know if I was going to get it, hoping for it but I was going to support whoever did get it. I was fortunate enough to receive it and it’s an honor. I just feel truly blessed.
“I’m a kid from West Philadelphia. I never thought that in my last year of school I would be a captain at a school as prestigious as this. I’m going to do my best and do everything in my power to represent the Blue and White and do whatever I can to just show that I’m deserving of this opportunity.”
Toney’s leadership skills and his attitude have evolved during his time at Penn State. He described himself as “a real negative person” in high school, but that changed. He became more positive and said he wanted to become the “ultimate teammate,” someone who is there for advice, instruction, a kind word, or some tough love.
“He’s been a guy I can talk to,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “He’s always pointing me in the right direction. It’s going to be some tough love with Shaka, but at the end of the day he’s going to have your best interests at heart because he really cares about you and about the team as a whole.”
First-year defensive line coach John Scott Jr. discovered that when he first met Toney.
“I was impressed at how good of a teammate Shaka is, how connected he is with the guys,” Scott said. “When he walks in that room, it’s like all the guys look up to Shaka because of the way he plays and that he cares deeply about his teammates. He can have an unbelievable presence in the meeting room.”
Toney said it’s important to get to know his teammates. If someone isn’t talking, he’ll approach the player to make sure he’s all right. He said he sleeps with his phone “under my face” if someone ever needs to talk.
“It’s just showing people that you’ve always got a brother in Shaka,” he said. "There’s never a time that you can’t call me. It brings me joy in life just to give back to people because I had so much given to me, and what’s better than giving back to the people that you see every day?
“Being the ultimate teammate, it doesn’t take talent. It just takes you caring about the person that you see on a day-to-day basis. I tell my young guys all the time, ‘Don’t walk past me and not speak.’ Don’t walk past anybody and not say something because you never know what that ‘Hello’ or ‘Hey, how ya doin’?' is going to do for that person’s day.”
This is a big year for the 6-foot-3, 252-pound Toney, who was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season when he had 6 ½ sacks and eight tackles for losses, and can move up the NFL draft board with another solid season. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry knows he can do it.
“His pass-rushing ability is elite,” Pry said. “What people don’t understand is that he’s an every-down guy. He knows how to play with leverage. He might be the smartest guy on our defense from understanding his position and mastering his craft. He’s just in a really good place. He’s a big, big part of what we want to do.”
While there was a celebration in the Lasch Football Building when Toney was named a captain, he decided to low-key the news with his family, sending them what he called “a simple little text.”
“My Mom was crying,” he said. "My sister Noel was crying. My sister Nettie sent a 30-minute speech through a text. Friends and family, people just pouring in the love and I felt truly appreciative.
“A lot of people were telling me I was deserving of it. I didn’t know if I was, but I know what I’m going to do to uphold it now that I have the opportunity.”