Four Penn State experts make the case for the top player at the school's marquee position
By Dick Jerardi
Tom Bradley was several years behind Jack Ham at Bishop McCort High in Johnstown and Penn State. So the PSU defensive coordinator knows Ham's game as well as anybody. And he also knows Penn State linebackers, having been around so many of the great ones.
"Jack was one of the smartest players to ever play the game," Bradley said. "He could make up steps by understanding formations and little things in football because of how smart he was."
Bradley and his friends always tease Ham, saying he was so good because he "played behind great front fours" that included Mike Reid and Steve Smear at Penn State and those Hall of Famers with the Steelers. But they could go all out after the passer, knowing Ham had their backs.
"He's a guy who nowadays could come in and play against all the spread teams," Bradley said. "It didn't matter what type of football. We go back over old tapes and watch different people. What he did would have been good for the ages. It wouldn't have mattered what football was like: smashmouth or spread you out. He had that kind of athletic ability and instincts and toughness to play all the different formations. I wish we had him today with all these spread offenses we see because he had the ability to not only hit like a linebacker, but to cover like a strong safety."
Ham was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988, 2 years before he made the College Hall of Fame. He was the rare linebacker who could play in all situations, even in today's age of specialization.
There was simply nothing he could not do. He blocked three punts in 1968. He had an incredible 32 interceptions for the Steelers. And he was always about the little things.
"He told me he never went to an away game without taking four different sets of shoes," Bradley said. "Everything was calculated with him."
The biggest numbers are the wins - four Super Bowls with Pittsburgh and, with Penn State, two unbeaten seasons and a 3-year record of 29-3.
By Bernard Fernandez
Not being one to offend, Penn State coach Joe Paterno always declines whenever anyone asks him to rate the best of the standout players who have passed through the program.
Others, though, aren't so hesitant. Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, for instance, figures the finest linebacker ever to have come through Happy Valley is Jack Ham.
But who does Ham believe is the best? The former Pittsburgh Steelers great now is part of the Penn State football broadcasting crew, and he's not shy about expressing his opinion as to who merits that figurative No. 1.
It remains to be seen whether Posluszny, now a rookie with the Buffalo Bills, achieves the sort of success in the NFL that was earned by Ham, who played in eight Pro Bowls. But during his 4 years with the Lions, Posluszny probably had as much of an impact at his school's glamour position as anyone, including Ham.
He was twice a first-team All-America and broke a Penn State record for career tackles, set by another outstanding linebacker, Greg Buttle, that had stood for 31 years. (Dan Connor passed Posluszny this year.) He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker in 2005, and the Bednarik Award as the nation's premier defensive player in 2005 and 2006. An outside linebacker his first three seasons, he moved to the middle as a senior and continued to dominate.
Watching Posluszny fill the gaps and roam sideline to sideline was like receiving a tutorial in fundamentally sound linebacker play. Sure, he was an outstanding athlete, but it was more than that. The guy simply did not make mistakes.
Posluszny says that being singled out by one of his idols, Ham, means as much to him as any of the awards he has received.
"If it had come from someone else, I don't know if it would have had the same effect," Posluszny said of Ham's endorsement. "But growing up in western Pennsylvania, to me Jack Ham is immortal. For him to say what he did about me was unbelievable."
Or maybe not.
By Bill Conlin
The best Penn State linebacker of all time? That's like ranking blonde women in Sweden or jazz musicians born in Philly.
There are so many great ones that it becomes a subjective endeavor. During the two decades and change I drove to Harrisburg on football Saturdays, then swung through the trees the final 90 miles to State College, I was fortunate to cover three linebackers who not only rank among the best in Penn State history but among the best in college history: Dennis Onkotz, Jack Ham and Greg Buttle.
Buttle was a high energy piece of work who routinely blew up plays and altered game plans with his sideline to sideline nose for the football. I'm going with Buttle as the best Nittany Lions linebaker of all time for purely personal reasons. We're both Margate Beach Patrol alumni. I knew him as a kid. Buttle became as much a legend stroking his way into the Ocean Rowing Hall of Fame as he became while thrilling Paterno with his aggressive style - and antagonizing JoePa with a straight-from-the-hip media presence sportswriters loved.
Buttle was captain of the Lions in 1975 and was a consensus All-American. He holds the Penn State single-game record of 24 solo tackles and the single-season record of 165. During a 9-year career with the New York Jets he was a member of the famed "New York Sack Exchange" and a scheme known as the Swarm defense. He was named to the Jets' all-time team and currently is an analyst for the team's preseason games on WCBS-TV. He also hosts "Jets Countdown to Kickoff" and a postgame show called "The Fifth Quarter" on the club's radio network.
Buttle was a four-sport letterman at Mainland Regional High in Linwood, N.J., and played all of them with contagious enthusiasm, a characteristic that set him apart during his Penn State and Jets careers.
One quote summarizes Greg's winning trait. With the Jets, he once said, "They pay me to practice, but on Sundays, I play for free . . . ''
By Phil Grosz, as told to Paul Vigna
Vinny Testaverde saw Shane Conlan once across the line of scrimmage during his college career. Once was enough to probably gain the former Miami quarterback's vote for the Lions' best-ever linebacker.
Conlan was brilliant in that 1987 Fiesta Bowl, on a night when Penn State recorded one of its most astonishing wins during Joe Paterno's multi-generation tenure. What better way to go out than with a win over the top-ranked team, completing a perfect season and clinching the national title.
That night punctuated a career that featured 274 tackles, including 186 solos. But he was far more than an excellent run-stopper, says Phil Grosz of Blue White Illustrated.com.
"The versatility of Shane Conlan was what kind of amazed me," he said. "Went on to a great pro career, but why he was great at Penn State is that he was great against the run, but they also went into the Fiesta Bowl knowing that he was going to be the linchpin for their special type of defensive setup that they had in that football game to frustrate Testaverde and their passing game. And it worked extremely well. So he was a complete football player."
Grosz compared Conlan to Jack Ham in that both were the last scholarship players taken in their class. Conlan was a Western New York Player of the Year who Paterno decided to add to his stable. "He was like 6-2, 190 pounds, and I guess that Penn State was the only school who would give him a scholarship," Grosz said.
That final choice for Paterno became the NFL's first pick when Buffalo drafted Conlan in 1987. A three-time Pro Bowler, he would later play for the Rams before retiring in 1995. With his ability, he'd likely be among the stalwarts at his position if he were playing the game today.
"I think he was one of the first guys that, as the game changed, he was the type of athlete who became more prototypical of the 1990s," Grosz said. "I think he was maybe a decade ahead of himself with the way the game was evolving. That's what made him so special."