ONE DAY, in the not-too-distant future, Paul Cianciolo will cease delaying the inevitable and live the first day of the rest of his life.
In that next phase of what thus far has been an impressive legacy of accomplishment, he will wear a uniform of a different sort: business suit, neatly knotted tie, possibly a pair of natty wingtips. He will carry a briefcase and bring to the business world the same integrity and dedication he has brought to the field these past 5 years as a backup quarterback for the Penn State Nittany Lions.
But until that day arrives, Cianciolo - who is listed as a senior in eligibility although he is, in fact, a graduate student - will hold on to one of the last vestiges of his youth as if it were a precious jewel that has to be pried from his grasp. He has one more game to prepare for, although, as always, he has no assurance he will take any snaps against the guys in the different-colored jerseys. This time, though, the possibility of his name being called has been raised higher than ever before.
And if it comes to pass that Cianciolo is required to lead his sixth-ranked team against No. 5 Southern California in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl, instead of merely standing along the sideline in deep reserve, he insists he will be ready . . . as ready as he has been since he arrived on campus in the summer of 2004 as a player with dreams that to date have largely gone unfulfilled.
"I'm one play away now instead of two," said Cianciolo, who rose from No. 3 to No. 2 on the depth chart after Daryll Clark's primary backup, Pat Devlin, informed coach Joe Paterno of his decision to transfer out of the program. "I'm happy about that. I came here to compete at the highest level of college football. USC in the Rose Bowl is about as high as it gets.
"Hopefully, I'll have the rest of my life to work. You only have one opportunity to play college football. I'm also looking forward to playing for our baseball team at Penn State again." (He is a long reliever who appeared in 12 games last spring.)
After Anthony Morelli's 2-year hitch as Penn State's starting quarterback ended at the conclusion of the 2007 season, Paterno was left to choose from three players with minimal experience at football's most important position. There was Clark, a powerful runner with a strong but occasionally scattershot arm; Devlin, the prototypical pocket passer who set the Pennsylvania high school career passing record by throwing for 8,162 yards at Downingtown East, and Cianciolo, whose only meaningful playing experience in Happy Valley consisted of a large chunk of the fourth quarter in a 2006 game against Michigan when Morelli and Clark suffered concussions on back-to-back series.
Paterno insisted that, going into preseason practice, it would be a three-man competition for the starting job. Most fans and media members figured it was more of a two-man race between Clark and Devlin.
"Don't forget Cianciolo. He's a good quarterback, too," JoePa said at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago, when reporters pressed him for insight as to whether Clark or Devlin held the inside track.
When Cianciolo returned from a 6-week internship with an investment bank in New York, one of the first things he saw was a magazine on whose cover was a photo of Devlin and Clark, standing back to back, gunslinger-style. The accompanying story about their spirited duel for the starting quarterback slot made no mention of Cianciolo, a dean's list student who graduated in August 2007 with a near-perfect grade-point average of 3.94. He currently is working a master's in business administration and is on track to be awarded that in May.
Some grad students with stellar academic credentials might have concentrated on their studies instead of coming back for another season of clipboard holding. But the 6-4, 225-pound Cianciolo is a scrapper who, he insists, took Paterno at his word that he would be given every opportunity to earn the top spot.
"My love of competition brought me back to football," Cianciolo said. "I sat down with coach Paterno before the season and he told me the job was open, that I had as much chance to win it as Clark and Devlin. That's what I wanted to hear. But sometimes things work out the way they work out.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't at least a little bit discouraging that the media approached the situation the way that they did. I was told I had a chance to start, and I wouldn't have traded that for anything in the world. Now, whether it really was an equal shot, we may never know. But if you're going to have one person championing your cause, coach Paterno is a pretty good guy to have. He's always said nice things about me, and I appreciate that."
Cianciolo has appeared in a mop-up capacity in three games this season, completing six of nine passes for 86 yards and one touchdown. He is as aware as anyone that Clark was knocked out of the Ohio State game with a concussion, which opened the door for Devlin to come in and score the winning touchdown, and he said he is prepared to do the same thing if called upon.
"I never had an itch for media attention or to be recognized walking down the street," said Cianciolo, whose brother, Joe, was a senior linebacker for Penn State in 2006. "I play football because I love the sport. I love playing quarterback, I love being out on the field with 10 other guys and taking the ball from our side of the field to our opponent's side of the field.
"It can be frustrating to feel like you're being overlooked because we're all human, but it didn't in any way affect my game. In terms of mental preparation, I'm doing everything the same as I did [before Devlin left the team]. The only difference is that I'm getting more repetitions now. I've shaken off the rust. My timing with the receivers has been great. I'm not missing a beat out there." *