LOS ANGELES - Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson's competitive streak was such that he refused to speak before, during and after games to former teammates who had been traded to another ballclub. It's probably a safe bet that Gibson subscribes to the definition of "fraternization" that describes such activity as "an association on friendly terms with an enemy or opposing group, often in violation of discipline or order."
For Penn State senior cornerback Lydell Sargeant, however, the chance to renew acquaintances with players on the Southern California team has been the best part to date of the Nittany Lions' first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1994 team went 12-0 with a rout of Oregon in a postseason game its sponsors refer to as "the granddaddy of them all."
The only thing that could surpass that camaraderie for Sargeant would be for the sixth-ranked Lions (11-1) to upset No. 5 Southern California (11-1) on Thursday in what will be his final game in a Penn State uniform.
For Sargeant, it's never been necessary to dislike guys in different-colored jerseys to play hard against them.
"It's funny," Sargeant, who spent the last three seasons of his prep career at Cabrillo High in Lompoc, Calif., said of his friendship with such USC standouts as middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, strong safety Kevin Ellison and defensive tackle Averell Spicer. "I've talked up all the USC guys since I've been in college because I know so many of them.
"I've always said Mark [Sanchez] is the best quarterback I've ever seen play personally. Watching him on film I can see that he's nothing less than I remember. He makes all the throws and he doesn't make many mistakes.
"My first day here, I went out with Rey because we're really close. I'm also tight with Kevin Ellison and Averell Spicer because I played with them in some all-star games when we were in high school.
"Rey and I hung out together, we went out and got something to eat, then kind of had a night on the town. It was just like old times."
And when Sargeant wasn't fraternizing with the Trojans, he was serving as an impromptu tour guide for his Penn State buddies, many of whom had never been to California and possibly were expecting movie stars to be standing on every corner.
"Lydell got even more telephone calls than usual and a lot more guys kept popping into his room to ask about this or that," said strong safety Mark Rubin, another member of Penn State's all-senior starting secondary. "He sort of took it upon himself to make sure that everybody was having a good time out here."
Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who recruited Sargeant, smiled at the notion that a trip to the Los Angeles area for the Rose Bowl was much of a homecoming for Sargeant.
"I know Lydell is excited about the opportunity to come back to the area, but come on," Bradley said. "How much of a tour guide can he be? Lompoc is, like, 180 miles [closer to 120] away."
As a kid, Sargeant moved around a lot because of his father's Air Force career, so adjusting to new places and people was never much of a problem. Sargeant spent several years in Pittsburgh and was a close friend of Justin King when both were freshmen at Gateway High. King also went to Penn State, but left after his junior season and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams.
"My final two schools when I was being recruited were Oregon and Penn State," Sargeant recalled. "I spoke with Justin and with [linebacker] Sean Lee, who also is from Pittsburgh and whose family is close to mine, and we all decided we wanted to go to the same school. It was like a pact. That's how we all wound up in Happy Valley."
Sargeant arrived at Penn State as a running back - he rushed for 1,772 yards and scored 23 touchdowns as a senior at Cabrillo - but his transition to cornerback was virtually seamless. He is coming off his best season , intercepting a team-high four passes en route to being voted second-team All-Big Ten.
"Lydell can play either cornerback position and never miss a beat," Bradley said. "He's always prepared, always plays smart. What really impresses me is how well he understands the game."
Several NFL scouting services have projected Sargeant as going as high as the third round of the draft.
Whatever happens, Sargeant figures he's on a journey of self-awareness in which football plays an important part, but not the only part. He was active in President-elect Barack Obama's campaign and got to present him with a Penn State jersey during a State College appearance on the campaign trail.
"He was speaking to me but I really couldn't hear what he was saying," Sargeant said. "Toward the end of our conversation he said, 'I'm proud of you.' I was stunned. I'm pretty sure that was the only part of the conversation I remember." *