SO, WHAT'S IT like when your most optimistic dreams are not only realized, but exceeded? When someone very confident in his own ability surprises even himself?
"When I first got here and my injuries happened, I never thought I would be where I'm at today," Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still said of the waves of honors that have washed over him this season like the surf on Oahu's North Shore. "But I kept focusing on the things I had to do and the goals I set for myself when I stepped on this campus."
The journey at times admittedly seemed endless and fraught with disappointment for the fifth-year senior from Wilmington, Del., by way of his native Camden. There were, of course, the injuries: a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee as a true freshman in 2007, and a broken left ankle during preseason camp in 2008. Then there was the unfortunate incident of April 8, 2008, when Still was accosted in Penn State's dining hall by a knife-wielding teammate, wide receiver Chris Bell, who accused him of taking a cell-phone case from Bell's locker.
Not surprisingly, Still would rather not rehash the dining-hall brouhaha with Bell, who was dismissed from the squad and transferred to Norfolk State where he finished out a mostly uneventful college career. He also is clearly pained by the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal, the shocking firing of coach Joe Paterno and the storm clouds those events have placed over a good season for the Nittany Lions, and a better season for himself.
"I don't think anybody in the history of college football has had to go through what this school went through," Still said of the scandal and its aftermath, which is ongoing. "For us to stay together, to keep moving ahead and to play our hearts out says a lot about the character of this team."
Maybe the brightest spot in the dark times of the past 8 weeks in not-so-Happy Valley is Still's certification as one of the great players in Penn State's rich football history. That qualifies as something of a surprise, seeing as Still received only modest recognition as an honorable mention pick on the All-Big Ten team following the 2010 season.
"To be honest with you, no," the 6-5, 310-pounder said when asked if he could have imagined all the individual honors that have come his way after one of the most dominant campaigns ever recorded by a Penn State d-lineman. "I thought I was going to have a good season, but this . . . I didn't even know there were, like, 10 All-America teams. That's a big surprise to me. All I can say is that I'm really honored."
For his integral role in helping 24th-ranked Penn State to a better-than-anticipated 9-3 record and berth in the second annual TicketCity Bowl against 12-1 and No. 20 Houston on Jan. 2, Still indeed was named to 10 All-America first teams. Not only was he selected as the Lions' Most Valuable Player, but he joined PSU legends Courtney Brown, Jimmy Kennedy, Tamba Hali and Jared Odrick when he was selected as the Big Ten Conference's defensive lineman of the year, and Brown, Odrick, Michael Haynes and LaVar Arrington as the league's defensive player of the year. He also was a finalist for the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards presented to college football's defensive player of the year.
"Pretty amazing stuff," Still conceded.
Of course, "amazing" is a word that is not entirely quantifiable by statistics, although Still's were exemplary: 55 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, a fumble forced and a fumble recovered. But those figures become even more impressive when you consider that the oft-injured guy who logged only 10 total snaps in his first 2 years in State College was routinely double-teamed. When he wasn't making game-changing plays himself, Still tied up so many blockers that it freed up other d-lineman, most notably fellow starting tackle Jordan Hill, to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
Hill, a junior, admiringly describes Still as a "beast," which is very much a compliment when you're speaking about someone whose job description is to make life miserable for offensive linemen, running backs and quarterbacks.
It's a fairly safe bet that Houston center Chris Thompson, right guard Kevin Korsch and right tackle Rowdy Harper are spending some restless nights wondering how they can keep Still from collapsing the pocket around the Cougars' record-setting quarterback, Case Keenum, and munching on running backs Charles Sims and Michael Hayes as if they were so many leftover holiday treats.
Still's emergence as a nearly unstoppable defensive force began in earnest on Sept. 10, when powerhouse Alabama opted to assign two blockers to him on nearly every play. Even so, Still wowed Crimson Tide coaches after the No. 2-ranked team in the country left Beaver Stadium with a 27-11 victory.
In truth, Still gave advance notice of his intention to make 2011 a special season for himself in the Outback Bowl that capped the 2010 campaign, a 37-24 loss to Florida. Playing head-up on perhaps the nation's most dominant offensive lineman, Mike Pouncey, he registered seven tackles, including 3.5 for negative yardage.
Generally quiet and unassuming, Still, one of the team's co-captains, cites Odrick, now a second-year pro with the Miami Dolphins, with setting the example for the leadership-through-example he is now passing along to younger teammates.
"Jared showed us all the time how to go 110 percent on every play," Still said. "That's just something I learned. You have to show by example and go hard every chance you've got."
The NFL awaits Still, a potential first-rounder, and he admits that he looks forward to the day when those hefty paychecks will enable him to provide more creature comforts for his longtime girlfriend, Channing Smythe, and the couple's 20-month-old daughter, Lehsari, whom he describes as "my biggest motivation" for succeeding.
"But right now, my only focus is doing what I can to help this team win its bowl game on Jan. 2," Still insisted. "On Jan. 3, I'll start thinking about the next level."