TAMPA - "Chip Hilton" is the main character in a series of sports books for adolescents written by Hall of Fame basketball coach Clair Bee. In 24 novels published from 1948 to 1965, the heroic Hilton not only led his high school team to championships in football, basketball and baseball, he also was an honor roll student, a role model for his teammates and the community, and the kind of boy parents wanted their sons to be like and their daughters to marry.
He was, in a word, perfect. But is there really anyone who embodies all that is clean and virtuous? Especially in these cynical times, when someone who seems too good to be true automatically is perceived as anything but?
Bee, who died at age 87 in 1983, is said to have modeled Hilton after Seton Hall basketball player Bob Davies. But if the old coach were still banging out his tales on his trusty manual typewriter, he might draw inspiration from a 6-3, 295-pound Penn State offensive lineman from Pittsburgh who probably is as close as it ever gets to the Hilton ideal.
"A player like Stefen Wisniewski does not come around very often," redshirt sophomore quarterback Matt McGloin said of Wisniewski, a senior who'll start at right guard when the Nittany Lions take on Florida here Saturday afternoon in the 25th annual Outback Bowl. "He's someone for young kids to look up to. He's a great student, as well as a great player. He excels on and off the field, plus he's as good a person as you'd ever want to meet."
That opinion is universally held by Wisniewski's other teammates, and why not? He was named a first-team All-America by the American Football Coaches Association and a second-team selection by the Associated Press, Walter Camp Football Foundation, CBSsports.com and Rivals.com; he also was a first-team All-America academic selection, the third time in as many years his grades in the classroom probably were as high or higher than what his coaches gave him for pancaking defensive tackles.
Wisniewski, a secondary education major with a 3.90 cumulative GPA (out of a possible 4.0), also is rated the top center prospect for April's NFL draft, even though he prefers right guard, where he feels more comfortable. Oh, yeah, he's also the son of Leo Wisniewski, a standout defensive lineman at Penn State from 1979-81 who played four NFL seasons, and the nephew of Steve Wisniewski, a two-time All-America guard with the Nits (1985-88) who was an All-Pro eight times in 13 NFL seasons.
Top that, Chip Hilton.
But, as faultless as Stefan appears at times, the only thing that will matter on game day is whether he continues to clear holes for Penn State's running backs and help keep McGloin's jersey clean while pass-blocking. Perfection, or as close to it as anyone ever gets in 21 mostly charmed years (he turns 22 on March 22), won't mean much to all those blue-clad fans in the stands if Wisniewski has an off day against Florida's beefy and quick defensive linemen.
"I need to play well," Wisniewski said of his assignment against the Gators, whom oddsmakers installed as seven-point favorites.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, Wisniewski won't be returning to Penn State after the final gun. He plans to remain in Florida to train at Athlete Performance in Pensacola to prepare for the NFL scouting combine in February.
"I'm excited to move on," he said of his following in the pro football footsteps of his dad and uncle. "I'm ready to test myself at the next level."
Wisniewski said he's heard he'll go "somewhere between 20 and 40" in the draft, which means he could be chosen in the middle to late first round, or possibly among the first picks in the second round.
"You don't want to get your hopes up too much," he said. "You've got to realize it's all speculation at this point. The tough thing now is that they have the first round on one day, and the second round the day after that. If I don't go in the first round, I have to wait another whole day. That could be a long wait. But we'll see. I know God has a plan for me."
Curiously, for all the plaudits he's received for his class work and on-field performance, Wisniewski wasn't voted one of Penn State's captains this season. That's easy enough to explain; his busy student-teaching schedule during the offseason precluded him from spending as much time on campus as fellow seniors Brett Brackett and Ollie Ogbu, who were so designated.
Wisniewski doesn't mind not having it all. He came to Penn State to play big-time football and to get a quality education, and he thinks he accomplished his goals on both fronts.
"[Coach Joe Paterno] cares about academics," Wisniewski said. "He actually puts it above football. He'll bench a guy for skipping class. You see it in our graduation rate. We graduate 90 percent of our players. I've been blessed to be a part of a program that puts an emphasis on players getting their degrees."
As far as any comparisons to the sainted Hilton, well, be advised that Wisniewski isn't totally untainted.
"My family and I were leaving Joe's house during the recruiting process," Wisniewski recalled with a smile. "He yelled at me for not holding the door open for my sister and my mom. Then he yelled at my dad for not teaching me to hold the door open for my sister and my mom." *