MECHANICSBURG, Pa. - Out here in the dark last week, on a street primarily illuminated by a gleaming front-lawn Santa Claus display in which the father of Christmas commands a single-propeller plane instead of a sleigh, there is a small house with a punching bag in the driveway instead of a car. Adam Breneman works out in this house's garage.
You already might be able to guess this garage doesn't contain a car, either. What it lacks in standard automotive potential, it makes up for in might and force and similarly intimidating nouns, such as power. The garage has a bench, a bar for dips and pull-ups, and pulleys connected to doors and windows.
Breneman, a graduating senior at Cedar Cliff High, just outside Harrisburg, is joined by his friend Brayden Lackey and his trainer, Kirk Kaufman. He wears a gray tank top and navy Penn State shorts and has buzzed, blond hair.
No brace covers his injured knee, though he wears one when he runs. Breneman, a consensus top-three tight end nationally, said his knee is improving and considers himself about 75 percent - and hopes he's ready to contribute when spring practice starts in University Park.
He'll be up there soon. So soon that he and defensive back recruit Jordan Smith already have planned how to furnish their dorm room. He also has gotten his flu and meningitis shots. He knows his class schedule - economics, theater, math, sociology, and English.
Breneman's first day of college is Jan. 7, 2013. If 2012 was about moving forward, as anyone with an office in the Lasch Building, Bryce Jordan Center, or Old Main said, then 2013 is forward - or at least closer to forward. It is the future.
Breneman's name has been printed at the top of this unwritten decree for the last several months. He represents Penn State's football future.
For now, he has a few more days of high school life, a few more days to dole out the punches in his driveway. About a month ago, Breneman claims, he threw his first punch. He didn't punch anyone or anything. On this night, he practices sideswipes and upper cuts while Lackey blocks. A 30-second barrage later, and Lackey can no longer hold his ground, pushed back at least 5 feet by the force.
When Breneman learned he had suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament in June, he cried for about 10 minutes - his career had been threatened. Then he played video games - he wanted a few minutes to himself. Then he called Penn State coach Bill O'Brien - he wanted to tell the man he trusts with his football livelihood that his football livelihood had just been shaken.
O'Brien calmed him down. He reminded Breneman of how Tom Brady suffered a torn ACL and bounced back. He proposed a way to inspire Breneman's rehabilitation, suggesting he finish high school after the first semester and enroll at Penn State in January. Breneman hadn't thought about early enrollment when he committed in March.
It would be easy to say Breneman always knew he would be a Nittany Lion considering his national ranking and central Pennsylvania hometown. But that isn't the truth.
He grew up liking football, but he wanted to quit after the second week of practice in elementary school. His mother, Sherri, described Breneman as so lanky and tall back then that he fell over himself. As an eighth grader, though, he starred for the Cedar Cliff freshman team, catching 55 passes.
Breneman grew up a Penn State fan, going to games once or twice a year, but said he probably wouldn't have committed to Penn State under the former regime's tight-end-averse offense. When he met O'Brien for the first time, he saw change. O'Brien played clips of New England Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez next to clips of Breneman. The offense piqued his attention, as did the man running it.
"I trust him," Breneman said of O'Brien. "If he were to leave tomorrow, he would have fooled me because I trust my career in his hands. He always stresses that we're making a commitment to him, but also he's making a commitment to us."
Before the injury, Breneman wanted to play basketball his senior year. But then O'Brien asked about the early enrollment. Breneman told him he would be in State College in January.
The looming intensive rehabilitation now didn't look as daunting. Instead of fretting over a vanished senior season, he dug in for five months of work to prepare for Penn State.
"That really changed Adam's perspective of everything," said his father, Brian Breneman.
In the spotlight
Not long after speaking with O'Brien about his injury, Breneman made another phone call, this time to Tom Kirchhoff.
Kirchhoff is a family friend and a fixture in suburban Harrisburg. He tutors young athletes, quarterbacks such as Breneman's younger brother, Grant. Two years ago, Kirchhoff was found to have ALS - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Originally, Breneman planned to solicit pledges for each catch he made his senior year to give to Project ALS on behalf of Kirchhoff. They discussed new ways of raising funds because of the injury, setting a goal of $20,000. They've raised $80,000 plus $80,000 from Kirchhoff's business.
"I knew that being a high-profile recruit I had the notoriety to do something," Breneman said. "I could use it to glorify myself, or I could use it to try to help other people."
He's not kidding about the notoriety. When he committed to Penn State, a retired Nittany Lions fan he had never met took a train by himself from Altoona to Harrisburg to watch. Strangers stop him at restaurants when he's on dates. When he visits campus, which he has done numerous times, he's bombarded with photo and autograph requests in the time he walks from the car to the stadium.
His fame only increased after the NCAA sanctions. About to start a physical therapy session that July day, Breneman listened on a car radio as NCAA president Mark Emmert punished Penn State. During his session, he handed his phone to his therapist, who saw the calls and messages mount, including college coaches, ESPN, and CNN.
Every week or two since July, he would get a care package sent to his school from a Penn State fan. He also made the mistake of releasing his e-mail address on Twitter. In the flood of messages, he remembers one from Colombia. A Penn State fan wrote: "People are talking about you down here. We're rooting for you from thousands of miles away."
They love Breneman. They're also expecting great things.
Ready to work
The night he announced his commitment to Penn State, Breneman stood before 400 supporters. His coach, Jim Cantafio, spoke first, saying that he was proud and that Breneman probably was nervous and would still need to loosen up before giving his speech.
Breneman walked to the podium. He lowered the microphone and then made a joke about Cantafio's height. The crowd laughed. Breneman wasn't just loose, he was running the show.
Being a highly rated recruit, being the guy associated with staying committed to Penn State, he won't have as much time to "loosen up" in his college career. Especially because he is stepping into O'Brien's position du jour.
This season, redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Carter caught 36 passes for 453 yards. Journeyman Matt Lehman had 24 catches for 296 yards. O'Brien's tight ends produce, and Breneman comes in with a significantly greater pedigree than Carter and Lehman.
"I've always been a driven and motivated person," Breneman said. "I kind of thrive off expectation and people doubting me. It's a lot of pressure, but pressure's a privilege."
So he says he's ready, which is good. The days when he can eat his parents' home-cooked meals and watch his little brother's basketball games and little sister's horse shows are nearing an end.
Sherri and Brian Breneman will drop off their oldest child Jan. 6 at Penn State. A day later, Breneman will need to wake up early for his first true college football experience.
Strength coach Craig Fitzgerald has a workout planned at 6 a.m. It will be tough, cold, and in the dark, and Breneman will know from that point forward, he can't hold back any punches.