WACO, Texas - Maybe it was fate that drew Shawn Oakman to Baylor, a school built on the promise of redemption, one whose athletic program itself has undergone a conversion as dramatic as any sinner's.
"When I got here," said Oakman, gazing at the endless Central Texas horizon, "I had a lot of growing up to do."
Twenty-one months ago, the Penn Wood High graduate, a large and highly touted freshman lineman, was booted off Penn State's football team. His GPA was low, his penchant for trouble high.
Oakman already was a disciplinary problem when, on March 17, 2012, he was caught trying to steal a hoagie at a University Park store.
Bill O'Brien quickly dismissed him. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson, recognizing the obvious football promise and a personal potential not nearly so clear, reached out to Brian Norwood.
Through Norwood, a former Nittany Lion who is a Baylor assistant, Johnson arranged for the 6-foot-9, 275-pounder to transfer to the budding Big 12 power.
"That was a low point," Oakman said during a break as No. 6-ranked Baylor (11-1) prepared for Wednesday's Fiesta Bowl matchup with No. 15 Central Florida (11-1). "I didn't know what was going on. Coach Johnson called me in his office and said, 'Shawn, you're going to Baylor.' "
For the North Philadelphia native, virtually abandoned by his drug-addicted mother and rescued by an uncle in Lansdowne, State College had been alien enough.
Waco, surrounded by barren Texas scrubland on the Brazos River, 190 miles northwest of Houston, was another planet.
"I'd never seen anything like this," said Oakman, sitting within a few hundred yards of where the skeleton of a new football stadium towered over Baylor's handsome brick campus.
"I felt like God wanted me here. I was at a bad point at Penn State. My grades were bad. I was a disciplinary problem. I had anger issues. And after that incident, I didn't know what was going to happen."
Once enrolled at the world's largest Baptist university as a general-studies major, Oakman sat out the 2012 season. He began his Bears career this fall as a backup.
Despite limited playing time, through seven games he led the Big 12 in tackles for a loss, with 12. He is big, rangy, and, propelled by an anger he believes is finally channeled, relentless in pursuit of quarterbacks and ballcarriers.
"He plays with passion and ability," said head coach Art Briles. "A lot of guys have the ability, but they don't bring it every time. He brings it every time, and that's why he's got a chance to be dominant."
He has remained an understudy at right defensive end to Terrance Lloyd, a senior leader. The next two years, barring injury, further trouble, or early entry into the NFL draft, the position is his.
"I can't wait," Oakman said. "I love football so much. And I've been working so hard. I know there's still a lot of anger in me, but now I can keep it on the field."
Roots of anger
That anger's roots aren't difficult to decipher.
He grew up, virtually parentless, across the street from Imhotep Institute Charter High School. The youngest of five, there were times when, because of his mother's drug problems, he had neither food nor adult supervision.
Eventually, at 10, he and a brother were placed in the care of an uncle, Ken Roberts of Lansdowne, a retired Army chief warrant officer. His brother chafed at the discipline Roberts demanded.
"My uncle is a military guy and he has rules," Oakman said. "My brother left."
Oakman stayed. At Penn Wood, the oversize youngster discovered football. By the time he committed to Penn State, he was rated a four-star prospect.
On the March night his brief, rocky State College stay unofficially ended, he was hungry and the ID card with which he purchased food had a near-zero balance.
At the store, he stuck the hoagie inside his jacket and tried to pay for a juice drink. But a clerk saw the sandwich and confiscated the card. Oakman grabbed the young woman's wrist to get the ID back. She screamed.
"Here I am, this big black guy. This little white girl was really scared. I would have been, too," he said.
He returned to his dorm, but the store had his name and O'Brien was informed. Oakman already had skipped classes and been implicated, falsely it turned out, in a pizza-deliveryman holdup. Penn State's coach had warned him that further trouble would mean dismissal.
Afterward, Oakman agreed to pay the fine for his misdemeanor and wrote letters of apology to teammates and coaches.
"I had to make some changes," he said. "It was a big moment for me. I didn't want to wind up back on the streets or in jail. Even dead."
Baylor, it turned out, was the perfect place for such a lost soul.
The 168-year-old private school of 15,000 students was busy redeeming itself.
Baylor's athletic history had been relatively unremarkable when, in 2003, basketball player Patrick Dennehy was shot and killed by a teammate.
The shocking crime uncovered layers of wrongdoing in athletics - illegal tuition payments, questionable academic standards, failed drug tests that went unreported, and a soon-to-be-fired hoops coach who had tried to misrepresent the shooting as a failed drug deal.
All that trouble seemed to awaken the school's Baptist spirit. With a missionary intensity, the regents hired Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) as president. Fund-raising intensified and a $250 million campus building boom began.
Money was raised not just to redo and replace existing sports facilities, but to add new ones.
The family of former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane, a Baylor alumnus, contributed $20 million toward the new stadium, a 45,000-seat facility that will open next fall.
Baylor sports rebounded. In the 2011-12 school year alone, quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy, the men's basketball team won 30 games, and reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16, and the women's basketball squad, led by Brittney Griner, won a national title.
"Baptists talk a lot about redemption," board of regents president Buddy Jones said last year, "and Baylor University was redeemed. . . . We were given a stay of execution and we hopefully have begun making the most of it."
He might have been talking about Oakman.
The big defensive end who wears No. 2 smiles most of the time these days, even when he's discussing his past.
"I don't blame anybody for Penn State," he said. "It was my fault. I didn't know it then, but I wasn't ready. I just thought I'd be there a while and go play in the NFL. It was like the rules didn't apply to me. I really felt that way until it was too late."
He cried when O'Brien gave him the news and again when he had to face his uncle.
"It was hard," Oakman said, "but I had to do it."
He has revisited Penn State to thank O'Brien and Johnson. But his redemption is not complete. Oakman still must endure 21/2 years of classes, of football discipline, of Texas isolation.
Now, though, he can see a logical next stop for his life.
He dreams still about the NFL and how that would allow him to repay his aunt and uncle and, perhaps, create stability for a family that has had little.
It's a dream easily nurtured at Baylor.
"Look around at all this stuff," said Oakman, flanked by the new stadium and Baylor's Simpson Center, the five-year-old, 97,000-square-foot athletics building. "It's amazing.
"God put me here to take advantage of all this," he said, "and that's what I'm going to do."