The 1982 Penn State national championship team was not only one of Joe Paterno's best, it was one of the best teams college football has ever seen. In When the Lions Roared, Bill Contz, one of the squad's offensive linemen, details that special season and the experience of playing for a legendary coach. This includes star quarterback Todd Blackledge having some interesting animal encounters along the way.

The national high school graduating class on 1979 included marquee names like Elway, Marino, and Kelly. That same class included a strong-armed prep signal-caller from North Canton, Ohio, who felt college basketball was in his future until a revelation at a prep All-Star camp the previous summer opened his eyes.

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"Basketball was my favorite sport to play in high school," Todd Blackledge said. "I was an inside player, but at 6'4", wasn't quite big enough to play there at the college level. I went to the B/C All-Star Basketball Camp in Milledgeville, Georgia. The camp invited around 250 of the top players in the country." The overall experience helped crystallize what sport Todd would choose for his future. "I had to guard Ralph Sampson a few times," Blackledge said. "I came up to his navel. I never saw guys 6'8" or 6'10" that could do the exact same things skill-wise that I could do. I left that camp thinking football wasn't such a bad thing and the better way to go."

Pundits agreed. Football analyst and computer scientist Dr. Charles Howell published his National 100 list of the top high school football players. Blackledge was 77th on that list. "I wasn't being recruited [for basketball] the same way I was in football," Blackledge said.

Football was a way of life in the Blackledge household. Todd’s father, Ron, played tight end at Bowling Green University and then coached college football at Cincinnati and Kentucky. "My dad was the head coach at Kent State my senior year," Todd said. "I thought about going there and playing for him, but his situation was a little tenuous there at the time."

The criteria Blackledge would use to make his decision wasn't all that complicated.

"I wanted to go somewhere where I could throw the football but also to a place that was gonna compete at a championship level versus winning two to three games a year," he said. "It also couldn't be too far away from home, so my parents could enjoy the experience of me playing. I narrowed it down to Tennessee, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan State. The basketball program at one of them helped elevate the school to the top of that list. My first visit was to Penn State. I had a good time there but probably liked Michigan State a little better. Their head coach was a guy named Darryl Rogers and liked to throw the ball all over the place. During my visit I also attended a Michigan State basketball game when they had Greg Kelser and Earvin Johnson. That was pretty exciting."

Todd Blackledge

Program stability was a pivotal factor, and keen parental advice proved prophetic. "My dad felt that Darryl Rogers was kind of a warm weather guy and might not be there long," Blackledge said. "Sure enough, a year later he went to Arizona State. The deciding factor for me was that I wasn't sure how long Darryl Rogers would be there, and I knew Joe wasn't going anywhere at Penn State. The stability of his program was the key for me."

Blackledge's freshmen class spent their first two weeks on campus crammed into the long-ago-torn-down military dorms located adjacent to the indoor ice rink and a stone's throw from the practice fields. By the fall of 1982, these barracks would eventually be converted into single occupancy dorm rooms, but in August of 1979, Paterno decided to wedge his players in two to a room, a possible penalty for losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl the previous January.

The rooms were roughly the size of a modern day walk-in closet and made for a rather intimate setting for players to get further acquainted. A lone desk was wedged in between two closets accompanied by standard-size, cast-iron bunk beds built to accommodate normal-sized people. Players over six feet tall learned to sleep curled up at night primarily because dangling your feet over the edge of your bed would cause undue pain and suffering to feet and ankles, already sore from the two-a-day practices, when anyone pushed open the door to enter the room.

"The one thing I remember was how close those barracks were to the locker rooms," Blackledge said. "I'm not sure if Joe was trying to save money, but they were not spacious living conditions by any means."

The conclusion of preseason camp meant vacating the cramped accommodations and moving into more spacious dorm rooms elsewhere on campus. The change in scenery would prove especially challenging for Blackledge.

"After we broke preseason camp, my first roommate was Dick Maginnis, and we were as opposite as opposite could be," Blackledge said. "Joe's philosophy was to try and pair guys who were opposites. After a while I almost quit and went home. It was really difficult."

Maginnis had grown up in State College, and his rather laid-back lifestyle presented another challenge for Blackledge. "Dick had a lot of local redneck type friends that chewed, drank beer," Blackledge said. "I listened to R & B, soul music and hung out with a lot of the black guys on the team. Dick and I clashed in a lot of different ways, but the biggest one involved a little divine intervention. A few weeks into the season, Dick gets a pet python. Now I hate snakes to begin with, but he decided to keep it in our dorm room in a little aquarium. I remember him having to put this big glove on to feed the python small mice."

Todd Blackledge

Housing pets in a 9 x 12 dorm room meant there aren't many places for reptiles (and their prey) to hide. "The mice were always getting loose in the room," he said. "Worse, the snake got loose a few times. One time it wound up curled up under my covers. That kind of put me over the edge. I went to Joe a couple of times. Part of it was that I was hurt. [Blackledge broke his hand his freshman year and redshirted] and wasn't playing. I was feeling sorry for myself and actually contemplated going home. Joe called Maginnis into his offce. After that Dick and I had a come-to-Jesus meeting. He was visibly upset and told me he didn't want to lose his scholarship."

The upcoming holiday season would spell doom for the python. "The dorms were closed around the holidays, and Dick had to take the snake home during Christmas break,” Blackledge said. "The problem was that his mom wouldn't let him keep it in the house, so he kept the snake up in the attic where it froze to death so it never came back after Christmas."

The python's utter and untimely demise did not deter Maginnis' attempts to turn his dorm room into Wild Kingdom. "Things were okay for a while," Blackledge said, "but later in the winter term, I went home for the weekend, came back, and Dick was in our room along with a Saint Bernard. I came in and the dog was laying on my bed just drooling all over it. It was the last straw. He was ready to live with somebody else and so was I."

Another freshman from the same recruiting class also gave second thoughts to making a change. "My first roommate my freshman year was Lou Bartek," Curt Warner said. "Personally, I liked Lou, but we really didn't blend as roommates. He was a great teammate, but I needed to go in a different direction. It just wasn't the right chemistry. At some point Ledge asked me to be his roommate, and I said, 'Sure, why not?' Todd was a good guy; we liked the same music. Academically, Todd was a cut above most of the other players, very smart. I learned quite a bit as far as studying and preparing for class from him. He had a great family, went to the same bible study. We formed a great relationship and are still good friends to this day."

-- Excerpted by permission from When The Lions Roared by Bill Contz. Copyright (c) 2017. Published by Triumph Books. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow Bill Contz on Twitter @BContz.

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