Work ethic, determination and perseverance.
Are those internal qualities in-bred, genetic, simply you have them or you don’t? Or can they be taught, coached and instilled?
Graham Zug believes they can be. And while his greatest teaching tool is his own shining example, Zug also uses work ethic, determination and perseverance to get his message across.
After graduating from Manheim Central in 2006, Zug walked on and made the Penn State football roster, earned a full athletic grant-in-aid for his education and eventually became a starter for the Nittany Lions. Now his journey of overcoming has landed him in Palmyra, where he is beginning his second season as the Cougars’ receivers coach.
Unofficially, practice for the 2013 scholastic football season got underway this week with heat-acclimation conditioning. Summer practice for the fall season begins in earnest on Monday.
“Those are things you’ve definitely got to have inside of you,” said Zug. “As a coach, it’s your job to bring it out. What we want them to do is trust their work ethic and trust that the coaches can bring the best out of them. I think I’m able to do that with some of these kids, to get them to trust us and to trust themselves. I think the biggest thing is getting kids confident, maybe to the point that they’re a little bit cocky. And then maybe they can get other kids to think the same way.
“The kids know I played at Penn State,” continued Zug. “They know I won the state championship at Manheim Central. Kids will ask me: ‘What was Joe (Paterno) like?’ ‘What was Penn State like?’ The kids enjoy talking to me. We have a couple of kids who have an opportunity to play at the next level. They definitely know my past and I hope it’s something they can respect.”
“It might be a little bit of both,” said Palmyra head coach of nature-versus-nurture debate. “I think there’s a lot of kids who have those attributes. But they don’t have someone like Coach Zug in their life to help them find them.”
Upon his graduation from Penn State in 2010 with a degree in Kinesiology, Zug wasn’t exactly sure which way his life was headed and whether or not football would be a part of it. When he was initially offered the Palmyra coaching position through a friend of his father’s, Zug turned it down.
But Zug’s life settled down. He got married and took a full-time position as a sales manager with Scotts Miracle Grow. And when the Cougars asked again, this time Zug said ‘Yes.’
“They asked me to coach, but I turned it down,” Zug said. “After a year, they gave me another shot. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, but I really do. It’s exciting.
“I definitely thought about it (coaching) when I was at Penn State,” added Zug. “But I didn’t think I’d do it this early. I think I just kind of missed the sport and I wanted to get back into it.”
“The first year I contacted him, he thought about it, but wasn’t quite sure he could commit to it,” said Pope. “After he got a year under his belt, he realized he could do it. I’m so happy he’s coaching with us. He’s an excellent wide receivers coach.”
During Zug’s first season at Palmyra, the Cougars went 0-10 and dressed only 24 players. That represented a far cry from his glory days at Manheim Central.
“It is a lot different,” said Zug, 26. “Palmyra has the sport of lacrosse, and unfortunately year-round tournaments keep kids away from football. It seems like at Palmyra, football was a top priority as far as getting kids out. I think it’s been heading in the right direction the last few years. Last year we just didn’t have enough kids. And these kids are going to get a ton of learning experience this year. Coach Pope is a great head coach. He’s getting kids to believe that football is an awesome sport.
“I definitely could see myself being a head coach some day,” Zug added. “It depends on the opportunity. I’m definitely not going to rush into a head high school coaching job. And I could see myself trying to move up. It’s definitely an interest. I need football in my life.”
Coming out of Manheim Central, Zug entertained Division One-AA scholarship offers from Delaware, Navy and Albany, as well as opportunities to be a ‘Preferred Walk-On’ at Penn State, UConn and North Carolina. But Zug was a big Nittany Lion fan growing up and his heart could only be content in Happy Valley.
“It really came down to whether I wanted to walk-on somewhere or take a scholarship to Delaware,” said Zug. “I weighed my options and decided to go with the walk-on route, and decided to go to Penn State. I couldn’t turn down that offer.
“I knew not many guys were going to walk on and earn a scholarship,” Zug added. “My first dream was to be a part of the Penn State program. I knew I if I worked hard I could earn a spot. I just had to put in my hard work everyday and showcase my abilities. The support from my family and friends made it easier.”
“It’s extremely difficult,” said Pope. “You’re talking about someone having done that, he can bring that to our players. The rapport he has with our players, it’s amazing.”
Not only did it require a ton of hard work, walking on at Penn State was a long shot then and is a long shot now. But looking back there isn’t anything Zug would’ve changed about his decision.
“Towards the end of high school, I started getting recruited by a bunch of schools,” said Zug. “I wanted to go to to Penn State, and they started recruiting me. I liked that I’d be a ‘preferred walk-on’. I was going to have to earn my playing time, and that’s why I chose Penn State.
“I’d say the thing I remember most are the friendships I made,” continued Zug. “That and all the hard work and life lesson I learned there. I learned a lot from Coach Paterno. I grew up going to all the Penn State games. I knew I was playing for an icon and a legend. And I didn’t want to let him down.”
But making the team at Penn State and earning a scholarship are two different things. There was a time when Zug wasn’t sure he would have his schooling picked up by the university, or he just didn’t allow himself to think about it.
“Right before camp, going into my third year, I hadn’t played in any meaningful games,” said Zug. “I’d get in for a play here or there. But I earned a scholarship and it was a shock to me. But I was catching passes on a regular basis in practice. That’s when I knew they believed in me. It was almost like a high-school recruit to me, and they were recruiting me to play. But then I created a new challenge and goal to become a starter.
“I think I’m a person that if a challenge is presented to me, I’m going to take on that challenge and go hard,” Zug continued. “I think that’s what brings out the best in people, that challenge. I like to be a leader and help others. Without my hard work, there was no way I should’ve been able to play Division One football.”
A possession-type receiver with a knack for moving the chains, Zug caught 46 passes during his junior campaign for 600 yards. As a senior, he hauled in 17 balls for 194 yards.
“I definitely would recommend it,” said Zug of walking on. “I told guys who asked me, ‘take advantage of it. If you have a chance to walk on, go for it.’ If it doesn’t work out you can always transfer. Why sell yourself short? Life is about taking on challenges and giving it your best effort. Hopefully your dreams will come true as well.
“It was definitely difficult,” Zug concluded. “There were a lot of ups and downs. When you go in there as a walk-on, you might not always be accepted right away by the top guys. Eventually they did and having them help me made it a lot easier. But ultimately it came down to my determination. I was constantly doing something to better myself, to improve.”