STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Trace McSorley's signature drive as the Penn State quarterback might be the game-winner at Iowa in 2017, after the Hawkeyes had taken a four-point lead with 1:42 to play. They left us too much time, McSorley said on the sidelines, before leading an 80-yard touchdown march, the game-winning strike coming on fourth down as the clock expired. A 21-19 walk-off win orchestrated by a quarterback who often celebrates with a mock baseball swing.
McSorley's signature play at Penn State might be a 2016 scramble against Minnesota at Beaver Stadium, where he covered 26 yards on third-and-3 with 20 seconds to go, setting up a game-tying field goal, and an overtime win, in a contest critical to coach James Franklin's then-third year program.
McSorley's signature championship moment at Penn State might be his 18-yard dart on a wheel route to Saquon Barkley, who caught the ball in the right corner of the end zone with one Wisconsin defender trailing by a step and another closing from the left, giving Penn State its first lead, in the fourth quarter, in a wild 2016 Big Ten Championship Game. He set a Big Ten title game record with four touchdown passes on that Saturday night in Indianapolis, rallying the Nittany Lions from a 21-point deficit to a 38-31 victory.
There are so many McSorley moments. But perhaps the one that cuts closest to the core of who he is -- to the leader, competitor and teammate McSorley is -- might be how he responded after injuring his knee early in the second quarter against Iowa last Oct. 27, on a low tackle in a pile, a play that left the home crowd never more silent. After hobbling off the field, after getting fitted with a considerable brace to protect his sprained MCL, after his father descended the steps of Beaver Stadium to tell Trace he loved him and "don't worry, this isn't how this is going to end," after leaving for the halftime locker room early, after riding a stationary bike on the sidelines, McSorley returned to the game in the third quarter. And on his fourth play of the second half, McSorley scampered -- untouched -- for a 51-yard touchdown, giving Penn State its first lead of the day in a game it would win.
"I think our team needed a spark," McSorley told me. "I was happy to get back in there and make a play for us."
Know this about McSorley: He is not dramatic. His parents, Rick and Andrea, laugh that they are much more emotional than their son; Rick says he "lives and dies with every play" during a game, while Andrea usually paces a stadium rather than sit in her seat.
Trace never seems impressed with himself. He'd rather talk about the team. He incorporates offensive linemen into his mild touchdown celebrations, a nod to the big guys whose names aren't often mentioned.
Saquon has told me that McSorley is the best teammate he's ever had, one who is not afraid to challenge teammates privately and who directs players-only film sessions, adding, "Trace is a superstar. Trace is amazing -- an amazing player, an amazing leader."
As McSorley's college career closed, Barkley tweeted: "The greatest to put on a Penn State Jersey ever! Much love brudda @McSorley_IX"
That respect for Trace has permeated the Penn State program and will remain as a key part of his legacy.
I asked Franklin the day after the 51-yard run what he told McSorley when he hugged him following the touchdown. "Love that kid for so many more reasons than what he does on the field," he replied.
In his final game, a 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, McSorley departed with an injury that was initially announced in the press box as a broken foot. He returned to the game in the second half and led three fourth-quarter scoring drives. He wore a boot after the game, but vowed to "attack" the upcoming pre-draft months. Indeed, he was ready to participate fully in Senior Bowl week and the NFL Scouting Combine.
"My career as a player isn't over," McSorley said after the bowl game.
McSorley's toughness is not in question. Barkley marvels when recounting that 26-yard run against Minnesota because he believes McSorley was previously injured in the game yet still made the play.
Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer presented the quarterback with a "Wild Dogs" shirt -- his sack-happy unit's moniker -- in recognition of the quarterback's grit and guts and the "faith" he inspires. McSorley is the only non-defensive lineman to be given one. "He's a dog," Spencer said, admiringly.
It is tougher to get McSorley to expound on any of this. In one of our conversations since last summer, I good-naturedly told McSorley he might have to brag about himself for the purposes of this piece. "That's not really me," he said. "That's not who I am."
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McSorley departs Penn State as the school's all-time winningest quarterback (31). Among his 10 school records: the career marks for passing yards (9,899) and passing touchdowns (77). He started 40 consecutive games. He is one of three players in Big Ten history to record at least 100 total touchdowns; the others are Drew Brees and J.T. Barrett.
And yet, McSorley remains something of an underdog, a 6-foot, 202-pound prospect who is liked personally and respected for his competitive spirit by NFL talent evaluators, but doubted by many in terms of his ability to be a pro quarterback. "I love his intangibles!" became a popular refrain from talent evaluators at the combine. From April 25 through 27, he might be as likely to go undrafted as he is to be a later-round pick.
"I think I do," McSorley said when I asked if he feels like an underdog. "Just from the standpoint of, I'm not the prototype and stereotype that everyone probably thinks that I should be. That's why I think I've always (considered winning most important). I know I'm not 6-4, I'm not 220, but I know I can win and I know I can be a winner."
It is Rick McSorley who says something his son likely never would: "At Trace's size, he has to prove he can play every week at the quarterback position. If you're 6-4, 6-5 and meet the profile the NFL is looking for, you have to prove you can't play. If Trace underthrows a ball, people will say he can't throw the long ball. But if you're bigger, that underthrow is a back-shoulder throw."
I reached out to Drew Brees for this piece, given his obvious similarity in stature to McSorley. Brees, who's listed at 6-foot and 209 pounds, preferred to answer generally because he was not overly familiar with McSorley's game. But this answer, in particular, was telling:
"I do not know what it is like to be 6-5 because I will never be 6-5. (But) I will say it like this: If one of you closed your eyes, all of your other senses would be heightened, right? Your sense of smell. Your sense of hearing. All of that other stuff. Maybe because I am 6-foot, maybe there are certain things that I can't see as well, but for that reason, maybe I can hear it and see it better because that is what I have had to do for my whole career. You find a way. You make up for it. You just get it done.
"There are a very few consistent, common threads among the most successful NFL quarterbacks. Most of them are intangibles, which you can't measure with a physical test. You need leadership ability, competitiveness, drive and will. You need focus, poise and charisma.
"At some point, you just have to look at results, right? You have to let your mind go past the measurable -- maybe how big a guy is or how fast he runs or that kind of stuff -- and just turn on the tape, and does the guy compete? Does the guy make plays? Does the guy win football games?"
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At Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Virginia, McSorley went 55-5 as a starter and played in four state championship games, winning three. His high school coach, Charlie Pierce, remembers him being "unbelievable in film study" at a young age and considers McSorley "a warrior." Pierce also watched as schools almost exclusively recruited McSorley as a safety because of his size. (In his last high school game, the two-way star recorded 10 tackles, including one where he flew over the goal line to stop the running back short of a touchdown, and an interception.) Early on, only Purdue and Boston College -- programs that once upon a time had legendary short guys at quarterback in Brees and Doug Flutie -- pursued McSorley as a signal-caller.
"He's not going to make excuses -- he never has -- and he's going to fight and focus and finish; we always talked about that," Pierce said. "The fabric of who he is is not going to change. He's going to continue to carry that chip on his shoulder. The work ethic will never change. I think whoever gets him (in the NFL) is going to be surprised in some respect. When you see him in the huddle, he has intangibles you can't quantify. His resume as a winner speaks for itself."
McSorley knows his arm strength is going to be scrutinized. A talent evaluator at the combine raved to me about a McSorley throw he saw on tape, a deep out where the quarterback used great anticipation to deliver the ball perfectly. The same person suggested McSorley has learned to do that to make up for a slight deficiency in arm strength. Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne lauds McSorley for being able to make every throw and run any offense; McSorley mostly excelled in Penn State's RPO scheme.
In the 2017 Fiesta Bowl win over Washington, McSorley went 12-for-12 on third down and spread the ball to nine different targets in the first 22 plays of the game. To Rahne, one of McSorley's best traits is that "he loves to be coached and he loves to be coached hard," meaning he wants to know why he missed a throw, he wants to be challenged to get it right. And that a coach doesn't have to worry about hurting McSorley's feelings.
McSorley never used the drops as an excuse; in fact, he shouldered part of the blame whenever he was asked about them. A true dual-threat, McSorley rushed for a career-high 798 yards in 2018. He can scoot: At 4.57 seconds, his 40-yard dash at the combine was fastest among quarterbacks.
Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead was Penn State's offensive coordinator during McSorley's first two years as starter.
"There are kind of two sides to Trace," Moorhead said. "When asked to pat himself on the back or expound on his ability, he's very reticent to do that. But around players and coaches, in practices or games, it's almost like he transforms from Clark Kent to Superman. With his competitiveness and preparedness, when you needed to dial up a play, you weren't afraid to call anything.
"Here's my belief: The underdog is only an underdog if he believes he's an underdog. And he truly doesn't, in my view. He believes he's the best player on the field."
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As the 2019 NFL Draft approaches, it's worth noting that those who know Trace McSorley best believe in him the most. His Nittany Lions backup, Tommy Stevens, describes McSorley as "a fearless leader who deserves a lot more respect than he's gotten outside of Penn State." Saquon took to Twitter to defend McSorley when he was asked, and declined, to do defensive back drills at the combine: "So disrespectful," read the tweet. (For his part, McSorley said he took the request as a compliment to his athleticism, but he considers himself a quarterback. There is some thinking that McSorley could be versatile enough to fit a role not unlike Taysom Hill's in New Orleans.)
When asked recently about the McSorley legacy, Franklin listed "winner, natural leader, great football IQ and competitiveness" in addition to his understanding of the game, demeanor and commitment to preparation. In terms of what a quarterback can control, Franklin left out nothing.
Trace McSorley has come a long way since he first visited Penn State and sat in the Beaver Stadium stands next to cornerback Grant Haley to take in a game. The two became great friends; Haley is now a New York Giant.
It may be Haley who best crystallized the Trace McSorley who hopes, dreams and believes he will make an impact in the NFL.
"He knows how to win, and when you're around somebody who knows how to win, you know they've been doing it the right way and people want to follow that," Haley said. "He does the right things on and off the field, little things that may go unnoticed. But in the grand scheme of things, he's a great person, a person you want to model yourself after in terms of who you want to be in football, and who you want to be in life."