HERSHEY - I'm standing three feet from Ben Roethlisberger.
I know I shouldn't, but I can't resist; I pretend to look down the viewfinder and "accidently" bump into "Big Ben" on the sideline of one of the nation's finest scholastic all-star football games known to man.
Okay, I'm calmed down now. But, other than opposing teams' linemen, how many can say they've bumped into a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Times Observer photo by Mitchell Wilston
Big guy, big plans
Eisenhower coach and Pennsylvania defensive line coach Jim Penley talks to Evan Schwan, who has big plans to play at Penn State in the fall, during the Big 33 all-star classic football game on Saturday in Hershey.
Over the weekend I tagged along to Chocolatetown to see my high school football coach, Jim Penley, coach Pa.'s defensive linemen in what's been billed as "The Super Bowl of High School Football" - the 55th Annual Big 33 Classic, broadcast on the NFL Network.
This was by far the biggest sporting event I had ever covered. When I was handed my field pass to the attendant at the press gate, I wasn't sure what to do with myself.
I made my way to the sideline as the stadium filled up and the players were announced. As the National Anthem wrapped up, a helicopter flew over the stadium.
The sidelines were littered with big time photographers and their huge camera set-ups worth more than my car. Denny Kyser's lens might have fit in, but mine sure didn't.
I wondered if Penley, head coach of the sixth smallest Class A football team in Pennsylvania would have any of the same concerns of being a small fish in a big pond. After talking to him, it was clear he was into it.
"It wasn't intimidating at all, but I was super tight with my players," said Penley. "And with the coaches (led by head coach Mike Brennan of Blue Mountain High School)-they were some of the closest relationships I've ever made in a week. Until I got the game program, I didn't even realize how tremendously talented and successful these coaches were, they were a group of humble guys."
After plenty of practice, Penley was ready for the action and his defensive line as ready, too.
"Let's put it this way, our offense has some great playmakers and the defense has been shutting them down at practice. I think we could really dominate," Penley said before the game.
The rosters of the teams were filled exclusively with Division 1 commits; Penley's line wasn't lacking in size or talent.
There was Florida-bound quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg from Philadelphia's St. Joe's Prep, Valley View linebacker Nyeem Wartman, who has been tabbed to carry on the tradition of "Linebacker U" at Penn State, and the state's all-time rushing leader, Hopewell's Rushel Shell.
I remember my junior year of high school, the first year I played football, I made my first varsity tackle on a special teams unit against Mercyhurst Prep. As I ran off the field I saw Penley running straight for me yelling. Before I could figure out that he was happy, not mad, he had chest-bumped me five feet backwards.
I was 5-foot-8, 130 pounds (with five-pound weights in my pockets).
Penley, a former college lineman, is a bigger guy. But if he tried that move with any of the defensive linemen he was coaching on Saturday, he'd be the one bouncing backward. These guys put the "Big" in Big 33.
In the third quarter, I ran to the stands and swapped my camera gear and press pass with my little brother, Eisenhower's own Robbie Wilston, to get him on the field (don't tell). Penley introduced him to one of the defensive lineman, Tyrique Jarrett, six-foot-four, 325-pounds, and committed to Pitt.
When Robbie commented on Jarrett's hugeness, he responded, "That's right. You got to be big, dog. That's the game."
But being big is just part of the package.
"The big thing I came away from with the players was the effort they gave," said Penley. "When you talk, they look right in your face and listen to every word with the expectation that they'll do it right the first time."
The coaches at the game also had to work hard.
"You have to bust your tail to get here," explained Penley, who, I can tell you, is known to have spent the night in his office after a game, breaking down game film for a team meeting on a Saturday morning.
"I may not be the Urban Meyer of football, that does all of these creative things, but I'm going to work the hardest," said Penley.
Pa.'s defense was as good as you could hope for, but after the offense turned the ball over six times, Ohio came back from a 14-point deficit for a 24-21 overtime win - and Ohio's fourth win in a row.
Now that the big game is over and the crowd - 6,000 strong - has left Hersheypark Stadium, and the players are off to college, Penley isn't slowing down. After becoming one of only a handful every from Warren County to play or coach at the elite all-star football game, he's ready to be back coaching at the home field where he played high school football.
"It was a great individual accomplishment but we are going right back to work when I get back, and working on putting together a championship season; that's always the goal," he said.
"Back to business as usual."