Life as a Walk-On: Tim Sweeney
by Mike Goempel
We recently had the rare opportunity to talk with Tim Sweeney, a walk-on Penn
State linebacker who was a member of the 1986 National Championship squad.
Tim played with guys who help define Penn State as Linebacker U. Guys like
Shane Conlan, Trey Bauer and Pete Giftopoulos. Tim shares his experiences as
a walk-on and reflects on his time as a Nittany Lion player and member of the
1986 NC team.
Playbook: Growing up in Pittsburgh, what’s your feeling on Penn State not
playing Pitt anymore?
Tim: I don’t like it. I thought it was a great rivalry through the years. Even when I
played (85-88) the rivalry was special for not only Penn State and Pitt fans, but
particularly for the players. We had a player on the team, Scott Gobb, that had a
brother that played for Pitt, his father also played at Pitt and during the summer
those guys would come up and hang out with us. We got to know those guys and
became decent friends with them but when it came to the field the rivalry kicked
in. It was a lot of fun playing those guys. I wish the rivalry would continue but for
whatever reason it hasn’t and that a shame.
Playbook: Talk about what it was like playing for Jerry Sandusky?
Tim: Jerry is one of the greatest linebacker coaches to ever coach the game. He
is a technician and has the position of playing linebacker down to a science.
That’s why you see so many guys that play linebacker at Penn State do very well
not only in college but the professional level as well. He does the little things that
matter, not only for players on the Penn State defense but when you get to the
professional level. I think most of the credit goes to Jerry Sandusky. He also had
some good coaches under him, in particular I think Joe Sarra did a fine job
motivating players and bring a toughness to the position.
Playbook: What made the 1986 National Championship team so special?
Tim: There was a lot of experience on that squad. We had a lot of 4 th or 5th year
seniors on that team. I was in my second year in ‘86 and we had a lot of respect
as younger players and we understood we had to pay your dues unless you were
extremely special like Steve Wisnowski, Blair Thomas or a Mike Timpson type of
player. We had guys like Shane Conlan and Mike Russo on both sides of the ball
that paid there dues from the ‘82 season and I think that is the epitome of Joe
Paterno’s system. You paid your dues and you understood you had to pay them.
Now that didn’t mean we didn’t get after the starters in practice. Our practices
were very challenging for not only the younger players but as we improved
throughout the year as football players we made the guys playing in front of us
and the guys on the other side of the line better
We also had a chemistry that you only find on championship teams combined
with a never say die attitude. I don’t think there was anyone on the team that
though we would lose a game that year. We were shocked that we lost to
Oklahoma for the national championship game the previous year. The entire
team went into the ‘86 season with some unfinished business and wanted to win
all of our games and win the national title game.
Playbook: How has playing for Joe Paterno changed your life?
Tim: It’s hard to say it changed my life. I had a good foundation growing up with
very good parenting and brothers as good role models. I also had good coaches
in high school. The things your parents and high school coaches told you, Joe
Paterno would emphasize as you went through the program. Joe has a lot of
sayings like "take care of the little things and the big things will take care of
themselves.” The way he says it makes you understand it a lot better just
because of who he is and where he’s come from.
I don’t think they are looking for kids to come into the Penn State system and
change their lives. They recruit kids that fit in and understand what it takes to be
a Penn State football player.
Playbook: Who was more intense during practices, Shane Conlan or Trey
Tim: Trey Bauer. I think Trey had to be, not that Shane Conlan wasn’t. Shane
just had everything that a linebacker needed to be great. He had athleticism,
talent, confidence and intensity. Trey didn’t have the "across the board"
athleticism that Shane had and thus Trey needed something else to step up and
play. Trey’s intensity really carried him, and I mean that as a compliment to Trey.
He was an overachiever. Trey was the most intense player on the team, it wasn’t
just in practice, and it carried over into the game and certainly made him one of
the leaders of the defense.
Playbook: What advice would you give the current LB’s at PSU?
Tim: I would tell them one of the simple things that Joe Sarra taught us, that
tackling was nothing but feet and courage. I would like to see them be a little but
more courageous and play with a little more intensity. I long for the days when
Penn State linebackers are just pounding other running backs, weather it’s taking
on a isolation block from a full back, tackling a ball carrier or hitting a tight end.
Take every opportunity to make the other guy say "Ouch". And do it with
somewhat of a nasty attitude.
Playbook: What is it like covering kicks, are you guys really a little nuts?
Tim: I think you need to be somewhat nuts to do it. I prided myself on being the
1st one down the field and break up the wedge. I got that from a guy named Keith
Kirpenski from Detroit. Keith was big and tall and fast and watching him play on
film covering kicks from the previous years. You see him busting tail to get down
the field to cover a kick. Some other guys would be Curt Burnier (Spelling) and
Dillar Washington that I looked up to. I later had a chance to cover kicks with
them and it was my goal to beat those guys down the field. We didn’t have a
challenge or anything like that but I would say that 80% of the kickoffs I covered I
didn’t make the tackle or in on the tackle but I was always one of the 1 st guys
down the field. Most of the time the 1st guy down the field doesn’t make the
tackle. To hit people at full speed you have to be a little nuts. Most of the guys we
had were not nuts per se, but we had a few screws loose here and there.
Playbook: Did you have scholarship offers to play at other schools? If so, what
made you pick PSU?
Tim: I did have scholarship offers at other schools. The one that I took most
seriously was Wake Forest. But growing up a kid in Pennsylvania I just fell in love
with Penn State and that made it an easy choice for me. When you go to a Penn
State game at 10 years old, you think about what it would be like to play here
(PSU). It was more than just putting on the uniform; it was getting on the field and
playing football. Like I said before, it was a pretty easy decision for me to select
Penn State versus any other school.
Playbook: If you had the chance to run through the tunnel one more time, what
would it mean to you?
Tim: I wouldn’t run through, I’d probably walk through it as slowly as possible. It
would probably take me 2 hours to get through it just to saver every second of it.
It’s such a high to run through the tunnel. The last time you do it you know you
will never get a sensation again. I would saver all the things from the crowd to the
electronic and atmosphere and getting fired up to play.
Playbook: Once the season starts, is there a difference between the scholarship
players and the walk-on players?
Tim: No, there really isn’t. You’re expected in every meeting like everyone else is
and you’re given ever opportunity to prove yourself and you have to do that on
the practice field. No kid, whether you are a scholarship or walk-on kid is going to
automatically going to step in and play. That just not the way it is and everyone
starts with a clean slate. You have to practice hard, demonstrate that you
understand the system and keep improving everyday in practice. That applies to
everyone. Joe would say ‘you have to get better today.’ He means it as a team
and as individually. A team can’t get better if the individuals aren’t getting better.
Everyone is expected to give 100%. As a walk-on, some of the things you do are
a little tough, but you are not the only person to have done it or will ever do it.
You’re all in the boat together and you need to do what is asked of you from the
coaches and just do it.
Playbook: What do you miss most about playing at PSU?
Tim: The comradely with my friends, the guys you take for granted when you are
there for 4 ½ or 5 years and you see on a regular basis. When you out of school,
everyone does in different directions and you stop seeing them on a regular
basis. You have so much in common with the other 100 kids on the team. When
you get into the real world, you are going make other friends and meet new
people in the work you choose but there is no one I would rather go to war with
than one of the other 100 kids that I played with at Penn State.
Playbook: Talk about the PSU fans; was it easy to get pumped up for home
Tim: It was extremely easy. It started with the bus ride on the blue buses from
the locker rooms at the practice facility to the stadium. We would be in half pads,
meaning no shoulder pads on the ride. That is where it started for me. The one
thing that sticks out in my mind that I would never forget is there was a lady that
was standing in the same area every week when the bus made a 90 degree
turned left. She would wave this big Penn State banner. That was just one
illustrations for the dedication of the fans to the players and how the help
motivate the players. That helps to get you focused on what you had to do. And
to see the mass of people supporting you was a neat thing. I think, no I know that
Penn State fans are second to know one in the country!
Playbook: What do you think about the job that Ron Vanderlinden has done
with the LB?
Tim: I think he has done a pretty good job. It’s hard for me to say coming from a
3-4 defense and Penn State now running a 4-3, the thinks they need to do are
different then the things we did, rather its assignments or how the play off blocks.
For the most part they have some really good linebackers go through there and
I’m encouraged about the play of some of the younger kids. I hope they get to the
point of getting more All-Americans at the linebacker position.
Playbook: Where did you "hang out" during your days at PSU?
Tim: It was always tough for me to walk by the creamery, being an ice cream
fanatic. Most of the time at night or a weekend, a group of us would hang out at
the Ginger Bread Man.
Playbook: What was your most memorable moment at Penn State, on the field?
Tim: Lining up for the first play of the 86 National Championship game. Being
fairly young and being in that scenario is hard to put into words. The other
moment was my first play with was in South Bend. But I would say lining up to
cover the open kickoff in the Fiesta Bowl.