Richard Thomas McSorley III will start his 100th game as a quarterback in the Citrus Bowl.
He was 55-5 as starter at Briar Woods High School in northern Virginia and won three state titles.
He is 31-8 as a starter at Penn State.
That’s 86-13. And counting.
The Citrus Bowl will mark McSorley’s 40th start at Penn State, tying the record for Nittany Lion quarterbacks, held by Tony Sacca. McSorley already owns the Penn State record for career wins by a quarterback.
As No. 9 heads into his final contest in a Penn State uniform, his numbers are staggering. McSorley owns Nittany Lion career records for completions (703), passing yards (9,653), passing touchdowns (75), total offense (11,275), rushing TDS by a QB (29), TDs responsible for (104), 300-yard passing games (10) and 200-yard passing games (27).
All with one game to go.
• • •
Penn State followers are accustomed to eye-popping numbers. Take wresting, for instance. Wrestler Kerry McCoy had season records of 47-0 (1993-94) and 41-0 (1996-97). Ed Ruth was 136-3 all-time at Penn State, David Taylor was 134-3 and Zain Retherford was 126-3. Yet that doesn’t meet the lofty success of their coach, Cael Sanderson.
In 2002, Sports Illustrated picked its “Most Impressive College Sports Feats Ever.” Sanderson’s college career was named No. 2, behind the day in 1935 that Jesse Owens — an Ohio State sophomore competing at the Western Conference meet (precursor to the Big Ten) — set four world records in the course of 45 minutes. The story read:
2. Cael Sanderson’s perfect wrestling record: Not only did Sanderson go 159-0 and win four national titles, but he was also named outstanding wrestler at the NCAA championships four times. During his senior season only four of his 40 matches lasted the full seven minutes.
Add in Sanderson’s high school record of 127-3, with his dad as a coach, and his record at Wasatch High School in Herber City, Utah, combined with his unblemished mark at Iowa State equals an all-time mark of 386-3. (I’d like to see where those three guys who beat Cael are today.)
Sanderson, as we know, has guided Penn State to seven national titles, the same number of NCAA championships his Rec Hall next-door-neighbor, Russ Rose, has had at PSU in women’s volleyball. One of Rose’s best, of several, unbeaten streaks: 109 consecutive wins from 2007-10. Under coach Emmanuil Kaidanov, Penn State won a dozen national championships in fencing.
Then there is the Nittany Lion football team’s classic 31-game unbeaten streak under Joe Paterno. From 1967 through early 1970, Penn State had 30 wins and one tie (17-17, vs. Florida State in the 1967 Gator Bowl). And when it comes to Paterno, there’s no number in Penn State sports history more immediately identifiable and symbolic than 409.
With McSorley, there’s a somewhat apt comparison with another Penn State quarterback from more three decades ago. Chuck Burkhart was a combined 42-0 as a starter in high school and at Penn State. He was 22-0 at PSU in 1968-69 and prior to that also 20-0 at Montour (Pa.) High School, under head coach Bob Phillips — who later became a long-time assistant at Penn State.
John Shaffer was 25-1 as a starting quarterback at Penn State, losing only to Oklahoma in the 1986 Orange Bowl in a de facto national title game (the Nittany Lions were redeemed a year later, in the Fiesta Bowl). Shaffer didn’t have McSorley’s athletic ability; for instance, he carried the ball 133 times for minus 128 yards. McSorley has had 454 rushes for 1,622 yards.
But Shaffer won. Counting Penn State, He was 66-1 as a starting quarterback, dating back to eighth grade and including a stunt as the senior starter of a 13-0 Ohio state championship team at famed Moeller High School in Cincinnati.
Context counts, though.
Given time and circumstance, McSorley’s record of success at Penn State may be the most meaningful, coming on the heels of the Sandusky scandal.
• • •
To put McSorley’s tenure and impact at Penn State into perspective, I reached out this week to three people who have had unique vantage points of McSorley and his time in Happy Valley. Their comments speak volumes:
Historian Lou Prato covered his first Penn State football game on Sept. 20, 1958, when as sports editor of the Collegian he flew on the team plane to Lincoln, Neb., where the Nittany Lions lost, 14-7, to the Cornhuskers. Prato has written seven books on the history of Penn State and is working on his eighth, a deep dive into the 1946-47 Nittany Lions and the history of the black athlete at Penn State.
Prato says: “Trace McSorley will be remembered for not only what he did on the field but off it, too. Except for the single-wing era when quarterbacks were really blockers who called the signals, McSorley is probably the toughest quarterback, ‘pound-for-pound,’ to use an old boxing axiom, in Penn State’s football history.
“Certainly, he is the toughest with the most accomplishments since 2000, when the Nittany Lions first began utilizing dual-threat type of quarterbacks who could run and pass with equal ability. Add his record-setting passing statistics to his willingness to take a battering when he so frequently ran and you have one tough and skillful 6-foot, 203-pound hombre. McSorley is also up there with Todd Blackledge, John Shaffer and Wally Richardson for his academic record, a true scholar-athlete.”
Ball coach Joe Moorhead, now the head coach of Outback Bowl-bound Mississippi State, was the Nittany Lions’ quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, and masterminded one of the most exciting and explosive times in Penn State football history. With McSorley running the offense and Moorhead igniting and coalescing the squad, Penn State went 22-5 in his tenure, from 2016-2017, including a 16-1 stretch when Penn State rose to No. 2 in the polls and won the Big Ten title.
Moorhead says: “In my opinion, Trace’s impact on the Penn State football program is immeasurable. History will remember him as one of the best, if not the best, to play the position for the Blue and White. He embodies everything for which the term student-athlete stands. He has exceeded everyone’s expectations but his own. I’m proud to have played a small part in his journey — and wish him the best in a surely successful future.”
Big Mike Gesicki is now a tight end with the Miami Dolphins and starred alongside McSorley in 2016-17, transforming the way the tight end position is played at Penn State. Gesicki was McSorley’s favorite target at Penn State, catching more passes from McSorley than any other receiver in the quarterback’s time at PSU. Every reception Gesicki made in ’16-17 came at the hand of McSorley. The stat line for McSorley-to-Gesicki is impressive: 105 receptions (48 in 2016, a team-high 57 in ’17) for 1,242 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Gesicki says: “Everyone wants to talk about how Trace McSorley is a winner, which he obviously is. But his grit and toughness are what make him a winner. Every snap my junior and senior year, Trace was leading our offense — whether he was 100% healthy or could barely get back up after a tough hit. That kind of attitude is contagious and results in a successful career like Trace has had.”
• • •
I have a well-worn copy of “Wooden,” written by the legendary college basketball coach with Steve Jamison (who also authored a seminal book on football coaching with the late Bill Walsh). I believe John Wooden was the greatest coach in the history of college sports, and maybe in all of American sports. He won 10 NCAA national championships in a 12-year span at UCLA, including seven years in a row.
Awhile back I bookmarked page 86, a small section on “Recognizing a Champion.” I thought it summarized McSorley accurately and succinctly — Wooden’s style and, in many ways, Trace’s too — and would be apt for a future story about the quarterback. That day is now; it’s difficult to not think of McSorley when you read this:
John Wooden says: “Often great competitors do not quite have the physical skills of more gifted players. But they get more out of what they have at moments of great pressure. Thus, I base my judgment on not just what they had but how they used it. To what extent did they attempt to bring forth their abilities? To what extent did they accomplish that under maximum pressure? This is how I identified competitors who had greatness within.”
• • •
McSorley recalls his first start at Briar Woods High School. It was Aug. 27, 2010 — just four days after his 15th birthday and at the start of his freshman year. It was a road game at Millbrook High School. Briar Woods won, 10-8.
“I remember it was hot. And I remember it was a little rough at the beginning,” McSorley said last week. “But then it got to the point where I was just out there playing. At the end of the game, we had a two-minute drive and it just kind of felt right. I didn’t realize where I was, I was just out there playing. That was the first time I ever felt things click.”
For the most part, they clicked for the next eight years.
It took a few weeks, though. The week after that victory over Millbrook, Briar Woods lost 13-10 at home vs. Liberty, then beat Handley 27-0. But they lost again, falling again the next week, 8-7 in a road game at Martinsburg, West Virginia.
So, McSorley started his high school career 2-2 (just as was the case at Penn State, in 2016). Then, Briar Woods won its final 11 games of the 2010 season, beating Harrisonburg to win the Virginia high school Division 4 state title.
Following that 2-2 start, Briar Woods under McSorley won 43 of its next 44 games and 53 of its next 55. Almost unfathomable streaks — including a 53-2 string. If you are doing the math, that meant McSorley was 55-4 as a starter heading into his final game in high school. That came on Dec. 14, 2013 against Bird High School in the state finals. Briar Woods lost, 35-28.
Yes, a loss.
If we have learned one thing about Trace McSorley — who will be making his last start for Penn State on Jan. 1, 2019, exactly 850 days after his first one on Sept. 3, 2016 — history will not repeat itself in Orlando.