Todd Blackledge Is Born Again, and So Are Penn State's Hopes to Be the No. 1 Football Team in the Nation

updated 12/20/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 01:00AM

With just 1:18 left in its game against Nebraska early this fall, Penn State was trailing, 24-21, with the ball on its own 35-yard line. Enter quarterback Todd Blackledge, silently reciting a useful verse from the Bible. "It was one of my favorites," drawls the tobacco-chewing born-again Christian. "Philippians 4:13, which says, 'I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.' " Thus inspired, Blackledge took his team down the field, firing the game-winning pass with just four seconds left.

On the strength of such granitic self-confidence, plus a right arm like a catapult, Blackledge, 21, has led the Nittany Lions to the No. 2 ranking in both major football polls. On New Year's night, in the Sugar Bowl at New Orleans, they will challenge No. 1 Georgia for the national championship.

Prior to the season, hardly anyone would have picked Blackledge to emerge as the game-saver he has so often been. Last year he was just a big (6'4", 220 pounds), strong-armed kid whose jittery inconsistency sometimes blunted his skills. This year he passed for a school record of 22 touchdowns and was unflappable under duress. "Blackledge is a great competitor," commented a University of Pittsburgh defensive lineman. "After we'd knock him down, he'd pat us on the back and say, 'Nice play.' You can't ruffle that kid."

Blackledge has always had a sure sense of purpose. Born in North Canton, Ohio, he grew up a sort of athletic nomad while his father, Ron, currently an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, worked at college coaching jobs around the East and Midwest. Later, as an all-league forward at Hoover High in North Canton, he was invited to an all-star summer basketball camp and discovered his talent wasn't big-time. His reaction was prudent and swift. "I decided to concentrate on football," he says.

He has never concentrated better than this year. "People ask me what's been the key to my improvement," he says. "And I talk about how I never worked so hard before, how I worked out all summer to improve my drop-backs, my agility, my delivery. But deep in my heart I know that the real key was my spiritual preparation."

It is to Blackledge's credit that in a time of cynicism about college athletics, almost no one at Penn State doubts his sincerity. A Phi Beta Kappa scholar who is majoring in speech communications with an eye to a career in sports broadcasting, he always has time for 9-year-old David Price, whom he has befriended as part of a local big-brother program. They play video games, shoot baskets—"whatever David wants to do," says Blackledge.

The question at the end of this season will be: What does Blackledge himself want to do? Because he sat out his freshman season with a broken hand, he is a junior in terms of athletic eligibility, though he will graduate with his class next spring. Should he choose to, he could return for another year of Penn State football, or he could turn pro with no further delay. "If I felt there was really a good chance that I could be a No. 1 draft pick in the NFL, then I would probably go," he says. "I think God wants me to play professional football." Come draft time, He will not be alone.

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