He won't mind a little tunnel vision When Penn State kicks off its season, Adam Taliaferro will lead the way.

Posted: August 30, 2001

Throughout the painful hours of rehabilitation, hours that stretched into weeks and months and tested his resolve more than any football game in which he had played, Adam Taliaferro imagined what a night that seemed far into the future might be like.

At night during his three-month stay at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where he worked diligently to overcome a spinal injury that left him temporarily paralyzed, Taliaferro would close his eyes and envision the emotion that would fill his heart if he could only get well enough to lead Penn State onto the field at Beaver Stadium for the 2001 season opener.

That night is upon the 19-year-old from Voorhees, Camden County, and there may not be a dry eye in the crowd of nearly 107,000 when Taliaferro walks out of the tunnel before the Nittany Lions get the season going Saturday against No. 2 Miami on national television during prime time.

"I think it's going to be one of the most emotional moments of my life," Taliaferro said the other day during a teleconference from State College. "I remember coming out of the tunnel last year as a freshman, and that was one of the biggest moments of my life. It's going to be a special time."

It may be just as special, just as emotional, for Taliaferro's teammates, some of whom knelt and joined hands in prayer while the freshman cornerback lay motionless on the field at Ohio Stadium on Sept. 23. He suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck and a bruised spinal cord when he ran into Ohio State running back Jerry Westbrooks.

After his release from Magee on Jan. 5, Taliaferro resumed classes at Penn State in mid-May. Although it's unlikely he'll ever again play football, he spent much of the summer in the training room with teammates. His well-publicized story of courage, grace and dignity through such a frightening ordeal tugged at the hearts of the nation. The outpouring of love and support he received from family, friends, teammates, and strangers with no interest in college football overwhelmed Taliaferro and his family and inspired many.

"Adam is a living miracle," Penn State linebacker Shamar Finney said. "A true miracle. I remember I was on the field when it happened. I turned around and saw him laying there, crying out that he couldn't move his legs or arms. It was a heartbreaking day.

"To think of that day and now to see him jogging a little and lifting weights with us and laughing and having fun, it's truly a miracle. We can't wait to see him lead us out of the tunnel. He's our guardian angel."

Taliaferro said he now has enough movement in his right hand to write. He also said he had stopped jogging to rest a right knee that has tendinitis, but that he would test the knee this week with the hope of jogging onto the field Saturday night. He attends practice each day and helps the team any way he can.

"I'm helping out the younger guys," he said. "Some guys may have questions and they're reluctant to ask the coaches, so I'll give guys tips on what I see. It's tough not being able to be out there with them, but I'm really thankful to be on my feet and be at practice. I'm just so happy with the progress I've made. I thank God for the way everything came back. I think of some of the people who were in the hospital with me and realize how lucky I am."

On Saturday night, Taliaferro will be greeted by the largest crowd ever at Beaver Stadium, which has been expanded to accommodate 12,000 more people. Whether his presence will help provide enough inspiration for Penn State to overcome the long odds it faces against powerful Miami remains to be seen. But Miami coach Larry Coker believes Taliaferro's presence will have an impact on the Nittany Lions.

"Certainly, football is so much a mental game, and I told our team we're not going to be able to match the emotion Penn State will draw from Adam Taliaferro," Coker said. "There's no doubt Penn State will have a strong psychological advantage. I'll tell you, I'll be one of those applauding him when he goes out there. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Adam Taliaferro. His presence is something we'll have to deal with."

Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who was devastated by Taliaferro's injury, said he was asked about Adam's progress just about everywhere he went during the off-season.

"Adam Taliaferro has been a great inspiration not only to Penn State but to the entire country," Paterno said. "We think Adam has a right to walk out of that tunnel ahead of us as a member of the football team. The fans want to see him and show their appreciation for him and what he's been through.

"But what the team has to realize is that once we get through that tunnel and all the emotion and excitement of Adam being there is finished, it won't make any difference to the University of Miami. It'll be a tough, mean football game. We're so proud of Adam and the way he's handled everything, but Adam can't win the game for us."

On the other hand, Finney thinks Penn State's guardian angel might fuel the Nittany Lions with enough emotion to help them pull off an upset.

"We have the No. 2 team coming in, the expanded stadium, and we'll have Adam at our side," he said. "What a night it's going to be."

Ray Parrillo's e-mail address is rparrillo@phillynews.com.

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