UNIVERSITY PARK - Staying in college as long as possible can extend what's said to be the greatest time in a person's life, but real-world responsibilities often force students to leave school sooner than they would like.
Penn State All-America linebacker Navorro Bowman and veteran defensive end Jerome Hayes both understand real-world responsibilities better than most college football players. Each has a young son to look out for, so decisions about their football futures must also take into account what's best for their child.
Bowman is widely expected to forgo his senior year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. He said having a 6-month old son, named Navorro Jr., will play a part in his decision to turn pro or to return to Penn State.
"Sure it does," Bowman said. "He's my son. He's me. I have to put him first before anything, so it changes the decision."
Hayes, whose 18-month-old is named Jerome Jr., has been at Penn State for five years and already has earned his degree in communications. The fifth-year senior had two seasons cut short by serious knee injuries, and he could receive an additional year of eligibility if he petitions the NCAA for a medical hardship.
"Family to me is everything," Hayes said. "Providing for my son is the No. 1 key now that I have my degree and I'm a senior."
Both Bowman and Hayes will wait until after the Capital One Bowl against LSU to decide if they will return to Penn State.
Hayes talked about his options with coach Joe Paterno two weeks ago but did not reach a final decision.
"We discussed some things, some pros and cons," Hayes said, "but we decided the best thing for me and the football team would be to fully focus on LSU and dive into that situation head first after the bowl game."
Hayes would like a chance to play professionally, but his past knee problems could prevent him from getting many opportunities. If football isn't in the cards, he already has a backup plan.
"I'll call Coach Paterno and ask him if he knows of any jobs opening up around here or in this area," Hayes said. "I'm a pretty versatile guy, and I feel like if I didn't play football I'll get a job somewhere."
Bowman has said he will enter the draft if he's projected to be a first-round pick.
"If he's a 1, he's got to go," PSU defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said.
Bowman is rated as the 15th-best prospect for the 2010 draft by scout.com, but he's hardly a consensus first-rounder in the numerous mock drafts found on the Internet. Those that do list him in the first round have him going as one of the final few picks.
"Bowman would be a late first, early second-round pick if he declares," scout.com NFL draft analyst Chris Steuber said. "He's an athletic, instinctive player who makes plays all over the field. He is a versatile player who can play inside or outside. He reminds me of Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason."
Bowman, who has submitted paperwork to be evaluated by the NFL draft advisory committee, may need to consider the possibility of a rookie pay scale that has been discussed for the 2011 season. If he comes out a year early, he would not be subjected to such a scale and thereby could receive a bigger contract.
Bowman said he wasn't aware of the pay scale when asked last week at Penn State's bowl media day.
"I've worked very hard, and I believe I deserve whatever I get," Bowman said of his draft status. "If those accomplishments and things like that come my way, I'm well-deserving and blessed to have them in my life."
Bowman also feels blessed to have his son, who lives in Maryland with his mother.
"I see my son a lot," he said. "It's a great experience, and I love him to death."
Having a child, he added, "made me realize there's a lot of important things in life and [to] cherish them while you have them."
Bowman has endured tough times the past year and a half. His father, Hillard, died of a blood clot in his leg at age 52 in June of 2008. Another father figure, high school coach Nick Lynch, died in a car crash on the morning of New Year's Day this year, just hours before Bowman and PSU played USC in the Rose Bowl.
In April, Bowman admitted to smoking marijuana and violating his parole from an on-campus fight in 2007 that led to a disorderly conduct charge. He received an additional year of probation and was told by a judge that he would be sent to prison if he were caught drinking, doing drugs or even going to a bar.
One bright spot for Bowman through the troubles has been his son.
"It just made everything a little easier, and it helped me push a little harder," he said.
While Bowman is expected to leave Penn State early, several people close to the program have indicated Hayes may be leaning toward coming back next season.
Hayes' son lives with his girlfriend, Angeline, who is attending college in New Jersey.
"She's the primary caregiver, as well as my parents and her parents. They help out a lot," Hayes said before adding, "It's tough. It's a tough situation, but we made it through.
"I don't get to see him on an everyday basis," Hayes noted, "but last spring Coach Paterno gave me the opportunity to go home every weekend. We're just really trying to make it work. I spend a lot of time at home in the summertime."
If he decides to return for another season at Penn State, Hayes said his girlfriend and son would come live with him.
"It humbles you and makes you really respect life," Hayes said of being a father. "I didn't really understand what love was all about until my son was born. So it humbled me, it made me a better person, and I love being a dad."
Hayes may not see his son every day, but he did get to see one of the biggest moments.
"I was there for his first step," Hayes said. "And it tripped me out when he started saying, 'Daddy.' Now he doesn't stop. Whenever he sees me, 'Daddy' is his No. 1 word. It's a blessing, and I love it."
Hayes' tyke came to Penn State every weekend for football games during the regular season, and he loved running out on the field after each contest.
"He's fun," PSU tight end Andrew Quarless said. "He does run around a lot."
Hayes said his teammates "love my son."
"He has 129 other uncles on the team ... so it's been great to have that support," Hayes said.
Angeline and Jerome Jr. will be joining Hayes in Orlando to celebrate Christmas before the bowl game.
"I'm just really looking forward to spending time with him," Hayes said. "Having a long season, I wasn't able to see him every day, so I'm really looking forward to him coming down and spending Christmas with him."
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and email@example.com.