Walk-on shines with heavy heart

UNIVERSITY PARK – One day, Cole Chiappialle was home with his mom in Beaver Falls.

The next day, Chiappialle was getting a call that she was gone.

“It was very unexpected,” said Chiappialle, whose mother, Kim, was just 53 when she passed away of apparent natural causes on March 9, just as the rising sophomore from Blackhawk was about to begin spring practice with the Penn State football team. “It’s still something I’m overcoming and battling every day.

“She was my biggest fan. She called me after every game. She’d say, ‘I saw you on TV.’ She was definitely a big part. She only got to one game last year, but she watched them all on TV and called me after every game.”

With his mother there in spirit serving as inspiration, Chiappialle, a preferred walk-on, went out and put forth as noticeable an effort as anyone in Saturday’s Blue-White Game. The bowling ball-like 5-foot-8, 211-pounder rushed for 63 yards on nine carries and scored a pair of touchdowns in the Blue’s 37-0 victory at a picturesque Beaver Stadium before an estimated 72,000 fans.

No one else in the game ran for more than 22 yards.

“It was big [to have a game like this],” Chiappialle, affectionately known as “Chip” to his friends and teammates, said. “I had a little moment to myself before I went out. I was going to play hard for her, which is what I’ve been doing every day. But I really wanted to play hard for her.

“It’s something that really drove me this spring.”

The rest of the Nittany Lions were happy to see Chiappialle get to enjoy some time in the spotlight.

“Chip is a hard-working guy. He comes to practice every day. He works hard. He doesn’t talk back. He does what he’s supposed to do. I really respect that guy,” said starting receiver Geno Lewis. “For him to come out here in the spring game and for it to all pay off for him is just a blessing. I think the Lord must have just gave him the opportunity, and he’s flourishing.”

The loss of his mother is just the latest and hardest exercise in overcoming adversity for Chiappialle (pronounced chip-EE-el-ee). A throwback football player from an old-school football community who literally wears his nickname on his shoulder, Chiappialle admitted he didn’t have a very good junior season in high school. That combined with his size and speed probably doomed much of a chance to get a Division I scholarship, even though he became just the 10th player in WPIAL history to rush for 400 yards in a game when he piled up 404 on the ground in a game against Chartiers Valley in 2012.

He had a handful of Division II offers and an opportunity to walk on at Temple. Then Nittany Lion quarterback coach Charlie Fisher, though, pitched him the idea of being a preferred walk-on at Penn State.

Despite the likelihood that Blue-White Games would be the most meaningful action he ever saw, Chiappialle took Fisher up on his offer for one very simple reason.

“Honestly, my mentality is I knew I could play here,” Chiappialle said. “I just wanted to play at the highest level I could, and they gave me a chance.”

Chiappialle made a big enough impression that he was one of 12 true freshmen to play for the Nittany Lions last season. He first saw the field against Kent State and saw action throughout the year on special teams, making four tackles.

That’s probably where he’ll be back this year, with Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch all back ahead of him on the depth chart, but it’s a role he’s embraced and a challenged he’s accepted.

“He had a great spring. I’ve been very impressed with him,” new Penn State coach James Franklin said of Chiappialle. “Everyone in the organization has tremendous respect for how he carries himself and how he works. To me, that’s what spring is about. It’s about creating opportunities for guys to get a shot to show what they can do on the big stage.”

Chiappialle made about as much out of his as he could. His first carry went for 19 yards on a direct snap and set up a Sam Ficken field goal. In the second quarter, he got the ball on four straight plays, eventually plowing in from the 1 on fourth-and-goal.

But the big play was to come moments later. After a Ryan Keiser interception gave the Blue the ball on the White 23, Chiappialle took a stretch play to the left, spun out of a scrum a couple of yards down field and emerged all alone, darting into the end zone.

“I really just kept going and spun out and just took off,” Chiappialle said. “That was really it.”

Chiappialle thinks he can beat the odds, and his teammates don’t seem to think it would be wise to bet against him.

“He just needs to continue doing what he is doing,” Lynch said. “He is like Danny Woodhead, a great running back in the NFL. I know he will do great things when his time comes.”

Almost the first words out of Chiappialle’s mouth were to credit the beleaguered Penn State offensive line for creating holes for him, but he said his whole team was there for him a month ago when he needed them the most. Almost all of them tweeted condolences, and several of the assistant coaches like Terry Smith and Charles Huff were at his mother’s funeral.

“My team surrounded me really big. I’ve got to give them everything. They rallied behind me,” Chiappialle said..”Everyone had my back. My family. My girlfriend. It was rough, but, coming into the spring, I had nothing to lose.”

Chiappialle said his mother would have wanted him to keep playing, to keep working hard and pursuing his football dream. Football, in turn, has helped him through the grieving process.

“Football helped a lot,” Chiappialle said. “But, honestly, everyone that has supported me my whole life has helped me be strong.”

With his father and an older brother and sister still there to back him, Chiappialle is looking to keep working and to somehow make his mother proud.

“It’s a big opportunity with the new staff to show them that I can play,” Chiappialle said. “And that’s what I did.”