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‘The Man in the Arena’: Legacy of Penn State QB Sean Clifford Obvious to DT PJ Mustipher

Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) November 12, 2022 David Hague/NSN

Penn State fans probably won’t boo QB Sean Clifford Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Well, some might, but it likely won’t be loud enough to be noticeable in a crowd of more than 100,000.

It’s Clifford’s last home game— no, he isn’t coming back for his seventh year— so most fans should have the sense to either cheer Clifford or at least keep negative emotions to themselves when he’s introduced on Senior Day.

But no matter how positive the reaction is, it won’t change how polarizing of a figure Clifford has become in his time as the QB at Penn State. There are fans who can’t wait for Clifford to leave, and even some who like him are ready for somebody else to be Penn State’s quarterback. It’s far too late for Clifford to change the way people feel about him as a player. No matter how well he plays against a 5-6 Michigan State squad Saturday, people who hate him will still hate him.

If Clifford throws four touchdown passes and Penn State wins, people will say he just took advantage of a bad team. If Clifford and Penn State lose to Michigan State, the haters will hate more, and people who like Clifford won’t be thrilled, either.

But as polarizing as Clifford is among Penn State’s fans, that’s how beloved he is by his teammates, such as senior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher.

“The Man in the Arena” is a speech given by the 26th President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, in 1910. Here’s an excerpt from it:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

“Man in the Arena” is the title of a documentary series about Tom Brady. Mustipher, who has been teammates with Clifford since 2018, feels those four words apply to Penn State teammate and QB.

“Everybody can judge him,” Mustipher told reporters via Zoom Wednesday. “You can say what you want about him. But you ain’t on the field. You know what I’m saying? You’re not in that spotlight. You’re not the quarterback. You’re not who everybody’s looking at, whether we’re winning, whether we’re losing. So people can say what they want to say, but they ain’t out there.”

If Clifford’s been bothered by scrutiny, he hasn’t shown it. Before the team’s White Out game against Minnesota last month, fans booed Clifford during player introductions. After the game— which ended up being one of Clifford’s best at Penn State (23-31, 295 yards, four TDs, INT), beat writer Cory Giger, formerly of Nittany Sports Now and currently writing for DKPittsburghSports, asked Clifford about the boos.

Clifford could have ripped the fans and created the viral rant, and he would have been justified in doing so. But he took another road.

“They (the fans) can think what they want to think,” Clifford said, “but I’m going to focus on what I can do on the field. I’m going to give my heart, my soul every single time I step onto that field, and nobody can take that away from me. So I know that for a fact. But, yeah, I’m just going to focus on the program, the people on our team, and then that’s about it.”

For Mustipher, the way Clifford handles criticism shows the character he has.
“Not a lot of people have the guts to do what he’s doing,” Mustipher said, “even when people aren’t cheering for him at his home stadium. So stuff like that, it’s a testament to who he is. That’s the warrior mentality he has. He’s always showing up. He’s showing up each and every day. He’s being a tremendous leader, and that’s going to pay dividends down the road for him because that’s who he truly is. So I’m just proud to be his teammate.”

Clifford and Mustipher have been through a lot as teammates. They’ve become two of Penn State’s most important players, and each is a team captain. Each has been a part of good teams and disappointing ones. One of the down years, 2021, started to go south when both got hurt against Iowa in Penn State’s sixth game. Clifford returned two weeks later after Penn State’s bye. Mustipher missed the rest of the year.

Clifford and Mustipher’s last ride has been a good one. As long as Penn State doesn’t lose to Michigan State in a game it’s favored by three scores to win, it will finish the regular season 10-2.

For Mustipher, the extent of Clifford’s impact on Penn State’s team is well-known to everybody but Clifford himself.

“I’ve learned so much from him, and I think the whole locker room has, and he doesn’t even know it,” Mustipher said. “So what he’s going through can help guys down the road. This program’s gonna miss him.”

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