Penn State's Wartman-White: Injury made him 'a better person'

Penn St Practice Football
Penn State linebackers Manny Bowen, Nyeem Wartman-White and Johnathan Thomas have a fun moment at media day on Aug. 4, 2016.

One minute, Penn State's Nyeem Wartman-White was resembling a human wrecking ball at his new position - middle linebacker - in the 2015 season opener against Temple with family and friends in the seats and thinking about how much he could accomplish the rest of the season.

The next minute, he was lying on the grass at Lincoln Financial Field, knowing something had gone wrong while running downfield on punt coverage and hoping that he had just tweaked his knee.

The injury, however, turned out to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, meaning he would be out the rest of the season. It was a crushing blow for Wartman-White, who grew up in Philadelphia and returns to the city often, but he did not want to let his disappointment affect those around him.

"I didn't want to grieve," he said recently, "because grieving ain't going to get you nowhere.

"I could have acted like it was me against the world after I got hurt, like 'Yeah, get out of my face!' I didn't want to be that guy that, if something bad happens to him, he gets hurt and now he's in a dark room with a big beard, a glass of Scotch, and is just mad at the world.

"No, that's not for me. I just hate it when people see me moping and feeling sorry for myself. I don't like that. I don't like feeling sorry for myself. We had so many young guys on the team last year. People are going to see you and how you react if something bad happens to you. I had to be strong."

Wartman-White sat out spring practice while he continued his rehabilitation from surgery and now is back practicing with the Nittany Lions in training camp, but with a different mind-set. He said "a lot of good came" from sitting out last year. For him, it's more about winning than impressing NFL scouts.

"I became a better person," he said. "It changed the way I look at playing football. I want to win games.

"That's all I want to do. It's my fifth year. The most games I've won at Penn State is eight. I'm trying to win 12, 14. I'm trying to win games. One tackle a game and we win? That's fine with me. I don't care. The next level doesn't matter. I'm going to remember Penn State more. Playing at Penn State was more of a dream."

If his knee is close to 100 percent, Wartman-White will impress the scouts. He packs 248 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame and is fast enough to chase a ballcarrier from sideline to sideline. In his last full season, 2014, he finished second on the team in tackles.

In training camp, he is competing at middle linebacker with junior Jason Cabinda, whom he helped when Cabinda was moved from the outside to the middle after Wartman-White's injury.

Staying involved with the team aided his rehabilitation. He tutored and advised young linebackers such as Cabinda and two sophomores, Jake Cooper (Archbishop Wood) and Manny Bowen, who saw their redshirts burned in their first game in a Penn State uniform last season.

While some look at Wartman-White and Cabinda as competing for the starting middle linebacker job, where the player has more control in calling defenses and positioning players, coach James Franklin thinks the team wins either way because both will start somewhere.

"It's really a situation now where we think we have two guys that can play Mike linebacker and we can win with," Franklin said. "There's not a whole lot of difference between the two of them. . . . We really look at those two positions very similar. We feel good about it."

It's been a difficult path for Wartman-White. Ticketed to play as a true freshman in 2012, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game at Virginia and received a medical redshirt. Counting last year and one game he sat out in 2014, he has missed 23 games.

Now he wants to play and help his team win. He might have a shot at a sixth year next season if he wants it, but all of his focus is on 2016.

"This year," he said, "every game matters. If I'm going to leave, I want to win every game, all 12, 13, however many we play."

jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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