A decade before he began a promising professional baseball career with the New York Mets, Michael Conforto was afforded a lens into his father's athletic past.
It came during an off day from the 2004 Little League World Series, when the team from Redmond, Wash., made the hourlong drive southwest to State College. With his father leading the way, the star 11-year-old and his teammates hung out on the sidelines of a Penn State football practice and were granted an audience with coach Joe Paterno.
The trip was memorable for Conforto, now the sweet-swinging rookie whose July promotion helped rejuvenate an anemic Mets offense. Sure, he hails from Pac-12 country. But the 22-year-old leftfielder is, after all, the son of a Penn State linebacker.
Conforto grew up on tales of the late 1970s Nittany Lions and their trips to the Gator, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls. His father, Mike, more role player than big man on campus, was an undersize inside 'backer who lined up behind star defensive linemen Matt Millen and Bruce Clark in short-yardage situations.
"Frankly, I was not the all-American linebacker at Penn State or anything," Mike Conforto said by telephone last week from Washington, "not the accomplished guy that some of my good friends were there."
The elder Conforto was never a starter but played on two teams that finished among the top five in the nation, in 1977 and 1978. A series of debilitating knee injuries limited his potential and kept him in the trainers' room for much of his senior season in '78. He still deals with the ramifications from his football injuries but says he "would do it again in a heartbeat."
Mike Conforto's crowning football moment came in 1977. It was Week 3, just before halftime of a Penn State win against Maryland in a nationally televised game at Beaver Stadium. He made a goal-line stop to force the opposition to settle for a field goal, swinging the game's momentum. A Washington Post story off the game described him as "immovable." A painting of the play hangs in Michael's childhood bedroom.
"I've always had like kind of a special place [in my heart] for Penn State," said Michael, whose Mets open the NL division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday at Dodger Stadium. "I always check up on them to see how they're doing in the fall."
Mike, who walked on at Penn State, hails from Altoona, where many of his relatives still live. After his college graduation he and teammate Craig Coder moved to the Seattle area to try out for the Seahawks. Craig's older brother, Ron, played on their offensive line. They quickly came to their senses and instead opened a gym, where Mike met his now ex-wife and Michael's mother, Tracie Ruiz, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming at the 1984 Olympics.
Michael, his supreme athletic genes never in question, grew up playing football and baseball. His father was his football coach. As a kid, Michael had designs on playing for the Nittany Lions.
Michael played quarterback and safety up until his senior year of high school and was talented enough to garner interest from Washington, Idaho, and several Ivy League schools. The interest was much greater for baseball, though, and he ended up at Oregon State, where he was the two-time Pac 12 player of the year. The Mets drafted him 10th overall in 2014, three picks after the Phillies selected Aaron Nola.
For Conforto's father, watching his son reach the highest level of his sport has been a treat. He, as much as anyone, knows the difficulty of making it in elite athletics. A few months ago the 58-year-old underwent a total knee replacement. His other knee will be replaced next month. He has undergone four ACL reconstructions.
"It really is a tough road regardless of how much talent you have," Mike Conforto said. "There is so many things involved to get there and to be able to consistently perform and have the right mental makeup, too, to handle everything.
"It's been really rewarding."