The population of your hometown is shriveling, its industrial heyday at least 30 years in the rearview mirror. Crime rates are up, household incomes down. The steel mills that once were the lifeblood of the local economy have long been shuttered.

But the pride in where you come from takes root in a person and refuses to let go. Hard times can toughen a person's spirit, strengthen his resolve, make him resilient. You say there's a recession? Well, the hardy people of Youngstown, Ohio, have dealt with that and even harsher realities since the days of disco, polyester leisure suits and the first wave of padlocked factories in the late 1970s.

There is adversity to be found on the football field, which might explain why a disproportionate number of kids from Rust Belt cities find their way into big-time college football programs, where the hits you sustain on the field must seem like nothing when compared with the hits everyday living can dish out.

Penn State sophomore tailback Brandon Beachum, not surprisingly, is a rugged inside runner who prefers to bowl over would-be tacklers than to step around them. The best way to confront a problem is to confront it head-on, right? And what better way to do that than with those whose lunch-pail perspectives have been symbolically forged in the furnaces of a cherished but bygone heyday?

"We had six guys on my high school team my senior year go to big-time schools," Beachum said. "Me and Michael Zordich [son of Penn State alum and former Eagles safety Mike Zordich] came here. We had a quarterback go to Notre Dame, a linebacker go to Michigan, a cornerback to go Nebraska. It was pretty unbelievable."

Beachum, who through attrition has risen to the primary backup position behind starting tailback Evan Royster, is one of three players on the Penn State roster from Youngstown. His dream - well, one of them - is for all three to line up in the same backfield for the Nittany Lions, if only for a single play. It would be another small signal to world that while you might knock Youngstown down, its sons will rise, dust themselves off and keep moving forward.

Maybe such an opportunity will arise on Saturday, when No. 12 Penn State (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) visits Northwestern (5-3, 2-2) in a potential "trap" game for the Nits, falling as it does between last week's romp at Michigan and next week's much-anticipated hosting of No. 17 Ohio State in Beaver Stadium.

"I really think it is a good possibility," Beachum said of the possibility that he, quarterback Daryll Clark and Zordich, who only recently was moved from linebacker to fullback to address a need, could be on the field at the same time. "Whether they keep Michael at fullback, I'm not sure. [The coaching staff] obviously moved him because they moved me back to tailback."

Clark, a fifth-year senior and All-Big Ten selection is in for almost all the offensive snaps every week. The 6-foot, 219-pound Beachum, who has moved from tailback to fullback and back again, returned to his original position when injuries knocked the two guys behind Royster, Stephfon Green and Brent Carter, from the depth chart. With Beachum at least temporarily out of the fullback mix, the dominoes continued to topple with Zordich moving to offense to back up starting fullback Joe Suhey.

Clark, Beachum and Zordich have a history together that goes back to their high school days and even before. Beachum's father, Lock Beachum Jr., was an assistant football coach at Ursuline Academy when Clark was the star quarterback there. Before Beachum enrolled at Cardinal Mooney High, where he and Zordich were teammates, he served as a ball boy for the Ursuline football team.

"After the games, we would walk back to the high school and Brandon would carry my pads," Clark recalled. "He was a quiet kid, always kept to himself. But when it came time for him to play, he was a really strong guy, a really fast guy. For him to be playing on the same football team with me on the college level is kind of funny.

"His locker is right next to mine. All we do is talk back and forth about our rivalry schools and other stuff from back home."

Green - whose speed is such that he can go all the way on any play, which makes him the perfect complement to Royster - almost certainly will reassume his second-team role when he gets over the effects of a balky ankle that has kept him out of the past two games, and likely will sideline him again on Saturday. But Beachum has played well enough in spot duty to assure himself of a valued role moving forward, be it at tailback or fullback. It is not out of the question he also could wind up at linebacker, where he excelled in high school.

"I liked to deliver the blow," Beachum said of playing linebacker. "On offense, I like to do the same thing. I think [opponents] are taken aback by my physicalness. I really like that aspect of my game." *