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Meet the only player affected by SMU death penalty who went on to play at PSU

August 1, 2012 - Cory Giger
Matt McCartin has a unique place in the sports world. He was a member of the SMU football team when the program received the death penalty in 1987, then the offensive lineman transferred to Penn State and played for the Nittany Lions from 1988-90.

McCartin is the only football player who was tied to SMU's death penalty who then went on to see his alma mater get hit with severe sanctions that some people have suggested are as bad as the death penalty.

McCartin has done only one interview so far, with ESPNDallas, and has turned down interview requests from every other media outlet. I tried contacting him for an interview, but he did not return a message.

Many people are angry that other teams are recruiting PSU's players, who are eligible to transfer and play immediately. But when SMU received the death penalty, Penn State was one of the schools that visited the campus to recruit its players. Now, the situation was different in that case because SMU no longer had a football team for the players to compete on, while in PSU's case the Lions will still be competing during their sanctions.

Given his unique experiences, McCartin's perspective is worth telling. So here is the Q&A he did with ESPNDallas.

Q: What was your initial reaction to the penalties at Penn State?

A: For the most part it was sadness. … It's been a long time now, a long time since I experienced what I did at SMU, and so a lot of those emotions came back. And so when I saw the penalties, I think that NCAA came in and they wanted to make an example of Penn State. … [On wiping out the wins] They say they're Joe's victories. Joe might have been in the stadium, but it was a hundred kids each year that went out and practiced and won those games. The biggest issue I had is I think that the people they wanted to impose the penalties upon the most, one had passed away and the other one's in jail for life. … If I look at the program itself, I just felt some of it was a little punitive.

Q: Was there anything about Jerry Sandusky that seemed off or odd when you play it back in your mind?

A: It was shocking. I used to work with The Second Mile kids ... in the summers, so we'd take the kids through workouts. I'm the father of two adopted boys, so it's something that's very close to me, helping youth like that. I don't think there's anybody within the program that would have that Jerry was that caliber of person. It blew me away when I heard it. I never saw it coming.

Q: Did you go through a time after all this where you thought you didn't want any part of the Penn State program?

A: We were held at such a high standard, and if you talk to anybody that went to Penn State -- I left SMU to go to Penn State because of the program and you were a student-athlete, Joe had the highest graduation rate. Your character was something you were born with and died with, and you had to own that. And so everything that Joe pushed on us was something that was very important. My frustration is, a program I love, Joe made a mistake. You know, he has 45 years of doing amazing work and helping all the young men, and at the end of it, he made a mistake. I think legacy became more important than probably doing the right thing. We talked about it before, if I talk to any of my players, we're always going to be Penn Staters, we're always going to be pushing and protecting the program because we love it, it's been an amazing experience for all of us. But as I look at that, Joe did amazing things for 45 years, he's a great man and then the time, he made a major mistake. And I think he worried too much about his legacy. And when you do something like that, I try to make a life lesson out of it for myself and I look at it and I say, you know what, I can do amazing things for all my life and when there's a chance to do the right thing or the easy path, I could easily wipe out all the good work I've done. And I think Joe, if he could go back in time -- and he said it before he passed away -- that he would have come out and done the right thing. I think he's paid the ultimate price for that.

Q: Knowing the Joe Paterno that you thought you knew, how surprising is it that he didn't do something back in 1998?

A: I think Joe had almost a father figure, he thought he could handle it. I'll be honest with you, I was very surprised the way it turned out. I did not expect that from Joe. So it was disappointing for me. Like I said, we were held at a high standard, and I expected Joe to live by that as well, and I think that was a failure for him. But then I have to look at his life in its entirety, and what I saw my years at Penn State that he wasn't just a coach, he truly was a father figure to so many young men who didn't have that structure and that he was able to help them. That's the part that, there's so many good things about that man, and then for him to make that mistake, like I said, if he could go back in time he'd change it as well.

Q: Do you have any interest in speaking to Sandusky, and what would you ask him? And is your blood boiling over all this?

A: I'm angry, and I think if you talk to anybody that wore the uniform, they're angry. As far as Jerry, Jerry's a sick man. Jerry is going to spend the rest of his life in prison, and the damage he's done to so many lives, for me to feel that going in and talking is going to change anything, the man is a sick, sick, man, so I don't have any desire to see him or talk to him. My thing is how do you move forward as far as an organization and a team.

[On PSU's sanctions] The way that they've structured these penalties, I think the big concern is you're going to see -- just like when I was at SMU -- I remember once they did the death penalty, we could transfer without losing eligibility, so there were probably 30 different colleges out in front of the building, and they were grabbing you with a program and trying to figure out what your name is and get you on a recruiting trip, because you could take another five recruiting trips. And I know what's happening with O'Brien up at Penn State now is colleges are calling all his players because they can transfer without losing eligibility. So what you're going to see is, it's pretty much a death penalty for Penn State.

Q: How eerie is it that you're the only guy to go through what happened at SMU and then also see this happen to your alma mater at Penn State?

A: It's surreal, I'll say that much. When I look at SMU, SMU, they definitely were doing things as far as a university and athletic program that deserved the death penalty. So I understand why they got that severe penalty. When I look at Penn State, the victims are front and center in my mind, and the compensation in helping them I think should be foremost. I think what happened, though … is there's a man who's passed on and there's a man who's in prison that are really the ones that should be punished, and the penalties to the university and to the team, in my mind, I think of the victims and I also think about the young kids that worked so hard in those programs that now, everything's turned upside down.

Q: How proud are you of Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich standing up for the program last week what advice would you give them?

A: I'm extremely proud of them. … I look at the guys that are going through this right now, and all I can say is hold together. I think there's going to be a lot of pressure for them to do different things and go different places. But like I said, their feeling of they are Penn State, we are Penn State, they should definitely stay together and look to the alumni association and other groups as far as support.

Q: How different is the feeling of what happened to you at SMU with the death penalty to watching what happened at Penn State?

A: There were true violations as far as players and coaches at SMU, and so I understood what happened. My situation was different. I was one of the few, they were bringing me in because they had just gone through probation and they were cleaning up the program. They had some major, major issues. And so when went through that with SMU, all I wanted to do at that time was get out of the Southwest Conference. So for me, it was how do I get out there and get in a program that's extremely clean, and I remember going to Penn State, and it was the worst recruiting trip I had. It was all about your education, here's where you're going to live, they put me in a dorm with two other players. And it turns out it was the best choice I ever made because it was about being a student-athlete, it was Joe's principles.

And so going to Penn State and seeing that and experiencing the difference -- I tell people if you got a hot dog at halftime you missed my pro career, I was a free agent -- and I remember going in the locker room, and I saw the caliber of players coming from other universities, and it just wasn't the same as Penn State. And so, I give that to Joe and his philosophy of making student-athletes. So when I see this happening, I definitely understand the anger, and I understand the punishment that the university is receiving.

It's just, I think a lot of times when we see something that's been held up on a hill like that, there's a tendency to tear everything down about it. And there are a lot of amazing things about Penn State, there are a lot of amazing things about the program, and Joe in particular, some great things he did in his life. And as we all want retribution for such a horrible crime that happened to these victims, I just think, my concern is I see this program and Coach O'Brien and these kids that are working so hard and all the time that they've spent out on the field, that I just don't want that to be thrown out with everything else.

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