Things weren't working out very well when Garrett Sickels first began playing football.
"I started off in flag football. I really had a problem with the idea of not tackling, so I got yelled at,'' Sickels said. "My dad said, 'Garrett, you can't do that.' I said, 'Dad, I tripped.'''
Once Sickels moved on to Pop Warner - and actual hitting - he was right in his element, though.
Now a 6-foot-4, 238-pound junior defensive end at Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver, N.J. near Asbury Park, Sickels has grown into Rival.com's 50th-best prospect in the 2013 recruiting class with more than 30 scholarship offers from all over the country.
Sickels gave a verbal commitment to Penn State on March 4, becoming the third member of a class that increased to four Friday night with the addition of another top-50 national prospect, Cedar Cliff tight end Adam Breneman.
Ohio State, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Alabama and Georgia were Sickels' other top schools at the time he committed.
"Penn State's Penn State. It has a tradition that can't be duplicated,'' Sickels said of his reason for choosing the Nittany Lions. "I really believe in what Coach [Joe] Paterno stressed about the standard of success for being a great student-athlete is succeeding on the field as well as the class room, and I love that Coach [Bill] O'Brien is continuing to do that.
"I really felt at home with the whole staff.''
Since stepping into the Bucs' starting lineup as a sophomore, Sickels has made himself right at home in the backfield of opposing teams, recording 19.5 sacks in the last two years as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker in Red Bank Regional's primarily three-man front. Over that span, he's forced seven fumbles, recovered six and blocked a punt that he returned for a touchdown.
"His motor doesn't stop, and he plays with a tenacity to get to the football and with little regard for his own body or what have you,'' Red Bank coach Nick Giglio said. "He wants to get to the ball, he pursues very well, and I his pass rush ability is what excites coaches, as well as his ability to be a down lineman or to drop off into coverage at times as well.''
Sickels said he often gets told he reminds people of former NFL All-Pro defensive end Patrick Kerney, ironically a former lacrosse player like Sickels who was born and played his scholastic football in New Jersey. Sickels' favorite player, though, is Jason Pierre Paul, the extraordinary pass rusher from his favorite team, the New York Giants. He also said he studies former New Jersey prep and Penn State standout Tamba Hali, now of the Kansas City Chiefs, looking for nuances to improve his game.
Defensive end is considered one of the Nittany Lions' priorities in this recruiting class. Landing a prospect of Sickels' stature is big, especially after Penn State missed out on Bishop McDevitt All-American Noah Spence in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
"I'll be playing a rush end. I can do stuff with my hand off the ground and in the ground. That's a lot of fun,'' said Sickels of where he's been told he fits into Penn State's defense. "I like both. It definitely gives me better versatility. It's all about the situation. If it's third down-and-distance, I'll put my hand in the ground and come off the edge really low. It's whatever the situation calls for.''
Some colleges, like Alabama, recruited Sickels as an outside linebacker. Other colleges pursuing Sickels included Oklahoma, Miami, Nebraska, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington and Stanford.
"It was definitely humbling, especially toward the beginning of the spring, when I started leaning pretty heavily to Penn State. I had other offers, but I told them, 'Thank you, but I think this opportunity would benefit someone else in a greater way than me.' I just didn't want to waste anyone's time,'' Sickels said. "I think I had around 30 [offers] or so, but 22 was really the number I capped it off at.''
Sickels now is intent on turning from the guy on the receiving end of the overtures to the one making them.
"I'm working hard on [recruiting] Jersey,'' Sickels said. "Brendon Mahon is someone I talk to a lot. He's a friend of mine. He's a big offensive lineman. He's a great kid, and he really gets after it. I'm working hard to get him to come.''
Sickels, who got into football watching the games with his dad when he was 5, is looking to get into a major that will get him into a field allowing him to remain close to sports - like sports market - and he'd also like to become a coach himself someday. It just might not be in flag football.
"I never saw myself playing at that next level. I never saw myself going to a big-time college. I always just worked hard and stayed on the right path,'' Sickels said, "and, sure enough, I started being blessed with some great opportunities.''