Paul Lankford has never forgotten his Penn State years -- they ultimately gave him two careers -- and he's never forgotten the good experience he had with Joe Paterno.
"He never went back on his word," Lankford, 54, said of his old college coach in a phone interview from his Jacksonville, Fla., home. "When he was recruiting me in high school, he asked me, point-blank: Do you want to run track or play football? I told him I would run track and I signed a track scholarship to Penn State. But he told me whenever I wanted to play football, I could."
Lankford ran only track as a freshman and sophomore, hoping to qualify for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team as a hurdler. But as a junior and senior, he excelled at both sports, earning a starting job at cornerback.
"Even though I wasn't involved in football at all for two years, Joe never made it difficult for me," said Lankford, who finished seventh in the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials and would not have qualified for the 1980 U.S. squad that boycotted the Moscow Games. "I never played spring football because of track, and he always welcomed me back with open arms."
Naturally, Lankford expressed shock at what happened with Paterno and his alma mater last year.
A receiver and cornerback at Farmingdale High School, where he was a Newsday All-Long Island selection under venerable coach Don Snyder in 1976, Lankford recalled that when he finally did play football in college, Paterno asked him: "Where do you want to play?' I said, 'What do you need?' He said, 'The secondary.' "
For more than a decade, the secondary became the primary focus in Lankford's life. He played well enough under Paterno to be drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the third round of the 1982 draft and had a 10-year career that included two Super Bowl appearances (losses in 1983 and '85).
"I used to love to play the Jets because it was a rivalry game and it was coming home," said Lankford, who recalled that he once made a one-handed interception against the Jets while going out of bounds.
"I sometimes tell my kid about that one," he said with a laugh. His 'kid' is Ryan Lankford, a junior at Illinois and the team's leading receiver. "I've had more fun watching him the last two years than I had in my own football career. I don't miss a home game. He wears No. 12, which is the number I wore at Penn State."
Lankford worked under then-Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin as director of player programs in the first two years of the expansion Jaguars' existence, but he soon tired of missing weekends with his family. A former Penn State teammate -- there's that Nittany Lions connection again -- helped Lankford get a job in pharmaceutical sales for Eli Lilly and Co.
"For years, as an athlete, I tried to stay away from doctors," Lankford said. "Then I wind up working with them. It's kept the lights on for the last 15 years."