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September 12, 2012Penn State senior fullback P.J. Byers comes to practice each day with the knowledge that come Saturday, he is unlikely to get any carries, or even see action at all in the game.
In fact, since earning a spot as a walk-on with the Nittany Lions in 2010, the senior has garnered just one carry for one yard in the past two seasons combined.
And yet, as his teammates would explain, Byers' role serves a function that might be considered just as important to the Nittany Lions' success this season.
"A lot of people look up to P.J.," said senior defensive end Pete Massaro. "(He's) one of the hardest workers on this football team. A lot of people overlook the role of the offseason and getting the football team ready for the season, but P.J. just did an outstanding job this offseason.
"He was a great leader for us and he continues to be a leader in practice just among the guys on the team."
As an active duty member of the United States Navy, Byers knows about leadership.
He knows what adversity is, too. Aspiring to be a Navy SEAL, Byers endured boot camp only to learn that his eyesight wasn't good enough.
Transitioning to a focus on becoming a Navy dive specialist, Byers spent three years in Hawaii, learning underwater submarine repair and demolition of explosives. The next two years, Byers taught dolphins to find underwater mines in San Diego.
Selected for the Navy's officer program, Byers is currently working to earn his degree before moving on to become an Explosive Ordinance Disposal officer.
Throughout the experience, Byers continued to love football, participating in military-sponsored leagues and learning some important parallels between the game and life in the Navy as a result.
"I think it's taking a challenge and pushing it forward and completing that challenge," he said. "It's taking a new task to every day. Completing a mission. We have one mission here, and that's winning every game that we come up to every week. We're taking one game at a time.
"So, as one team, we work toward that mission, just like a dive team would when I was a diver. We would work on one goal, get that job done and move on to the next goal."
For Byers, his specific mission under head coach Bill O'Brien is to help prepare Penn State's defense for each week's new opponent. It's a responsibility he's happy to oblige. This week, he's played the role of Navy fullback Noah Copeland, who is second on the team in rushing attempts with six carries for 29 yards against Notre Dame.
Intimately aware of the character and toughness of this week's opponent, Byers said he's been looking forward to this game for quite some time.
"Ever since I got here," he said. "I didn't even know we were playing Navy, but, it's really cool that I get to experience it, as does the whole team. I think the last time we played them was the 1960s.
"It's going to be a really good experience for the team."