HEADLINE: Blazing a Trail
SUBHEAD: Determined family members made Mark Wedderburn's road to Penn State that much smoother
BYLINE: Mark Brennan
At first glance, the road Mark Wedderburn took to become a member of the Penn State football team appeared to be a smooth one.
A star tight end out of Cardinal O'Hara High in suburban Philadelphia, he was recruited by dozens of schools, eventually settled on the Nittany Lions, signed his letter of intent Feb. 6 and will arrive on campus this summer.
Pretty straightforward stuff.
Oh, he logged untold hours of training and schoolwork to become an attractive target for major-college programs. But that is hardly unique among the thousands of prospects who earn football scholarships every year.
Yet Wedderburn has been the first to admit he feels blessed to be in the position he is now. Because while his road to Happy Valley was indeed smooth, it became that way due to a couple of trailblazers in his family — his mother, Pauline, and his older brother, Floyd. Had that duo not overcome significant hardship, it is doubtful that Mark would be anywhere close to where he is.
In the early 1980s, Pauline and her husband, Minard, were scratching out a living in their native Jamaica. They had two young sons, Ricardo (born in 1974) and Floyd (born in 1976), and times were tight financially.
So Pauline took a chance at making life better for her family. She moved away to work as a nanny, first in Canada and later in the Philadelphia area, with the hope of gaining a foothold in a more promising environment.
“It was the economics,” said Pauline, who is now a nurse. “It was getting to where if you got a chance to leave, you would do that. I was the first one, and I had to make the way for all of them. It was hard back then. But this is a wonderful place. And when you get the opportunity to be here, you have to make use of it.”
“I tell people that story all the time, and it's easy to get a little teary-eyed,” Floyd said. “For a parent, especially a mother, to go away and leave her kids — but doing it because she had a long-term goal for her kids — that amazes me. To this day it is still amazing. That's one of the reasons I love my mother so much.”
The risk paid off when the rest of the family moved to the Philadelphia area in the late 1980s. But there were pains that came with the transition, particularly for Ricardo and Floyd. They spent the early part of their lives going through Jamaica's inadequate school system and found themselves playing catch-up when they moved to the United States. Pauline enrolled them in a small Christian school so they could get extra help.
Both boys enjoyed sports in Jamaica, and Floyd was especially athletic. He played soccer and participated in the sprinting events in track and field. When he got to the United States, he “beefed up,” in his words, and soon caught the eye of local football coaches.
Upper Darby High's Jack Shingle was one of them. Shingle pleaded with Pauline to allow the boys to attend the public school. Her initial reaction was “no.” But when Shingle promised they would receive extra tutoring, she relented.
Floyd emerged as a force on the field during his freshman year. Big and athletic, it came easy to him. He became a four-year starter, and by his senior season had grown to 6-foot-5, 320 pounds. Every major college wanted him.
Academically, he spent most of his high school career skipping homeroom and lunch to attend tutoring sessions. It allowed him to do well in the classes, but he struggled with the SAT.
While all this was going on, Mark was born in 1990. Pauline laughs when she calls him “my surprise visitor.” That led to even more extra work for Floyd, but they were chores he enjoyed.
“My mother and father are hard workers, and they were working all the time,” Floyd said. “So me and my older brother, we were always at home with Mark or would have to pick him up. We were pretty much like parents at the time. We still have pictures where we were changing his diapers.”
Floyd and Mark in the 1990s.
Prop 48 admission standards were implemented in the early 1980s, and through the early 1990s the Penn State football team had never taken a nonqualifier as a scholarship player. But that changed with Wedderburn. Joe Paterno and his staff loved his work ethic and his family, and realized with enough help he could make it in Happy Valley.
Just before signing day in 1994, Paterno told Floyd he would have a scholarship at Penn State even if he didn't qualify on his final attempt at the SAT the following spring. Floyd signed with the Lions, came up short on that last shot at the SAT and sat out Penn State's amazing 1994 season.
The following year brought more bad news. Floyd was moving quickly up the depth chart at defensive tackle in the preseason, but in a one-on-one drill with offensive lineman Marco Rivera, he sustained a torn ACL. He was knocked out for another year.
After missing two full seasons, he was eventually moved to the offensive line, where he became a multiple-year starter at tackle and a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 1998. In the meantime, he did well academically, in part due to tutoring from Paterno's wife, Sue.
“My career at Penn State was up and down, with the Prop 48, the torn ACL and the whole nine yards,” Floyd said. “But the coaches, they stuck with me. I can't tell you how they helped me academically, mentally, physically — with everything. They really looked out for me.”
“I believe in them, I believe in Penn State,” Pauline said. “Whatever they say, you can trust. At Penn State, the coaching staff and Mr. Paterno, they stay true to their word.”
Pauline still talks glowingly about the family trips to Penn State to see Floyd play. Not so long ago, Floyd was looking through a photo album. The images of young Mark jumped out at him.
“The photos bring back memories,” he said. “Just to see how small he was and how he used to come up and just be a little kid and run around … it brings back memories.”
Floyd was a fifth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in the 1999 NFL Draft. He spent five seasons with the Seahawks, moving in and out of the starting lineup and dealing with multiple knee injuries before retiring in 2004.
“It took its toll on my body,” he said. “It was time to go.”
While Floyd's career was ending, Mark's was just taking off. The little kid who used to nip at big brother's heels grew into a 6-5, 235-pound receiver who was reeling in multiple scholarship offers by his junior season at O'Hara. When Penn State offered last year, Floyd and Pauline did their best not to put too much pressure on Mark to pick the Nittany Lions.
But the entire family was thrilled when he committed to PSU in December.
“I don't know how I would have felt had Mark decided to go somewhere else,” Pauline said. “I don't think I would have felt comfortable.”
“All along, I told him to go anywhere he wants to go,” said Floyd, who is back living in the Philadelphia area. “I said don't go to Penn State because I went to Penn State. Go to Penn State because that's where you want to go. That's what I'm proud of: he made the decision himself.”
Floyd says he now does “a little of this, a little of that” to keep himself busy, which includes everything from working with U.S. Congressman Robert Brady to starting a program called Edge Athletics to help teach city kids about sports.
Though it seemed like a risk at the time, the decision to attend Penn State has put Floyd in a position where he can assist others.
“It paid off,” he said. “I was the first one in my family to go to college. That was a start. Now my brother is going. It's like a chain reaction. I told him, don't take this opportunity lightly. You've got to take advantage of everything you get.”
Just like their mom did more than two decades ago.
“I'm telling you, having a lady like that as my mother, that's the best thing that ever happened to me in this entire world,” Floyd said.
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