Mark Rubin wouldn't trade his career at Penn State for anything. But he admits it hasn't been all happy times in Happy Valley. Rubin dislocated his ankle as a sophomore and sat out an 11-1 season as a redshirt. The first day of camp the next summer, he broke his collarbone and missed half the season. They switched him from wide receiver to safety.
But Rubin never grew discouraged. Ask anyone who watched him at Amherst High, and they'll say they never saw a kid with such will and work ethic. Rubin never wavered in his belief that he belonged in major college football.
"I always believed that if I got healthy, I could play at this level," Rubin said by phone Tuesday. "I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself. The rehab was so intensive for both injuries, all I could do was focus on working hard and doing all the little things I needed to get healthy. I knew that my time would come."
By the second half of his junior season, Rubin was starting at strong safety -- what Penn State calls the "Hero." This year, the 6-foot-3 senior has been a stalwart on one of the top defenses in the nation. On Saturday night at Ohio State, on national TV, Rubin's time arrived.
In the biggest game of the season, Rubin had the game of his life. With Penn State trailing by three points with 10:38 to play, Rubin stripped the ball from Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor on a third-and-1. Penn State recovered at the Ohio State 38 and drove for the winning TD, preserving its chance at a national championship. He added 11 tackles, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
By Sunday, ecstatic Nittany Lions fans were calling Rubin's play one of the biggest in the school's glorious history. And where was our hero?
"At the business building," Rubin said. "I was there pretty much all of Sunday catching up on a lot of homework."
That's what makes this an especially happy tale for Western New Yorkers. We don't produce many major college sports heroes. It's gratifying to hear Rubin being extolled around the country as a shining -- and all too rare -- example of what a college athlete should be.
Rubin graduated last summer with a double major in finance and public relations. He had a 3.8 GPA. He was accepted to Penn State's two-year MBA program and started grad school in the fall. Why not take it easy, play out his eligibility, then take on the MBA?
"I thought about that," Rubin said with a laugh. "It'll be a grind, but the MBA program was such a great opportunity, I couldn't pass it up. I want to get into investment banking."
Rubin said his family inspired him to shoot high in school. His mother, Mary Ellen, is a clinical psychologist. His father, David, was a teacher. His older sister, Rachel, is working on a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Illinois. Rachel did her undergraduate work at UB, where she was on the swim team.
Mark swam for six years for Amherst. At 14, he was the top-ranked swimmer in the nation in his age group in the freestyle sprints. He beat Michael Phelps on a few occasions. But football was his main passion.
Rubin had about five scholarship offers, but Penn State was an easy choice. "When I looked at it realistically," he said, "I realized Penn State had a superior mix of athletics and academics."
He's had his struggles at Happy Valley. But all that work led Rubin to his one big moment at Ohio State. A fleeting instant, a swipe of an arm, and a kid from Amherst is the talk of college football.
"It was a long time coming," Rubin said. "It was definitely a reward to see all that hard work pay off. I turned 23 on Friday. So that was a pretty good birthday present on Saturday night."