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Gilman grad Brian Gaia rewarded for his loyalty to Penn State

Brian Gaia didn't waver when Penn State faced serious sanctions five years ago. Now, he gets to play in the Ro

His 18-year-old son was home for the weekend, and Tim Gaia expected to have "The Talk." It was July 2012, and Brian Gaia had driven back from State College, Pa., to his Pasadena home, and now Tim and his wife, Sharon, needed to discuss a future that seemed less certain.

Brian walked through the front door, some luggage in tow. He set it down on the couch. His father spoke first. This was going to be the start of a long few days, he thought.

"Dad, we don't need to talk about it," Tim remembers Brian telling him. "My decision's made."

That February, Brian Gaia had signed his letter of intent to play football at Penn State, a childhood dream realized. In June, former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had been convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. On July 23, the NCAA announced sanctions relating to the university's scandal. Among them: a significant reduction in scholarships, a four-year postseason ban and, most relevant to Gaia and his teammates, immediate eligibility for all players seeking to transfer.

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien told his team to go home, spend time with family and figure out the future. And so Gaia informed his parents that his was at Penn State, and, no, "I'm not changing my mind."

He was a freshman then, but already resolute. Perhaps it should be no surprise that on Monday, against No. 9 Southern California in the Rose Bowl, he will play the final game of his five-year career having made more starts than any Nittany Lions teammate. Or that he is the only player on No. 5 Penn State to be named a captain for all 13 games this season.

Gaia is at once a Beaver Stadium curio, among the team's final active connections to Joe Paterno, and a symbol of its rebirth after the legend's downfall. His position has been shuffled and reshuffled. Coaches have come and gone. But he has remained Brian Gaia through it all, the hardworking lineman whose most unpredictable attribute is the arrangement of his facial hair.

"I expected Brian to crumble somewhere along the way," Tim Gaia said. "Never did. Never did he falter."

Brian's interest in Penn State started with a cousin, whose interest in Penn State came from a linebacker. Joey Herring is a Washington Redskins fan and was a LaVar Arrington adorer. Gaia and the older Herring were like brothers growing up, so that they shared an interest in Arrington's alma mater was unsurprising. They were family.

So was Larry Johnson, or at least it seemed that way. "He just kind of made you feel like you were being coached by a grandfather," Gaia said of the then-Nittany Lions defensive line coach and his recruiter. When Gaia started to knock opposing linemen on their backs at Gilman, Johnson and other recruiters also started knocking.

Gaia drove up for a Penn State game in his junior year. He visited again in the spring. The scholarship offer he received from Paterno that day is framed on his parents' wall. A couple of weeks later, Gaia came back from school, his parents waiting to have dinner with him as they did every night, and told them he was ready to commit.

"It was a relief for him. It was a relief for us," his father said. "We were glad he chose Penn State and not some school further away."

In November 2011, Sandusky, long since retired from coaching, was arrested. Paterno, facing mounting pressure, soon decided he would retire; the school voted to fire him instead. An internal investigation later concluded that Paterno and high-ranking school officials were complicit in concealing Sandusky's activities.

Gaia was not spared in the chaos. Strangers sent him harassing messages on Facebook. Some, he thinks, were fans of other schools that had been recruiting him; others might have been unaffiliated. They were no less berating. Gaia chose not to respond.

"People blow my mind [with] how ridiculous they are to an 18-year-old kid about a sport," he said.

In January 2012, O'Brien was hired as Nittany Lions coach. Two years later, he left for the NFL, and Johnson was named interim coach. Three days after Vanderbilt coach and former Maryland assistant James Franklin took over at Penn State, Johnson left for Ohio State.

The changes continued, and so did the vitriol, though from a new source now. After playing as a redshirt freshman in 2013 along the defensive line, Gaia moved to offensive guard under Franklin. He said last month that he didn't exactly know how to pass-block then; he started every game as a sophomore anyway. But even as the Nittany Lions reached bowl games that season and the next (the NCAA had since lifted its postseason ban), the offensive line was "the punching bag" for unhappy fans, Tim Gaia said.

"Even on a good day," he said, "they couldn't give them one ounce of credit for what they did right."

That has changed this season, Brian's best in State College. A move to center — "the commander-in-chief of the offensive line," he called it — stabilized a line that has kept safe quarterback Trace McSorley, the Big Ten Conference championship game Most Valuable Player, and paved the way for running back Saquon Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

In mid-November, Pro Football Focus named Gaia its top-performing center of the week. At the end of the season, he received All-Big Ten honorable mention.

"Brian Gaia has done a fantastic job being the anchor and the eyes and ears of the operation," offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said Friday in Pasadena, Calif.

Back at the team facility, there's a new photograph up. Gaia especially likes it. It's a postgame shot of Penn State's win over then-undefeated Ohio State at Beaver Stadium in late October, close to five years after the world seemed to start coming down around State College.

The snapshot is beautiful in its simplicity: an aerial look at a field and stadium flooded in white jerseys and white helmets, white T-shirts and white sweaters. Among the thousands of faceless dots, Gaia's location is indeterminable. But he said he is in there, somewhere, smiling, happy to have never left the place he always kept coming back to.

"It tells you how much football means to them," he said, "and the sacrifices we make."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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