By RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer
AMHERST, Mass. (AP) — After what turned out to be a brief but much-needed sabbatical from football, Adam Breneman has his life in order.
He is on track to earn an MBA at the University of Massachusetts, playing on the same team as his best friend and heading into his last college season as one of the best tight ends in the country.
The day before he takes his final exams of the spring semester, Breneman is finishing off the final few bites of battered fish in his tacos — a farewell-to-fried-food lunch before two weeks in Southern California working with a nutritionist — and reflecting on all the twists and turns that led him to this point.
“If you would have told me we would be here five years ago …,” Breneman said. There was no need to finish.
In some ways, Breneman is exactly where most expected he would be when he was a prized recruit from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: All-America candidate with an NFL future.
Everything in between then and now, though, has been anything but predictable. Breneman went from potential savior at Penn State to comeback kid at UMass — with a stint as political prodigy in between.
“It’s definitely an interesting story to say the least,” Breneman said.
Breneman arrived at Penn State in 2013 still rehabbing the torn right knee ligament that cost him his senior high school season, but already a fan favorite in Happy Valley. Breneman and quarterback Christian Hackenberg were the most ballyhooed members of a signing class that stuck with Penn State when NCAA sanctions from the Sandusky scandal threatened to level the program. By the end of his freshman season, Breneman was playing like a future star.
Another knee injury in the 2014 preseason cost Breneman that season and was far more serious. Breneman needed a rare reconstructive surgery and time to heal. The next season was mostly lost, too. He played a few plays in a couple of games. Not being able to play was beyond frustrating.
“There were times when I was at Penn State during that last season when I didn’t want to walk into the football building,” Breneman said. “I just felt like I was taking a scholarship and I wasn’t doing anything productive.”
As the season wound down, Breneman started pondering a future beyond football. He had his degree from Penn State and a unique opportunity.
Breneman had always been fascinated by politics. In the summer of 2015, he shadowed then-Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Regan for two days at the capitol.
Regan was blown away by Breneman.
“He was asking questions that kids his age don’t typically ask. What was the genesis of this legislation? What were you thinking? What was the purpose of this? What were the conversations in caucus or the conversations on the floor when this was being passed? Real deep questions,” Regan said. “And he had this boundless energy and interest in politics.”
When Regan decided to run for the state senate, he offered Breneman a job as campaign manager. With that available, it was easier for Breneman to walk away from football. Though in a letter to Penn State fans , Breneman never said he was retiring.
As campaign manager, Breneman stepped into a fierce four-way Republican primary race that quickly consumed his life. It was a perfect competitive outlet for a guy who only knows how to be all-in.
“Everything in life worth doing is worth overdoing. Moderation is for cowards,” Breneman said, reciting a line from the movie “Lone Survivor.” ”I literally have that quote hanging in my room.”
Meanwhile, Andrew Ford, Breneman’s best friend and quarterback at Cedar Cliff High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was in the process of transferring to UMass after stints at Virginia Tech and junior college.
Ford refused to believe Breneman was done with football and peppered his friend with text messages.
“I came to the spring game here and sent him pictures,” Ford said. “I was like, ‘Dude, you would love it here.'”
Regan won the primary in a heavily Republican district so the general election in November was a foregone conclusion. One of Regan’s first moves was offering Breneman a job as chief of staff. Breneman accepted.
Then another twist. After four months without football and all the physcial activities that go with it, Breneman’s knee was feeling better. Doctors told him things were looking good.
Now, Ford said, it was Breneman texting him about football. It happened so fast. One day Breneman was lining up staffers for Regan, and then soon after he was suiting up for practice at UMass.
There was rust to be knocked off, but in the second game of the season against Boston College he flashed that five-star talent with a 58-yard touchdown catch.
“And that kind of hit me like, ‘Wow, you know what? I think he’s back,'” said Brian Breneman, Adam’s father.
Breneman went on to catch 70 passes last season for 808 yards and eight touchdowns, most from Ford, who took over as starter in game No. 3.
Most encouraging for Breneman was his knee felt great and he knew he could get so much better.
“It was crazy for me to think as good of a season as I had last year, this season when I’m faster and stronger and in better shape, how much better I’m going to be with having another year,” he said.
Breneman will always consider himself a Penn Stater, but he called UMass “the perfect place” to rejuvenate his career. Once Breneman was almost embarrassed to talk about walking away from football. Not anymore.
“I think it’s a cool story that people want to hear,” he said. “People love comeback stories.”
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