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NIL fundraiser has special meaning for Penn State's DeLuca, others

EXETER — Dominic DeLuca's day started in State College, in a weight room.

It ended up in maybe the only place he loves more.

As Penn State fans bustled around him Thursday night at Fox Hill Country Club just a few miles away from where he grew up in West Pittston and starred on the gridiron at Wyoming Area, the Nittany Lions linebacker couldn't help but exude a sense of relaxation few see on gameday.

"It's always great to get them out here, to see my part of town," the Nittany Lions captain and linebacker said as he smiled. "They all love talking about it. I tell them the stories about high school all the time."

DeLuca and nearly a dozen Penn State teammates were in town to do something players have been asked to do more and more often in recent years: Make a case to the public for how critical Name, Image and Likeness is not just for student-athletes, but to the programs for which they compete.

The players were part of a contingent of football players at Fox Hill for the "We Are...In NEPA" event hosted by Happy Valley United, an NIL collective that supports all 31 programs and more than 800 Penn State student-athletes. Head coach James Franklin and men's basketball coach Mike Rhoades were also in attendance, but the event was largely driven by the players, who signed autographs, conversed with fans and were the centerpiece of a reception designed to garner financial support for the collective that Franklin has said is important when it comes to not just building his roster, but keeping it together.

"It's always great just to get everyone more connections, and meet new people," DeLuca said. "Some people have never been to this part of the state. Just to get everyone to different places, see different cultures, eat different foods is important, too."

While DeLuca's homecoming after his 29-tackle, two-interception season in 2023 took center stage, others made note of the reality that, before the NIL laws were put into place just a few years ago, he wouldn't have been able to be part of a gathering like this.

Fellow linebacker Tyler Elsdon looked around the bustling room and called the feeling of being part of the fund-raising event "super special." There's a give and take with it, Elsdon said, and that much has been well-documented nationally with players demanding more NIL funds from programs to stay out of the transfer portal, or players simply offering their services to the highest bidders.

Elsdon said events like the one at the Exeter course can also prove enormous benefits of the new laws.

"When you have a fan base that's willing to donate their time, donate their money and donate their energy to a program, it's important to build connections with them," Elsdon said. "Truthfully, when you build these connections, when you walk into Beaver Stadium, and you do anything on the field knowing you have fans that actually care about you, supporting you, it makes you want to play harder.

"I just know that since NIL has kind of erupted, my experience at Penn State has grown so much. I was a die-hard Penn State fan growing up. I bleed blue and white. But just being able to be at events where you get to talk to alumni, you get to network, you get to create these relationships, it has elevated my experience at Penn State."

Senior Nick Dawkins is likely the starter at center this fall for a team that draws more than 100,000 fans to home games, a leader so valued on the offensive line he nearly was voted as team captain as a backup in 2023. But he also understands that few outside his locker room would even recognize him if he walked down a random street in Lackawanna or Luzerne counties.

This event and others like it give him a chance not just to market himself as a player, but he said it allows him a different avenue to let fans know what he's about as a person.

"One thing we lose sight of is that connection with fans, and NIL opens it up," Dawkins said. "We're able to get into communities that have historically supported Penn State and we're able to showcase our personalities, so they get a better view of us behind the mask. I mean, most fans don't even know what we look like.

"We can show we're human. Most people just know us by our number. Imagine that, being in society and people just know you by your number."

Perhaps the only one of the Penn State players in attendance Thursday who couldn't identify was DeLuca, a local star who doesn't have the luxury of anonymity in the shadow of his hometown. Not that he particularly wanted it.

As he prepares to make a run at a starting job at linebacker in new defensive coordinator Tom Allen's scheme, DeLuca took a few hours away from the daily grind to head home and show teammates the places he has told them so much about. And, as it turns out, feed them the food about which he is so prone to brag.

Whether it's a slice of the Grandma pizza from Napoli's Pizza in Pittston, or a trip to Sabatini's in Exeter or Arcaro and Genell in Old Forge, a homecoming with teammates usually centers on pizza and pasta.

Maybe an event like this curbs some of that on a tight schedule. But for DeLuca and his hungry pals, getting to know the fans and build their own brands while doing so is certainly worth the hustle.

"It has been a little bit of running around, but I don't mind it," he said. "Anything to come home. Nothing beats it. Just getting back here, having some food, seeing some familiar faces, it's always great."