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Adding on to family name

Wisniewski follows in the footsteps of his father and uncle at Penn State, and says legacy is a blessing.

December 31, 2008|Corina Knoll

Stefen Wisniewski is 19 years old, as thick as the Hulk and as mild as a breeze.

He doesn't drink, doesn't curse and spends his nights laboring over textbooks. On Sundays, you'll find him in church, head bowed in prayer, heart filled with scripture.

Thursday, you'll find him playing offensive guard at the Rose Bowl, crashing his 6-foot-3, 294-pound body against USC defenders.

It's all part of the family business. Though his demeanor would never show it, Wisniewski is a tough-guy name, one that lingers in Penn State football history.

It started with Stefen's father, Leo, remembered for his performance against USC in the 1982 Fiesta Bowl. He led a defense that frustrated Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen, who was held to a season-low 85 rushing yards in a 26-10 Penn State victory.

Then came Uncle Steve. A two-time first-team All-America at guard, he contributed to the Nittany Lions' journey to the 1986 national championship game and went on to play 13 seasons with the Raiders.

And now there's Stefen.

Lineage is funny. It can mean pressure and expectations. It can make you flee from it. It can make you resent the past and stumble through your future.

It can give you the feeling that you've got something to prove.

But the way Wisniewski explains it, he doesn't stress about what his father and uncle have done before him. The family is close and it's not about competition, although the surname means a great deal.

"They definitely left their mark on the Wisniewski name," he said. "I don't know if it's as much that I want to live up to it, but I want to kind of add to it."

He started that task early. As a freshman last year, Wisniewski played in eight games and made his first career start against Indiana, a 36-31 win. In the Alamo Bowl, he helped Penn State run for a season-high 270 yards, beating Texas A&M, 24-17.

This season, he started in the first 11 games and is one of the reasons Penn State led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed.

"He's at a much higher level than I ever was as a sophomore," said Steve Wisniewski, 41. "One of the things I love about Stefen is that he plays very physical and he plays until the whistle blows."

The same used to be said about Uncle Steve. When he played with the Raiders, his blocks were known to bruise, his opponents known to buckle.

In 1997, Sports Illustrated named "Wiz" one of the league's dirtiest players, a title he says was nonsense -- but helped his career by acknowledging him as a guy who hustles.

His nephew has a little of that in him.

"His work ethic has always been second to none," Steve said. "I was up there for the Michigan State game and after the game we had a nice dinner, went back to the hotel and he went to watch the game film. He was in there till one in the morning by himself."

Gerald Cadogan, an All-Big Ten tackle and two-time Academic All-American, says Stefen outdoes even him when it comes to logging additional hours.

"I consider myself doing a lot of extra, but he goes beyond that as far as watching extra film, working hard in the weight room after the workouts, getting in extra reps," Cadogan said.

Enrolled in the Schreyer Honors College, Wisniewski hits the books just as hard as he hits linemen. The first semester of his freshman year, he earned a 4.0 grade-point average and currently has a 3.84.

"That's something my parents have instilled in me," he said, "just to achieve the best that I can with the talents I've been given."

Something else his parents handed down was a devotion to the word.

"He just carried the exceptional Christian values," recalled Terry Totten, his coach at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High. "His size and physical maturity belied a deep thinking, very spiritual, good-natured kid. He was always involved in community projects for the homeless or mentoring a young kid."

At Penn State, Wisniewski helps lead a Bible study with some of his teammates and speaks to youth groups about the Gospel. He has contemplated going into the ministry and says he puts more stock in his faith than his football.

It's another thing that runs in the family.

Steve Wisniewski is a licensed minister who teaches Sunday school at a church in Northern California started by Napoleon Kaufman, a former Raider, while Leo Wisniewski has a master's degree in religion.

For the father, nothing could be more fulfilling than watching his son lead his life as a devout Christian. Before every game, he speaks with Stefen on the phone and they say a prayer together.

"I just feel so blessed," said Leo, 49, a coach at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa. "It's a rich thing to be able to share that as a father."

All three Wisniewskis will be at the New Year's Day game against USC.

Here's how to tell them apart: The father is gregarious, able to walk down a city street and joke with all who cross his path.

The uncle is taller and more reserved.

And the son is even-keeled with a dry sense of humor shared only with a close circle of friends. ("He was old before his time," his mother, Cindy, said.) He'll be the one on the field adding another chapter to the Penn State-Wisniewski story.

Like father like uncle like son.

--

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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