STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Former Penn State defensive back Adam Taliaferro inspired fans and alumni after he recovered from a spinal cord injury on the football field so serious that doctors once feared he would never walk again.
More than a decade afterward, it's Taliaferro who is now trying to help his alma mater through a challenging period.
The football player-turned-lawyer is one of three new alumni-elected members of the university's Board of Trustees officially taking their seats when the board holds its next meeting Friday in Scranton. Taliaferro, financial services executive Anthony Lubrano and retired Navy SEAL Capt. Ryan McCombie assume the posts at a crucial time for Penn State: as the school awaits the findings of an internal investigation, led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, into the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Of the three trustees, Taliaferro is the most well-known by virtue of his motivational recovery from a severe neck injury after his helmet hit the knee of Ohio State tailback Jerry Westbrooks on Sept. 23, 2000, in Columbus. He has since written a book and started a foundation to help athletes recovering from similar injuries.
"It's not just something I'm doing to put it on my resume," Taliaferro, now a lawyer in suburban Philadelphia, said in a recent phone interview. In November, Taliaferro also won election as a Democratic member of the Board of Freeholders in Gloucester County, N.J.
"It's a great opportunity to help a place that's really given me a lot over my whole life," he said of Penn State.
Name recognition turned Taliaferro into an early favorite in the race for three alumni trustee seats up for election this past spring. Nine of the 32 seats on the board are filled by alumni; the rest are filled by various means, including appointment or by university or state officials.
Taliaferro came in first with more than 15,600 over 37,000-plus votes cast — a record turnout sparked by criticism by many alumni over the board's actions in the frantic weeks following Sandusky's arrest in November.
Taliaferro said he wanted alumni to know that "just because I have name recognition, I have no special entitlements. ... I want to prove to them that I'm there for more than just my name."
The trustees' ouster of Taliaferro's old coach, the late Joe Paterno, especially drew the ire of vocal alumni groups. The trustees cited in part a moral obligation for Paterno to do more to relay to off-campus police the account of graduate assistant Mike McQueary's account in 2001 of witnessing abuse in the Penn State showers.
Paterno's supporters say trustees never afforded the revered coach the opportunity to tell his full story and rushed to judgment before firing him.
Sandusky is awaiting sentencing after being convicted on 45 of 48 criminal counts last month, including charges related to the 2001 encounter witnessed by McQueary.
Taliaferro, McCombie and Lubrano each ran on platforms that included increasing transparency and openness at Penn State, to varying degrees. But Taliaferro said the incoming trio wasn't joining the board to create divisiveness.
"To accomplish everything, you have to work with people. It's just can't be us three with these ideas," Taliaferro said. "It's not just 'Our way or the highway.' We all have to figure that out. ... The right way to approach things."
Lubrano has been by far the most outspoken of the new alumni trustees. A prominent donor whose name is on the campus baseball stadium, Lubrano has been critical of the board's actions since the scandal's early days in November.
He promises to maintain his vocal presence — even though he must now work with many of the board members he criticized.
"I have a moral obligation for me to speak out if it's in the best interest of Penn State for me to do that," he said. "And I'm certainly not going to be managed by other trustees in my quest for openness and transparency, but I certainly look forward to working with the other trustees to accomplish that objective."
McCombie and Taliaferro declined to answer questions about recent leaked emails from ousted school President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley reportedly related to the handling of the 2001 allegation. Curley and former Vice President Gary Schultz are charged with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse; Spanier is not charged.
Board Chairwoman Karen Peetz had asked trustees to refrain from commenting about the emails, and McCombie and Taliaferro each said they wanted to wait for more information to be released before offering their opinions.
Lubrano appeared to be the only trustee to release a statement after a CNN report last week referring to an excerpt from an email in which Curley indicated he changed his mind about going to child welfare authorities after speaking with Paterno.
The excerpt suggests the longtime coach took a more active role in the decision than what he described; Paterno issued a statement in December that said he reported the McQueary complaint to Curley, and "that was the last time the matter was brought to my attention."
In response to the CNN report, Lubrano said he was disappointed by the leaks and asked people to refrain from making judgments until more information was released.
The new trustees went through orientation last month. Like the other new trustees, Lubrano has been busy reaching out to other board members to get acclimated, including several conversations with Peetz.
"I know they all want what's best for Penn State; I really believe that," he said, but added, "Penn State was used to doing things a certain way for so long, that maybe they need a guy like me to nudge them a little bit to think outside the box."
All three new trustees said the Freeh report, which is expected to be completed this summer, will be released publicly with no advance look afforded to the board, echoing earlier statements by the university.
Like his counterparts, McCombie has been busy getting acclimated with his new responsibilities, which he equated to a full-time job.
"It's all I expected and much, much more," he said about life as a trustee. "And there's still a lot unknowns, and the board still has a lot unknowns."
The board will also have a fourth new trustee, Donald Cotner, who was elected by representatives of state agricultural organizations. Cotner, the president of an egg production and packaging business in Montour County, focused primarily on farm issues in his election campaign but also made reference to the scandal when he said in his position statement that "it should be the highest priority to create a culture of transparency at Penn State."