During the 1960s and 1970s in the National Football League, several colleges across the nation gained a reputation for producing quality athletes at one specific position on the gridiron. One of those schools was Penn State University, who behind head coaches Rip Engle and then later, Joe Paterno, seemed to churn out linebackers left and right.
And not just any old linebackers, mind you. No, Penn State was sending high-quality linebackers to the NFL Draft, and many of them would make a name for themselves in the pro ranks. So often and so many great linebackers came to the NFL from Penn State, that the university was respectfully regarded for a time as “Linebacker U.”
Perhaps the most successful PSU linebacker to make a name for himself in the NFL in the 1970s stayed in the state of Pennsylvania. Jack Ham was born and raised in Pennsylvania and was drafted in the second round in 1971 by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
His impact on their team was almost immediate. He missed only nine regular season games during his 12-year pro career. He intercepted 32 passes and recovered 21 fumbles. He also was named to eight straight Pro Bowls and played in four Super Bowls during the 1970s, each of which his team won. In 1988, Ham was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ham’s greatest talent was his ability to drop back into zone defenses, and tightly cover opposing tight ends and setbacks coming out of the offensive backfield. Moreover, almost any ball he touched, he caught. He was a ballhawk, and he was always around the ball carrier.
The knowledge that he gained at Penn State served him well in the NFL, and it was readily apparent that his coaches with the Steelers did not have to touch on the fundamentals with Ham. Nor did they really have to stress the keen nuances of playing his position of outside linebacker. Ham was indeed given plenty of proper tutelage in his years at Penn State. Nicknamed “Dobra Shunka” by Pittsburgh’s fans of Polish ancestry, the label stood for “Great Ham,” which Jack Ham certainly was. He was truly a great linebacker.
Another legendary linebacker to come out of the Penn State ranks was another member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dave Robinson. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound outside linebacker, was big enough in the mid-1960s to the early 1970s to play on the defensive line if he wanted to, yet still could drop back quickly enough into the coverage zones of the defensive secondary.
He played for 12 years in the NFL, the first 10 with the Green Bay Packers, and the last two with the Washington Redskins. He intercepted 27 passes during his career, and he also recovered 12 fumbles from 1963 to 1974. He won three NFL Championships with the Packers (1965-1967) and was a member of Green Bay’s Super Bowl I and II world championship teams.
He was one of the most reliable linebackers in pro football history. In 10 of his 12 seasons, he did not miss a game. At Penn State, Robinson played for head coach Rip Engle.
Many other linebackers came to the NFL from Penn State. True, they were not as successful as Jack Ham or Dave Robinson, but they each made a name for themselves on the pro teams that they played for. In random order, those linebackers included the likes of John Skorupan, Greg Buttle, Ed O’Neil, and Charles Zapiec.
John Skorupan was drafted in the sixth round of the 1973 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. He was a mainstay on their defense and their various special teams units until 1978 when he became a member of the New York Giants. Skorupan saw action in 92 games during his eight-year pro career.
He only intercepted two passes during his career, but he was as reliable and as dependable as they come. The Bills and the Giants did not usually have strong defenses during the 1970s, and a player of Skorupan’s caliber generally had to contribute a lot of his efforts just to keep the opposing scores down as much as possible.
Skorupan’s main claim to fame was that he was the Giants’ left outside linebacker just before the great Hall of Famer, Lawrence Taylor, took over for him at that position in 1981.
Greg Buttle also played in New York, but for the Jets and not the Giants. Buttle entered the NFL with plenty of fanfare, and he did not disappoint. Even though the Jets were not a winning team for most of his nine years in pro football, Buttle nevertheless played every play as if it was his last.
Buttle was a consensus All-American at Penn State, and he parlayed that success immediately in the NFL by being named to the league’s All-Rookie team.
Like Jack Ham, Greg Buttle only played for one pro team after being drafted by the Jets in the third round of the 1976 NFL Draft. He intercepted 15 passes and recovered seven opponents' fumbles during his career.
His best asset was his speed. Buttle was one of the fastest linebackers in the league, especially during his first few years in pro football.
Another fast Penn State linebacker who went on to play in the NFL was Ed O’Neil, who was drafted very high by the Detroit Lions. O’Neil was the eighth player selected in the first round of the 1974 NFL Draft. He played a total of seven years in the league, the first six of which were in Detroit.
O’Neil’s final season (1980) as an active player was as a member of the Green Bay Packers. O’Neil was one of those players that every good team needs…a type of athlete who can fill in at any linebacker position, and the type of player who has the smarts to understand the multitude of strategies in the pro game.
Like all good Penn State linebackers, O’Neil was groomed to make a quick transition from the college to the pro ranks, thanks to the knowledge that he picked up from his coaches at PSU.
Charles (or Charlie) Zapiec is the final linebacker on this list, but his story is very different from those of the other men mentioned in this article.
While Zapiec’s size and weight were similar to most of the others (he stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 216 pounds), his location after his college days at Penn State was definitely different. Zapiec was drafted in the fourth round of the 1972 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, but he did not stay there. Zapiec was released before the 1972 regular season began.
Almost immediately, he was claimed by the Miami Dolphins, who kept him on their roster for almost three full weeks. He was somewhat discouraged by his lack of success in the NFL following his departure from Miami, and when the Ottawa Roughriders of the Canadian Football League gave him a shot to make their team, he jumped at the chance.
He stayed there during the 1972 and 1973 CFL seasons. Zapiec was waived once again, however, but he remained in Canada when another opportunity came his way. The Montreal Alouettes gave him a chance to play on their defense, and he settled there for five years from 1974 to 1978. They were the best and most productive five years of his pro football career. Zapiec was named to the CFL All-Star team in four of those five seasons.
The above names are by no means a complete list of linebackers who have played for the Penn State Nittany Lions and who also went on to play pro football. But it is a good overall representative inventory of those players who have etched their names in both categories.
For over ten years, many scouts, personnel directors, and coaches across the NFL knew that if their teams were in need of a linebacker, the first place to look for a good one was a college known as Linebacker U.
Antonacci, Chris. “The Legacy of Linebacker U.” The Daily Collegian, September 2, 2000.
Zagorski, Joe. “The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade.” Jefferson, NC.
McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016.
Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association. He has written numerous articles and books about pro football, its games, and its personalities. His upcoming book, a narrative about the 1973 Buffalo Bills, is entitled The 2,003-Yard Odyssey: The Juice, The Electric Company, and an Epic Run for a Record. It will be published by Austin-Macauley Publishers (New York) sometime later in 2023.