Penn State boasts one of the most storied and successful football programs in the history of the sport. The Nittany Lions were consistently successful throughout the latter half of the 20th century, including two national championships in the 1980s. Even now, they are almost always a threat in the Big Ten with James Franklin leading the way.
As such, some of college football’s greatest players have played their home games in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions have produced over two dozen members of the College Football Hall of Fame, and a handful of NFL legends as well. This list will be entirely about these players’ Penn State careers, although their professional endeavors will also get a mention.
There are tons of players who could make the list, with Sean Lee and Franco Harris being just two honorable mentions. Of all the honorable mentions, though, linebacker Shane Conlan stands out the most. Conlan helped lead Penn State to a 23-1 record in 1985 and 1986, and he was the captain on the undefeated national championship team in the latter year.
With the honorable mentions out of the way, here are the top five greatest Penn State Football players of all time.
5. RB John Cappelletti, 1972-73
For all of the great players to don a Penn State uniform, Cappelletti remains the school’s lone Heisman winner to this day. He won the award in his monster 1973 season, when he rushed for 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns. Cappelletti also rushed for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1972, and he is still in the top 10 in rushing touchdowns in school history.
That said, Cappelletti’s story extends far beyond the football field. He dedicated his Heisman to his younger brother Joey, who battled cancer before tragically passing in 1976. Their relationship even became the inspiration for a book and movie: Something for Joey. Cappelletti isn’t just one of the greatest players in Penn State history, but the most inspiring too.
4. LB LaVar Arrington, 1997-99
A 2022 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Arrington dominated in his time at Penn State. His 1999 season was particularly special, as he won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and the Bednarik Award as the top defender. In all, Arrington racked up 173 tackles, 39 for loss, 19 sacks and three interceptions.
Arrington even earned some Heisman consideration, finishing ninth in voting in 1999. Washington then took him second overall in the 2000 NFL Draft, and he enjoyed a strong six-year career. Injuries unfortunately cut his career short, but he will always be a Penn State legend.
3. RB Lenny Moore, 1953-55
Moore was one of the first truly great players at Penn State. In an era where scoring was much harder than it is today, Moore had no difficulty at all, with 24 touchdowns in 27 collegiate games. When Moore left the school in 1955, he did so as the all-time leader in rushing yards (2,380) and all-purpose yards (3,543).
Moore then enjoyed a wildly successful NFL career with the Baltimore Colts. In 12 years, he earned seven All-Pro selections and won two NFL championships. Moore paved the way for many all-time greats to follow at Penn State.
2. RB Saquon Barkley, 2015-17
By far the most recent player on this list, Barkley was one of the most electric college football players ever. The current New York Giants star was the nation’s top running back in his college years, and was a threat receiving and returning. He was the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American in 2017 as well.
In all, Barkley finished his Penn State career with 5,038 yards from scrimmage and 51 touchdowns. He also added another 500 yards and two touchdowns as a kick returner. Anyone who had the privilege of watching Barkley play in college got to see something truly special, and he continues to thrive today.
1. LB Jack Ham, 1968-70
Ham has the unique honor of being the only Penn State player to be in both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame. He helped lead the team to two undefeated seasons in 1968 and 1969, but his most impressive season was 1970. In that season, Ham accounted for 91 tackles, four interceptions and three blocked punts, making him a consensus All-American. Ham finished his three-year career with 251 total tackles.
Ham then played for 12 years in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a six-time All-Pro, a four-time Super Bowl champion and eventually wound up in Canton.
In a 2019 newsletter, the Penn State Alumni Association ranked Ham as the greatest athlete in school history. With how much he thrived at both the college and professional levels, it’s hard to see another Nittany Lion passing Ham any time soon.