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The odd relationship between NIL, children’s books, and Penn State football

Ultimately, these books are about so much more than just NIL for Penn State football. They’re a way to connect with the community.



ep 24, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Drew Allar (15) looks down the line of scrimmage during the fourth quarter against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Central Michigan 33-14. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

You just don’t bring up some topics without expecting a hearty discussion. It would be best if you never mentioned politics at the dinner table. You probably shouldn’t ask, “so when are you two going to have a baby?”. And you probably shouldn’t bring up name, image, and likeness (NIL) when discussing college football unless you’re prepared for a rowdy debate.

As with most controversial subjects, the loudest voices with NIL exist on the opposite ends of the spectrum. According to these factions, you either support the complete professionalization of college athletics, or you’re anti-athlete.

Those with an opinion somewhere in between have likely been pulled back and forth since NIL became legal last summer. For every harmless car deal or tweet supporting a local restaurant, swirling rumors of signing bonuses and last-minute deals make recruiting season feel like NFL free agency.

But, lost in the uproar of chaos and indignation, some athletes use their platforms for purposes beyond themselves. For example, this fall, Nittany Lion standouts Drew Allar and Landon Tengwall collaborated with an upstart publishing company to write children’s books to give back to their communities.

Exit 56 Publications enters the fray of NIL

After 40 years with IBM, Andrew Vodopia was looking for a way to stay busy in retirement. Vodopia cherishes reading with his grandchildren, so he began to explore how to make children’s books. Vodopia found these books are primarily self-published and represented a perfect avenue for turning a passion into something more.

At roughly the same time, the NCAA was adopting policies to allow student-athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness. Vodopia said his son approached him about the change in NCAA rules. The new landscape was not only a potentially untapped market but also provided an opportunity for young athletes to express themselves.

With that, Exit 56 Publications was created.

In the early days of NIL, Vodopia attempted to navigate the flurry of new guidelines and state laws just like everyone else.

Now, most schools have staff dedicated to NIL, who work with student-athletes to provide the contact information for businesses with future NIL opportunities. But, according to Vodopia, “back then, most schools wouldn’t even talk to you.”

However, Penn State was one of the few schools willing to provide the contact information of student-athletes for NIL opportunities from the onset. Vodopia said the athletic department is “definitely ahead of the game.”

While most inquiries received radio silence, Penn State quickly responded to Vodopia with an opportunity.

College athletes and children’s authors – where do they intersect? 

Initially, you may think any willing athlete might fit the mold to be the subject of a children’s book. However, the process can be somewhat selective.

First, Vodopia was looking for underclassmen athletes. This is because the drafting process for one of his books can take up to four months. By the time Vodopia publishes the books, older players with more name recognition could be on to their next phase of life.

Second, Vodopia wanted athletes who appeared to fit well with their teams. This decision was both idealistic and practical. Good teammates display many qualities that make sense for books geared toward children. In the transfer portal era, it also wouldn’t make sense to work with players who may leave their current schools before they could publish a book.

Early on, Vodopia had two players in mind at Penn State.

Landon Tengwall emerged as a mainstay on the Nittany Lion offensive line by the end of his freshman season. Beyond that, Tengwall fit the mold of Vodopia’s first successful book. Three linemen from Michigan published this story with Vodopia earlier this year,

Vodopia also identified highly touted incoming quarterback Drew Allar as a good fit for a children’s book. Actually, it was Penn State that first floated the idea of connecting Vodopia with Allar. “You know, we have the number one quarterback recruit in the country,” the university told him. Like most fans, Vodopia quickly recognized the 5-star quarterback as the future of the Penn State offense for the foreseeable future.

However, there also needs to be interest on the student-athlete side. Vodopia worked with Penn State to get in touch with Allar and Tengwall. Much to his delight, both responded saying they were on board to become some of Exit 56’s first athlete-authors.

From on the field to on the page

Working with Allar and Tengwall was immensely satisfying on a personal level, according to Vodopia.

To start, Vodopia worked with athletes and their families on a series of question-and-answer forums. These questions helped Vodopia understand Allar and Tengwall better. As a result, he could create stories allowing athletes to connect with fans. Typically, freshmen don’t speak with the media at Penn State, similar to most major programs.

Vodopia wanted to help fans understand what the players are like after they step off the field. For example, Allar shares that he is a frequent golfer who can drive the ball over 300 yards. Tengwall relives his days as a standout water polo player in his book.

Although he created the initial drafts of both books, most of the revisions and final drafting are a collaborative process between Vodopia, Allar and Tengwall, and their respective families. Vodopia describes his experience with both families as unbelievable. The humility of both families shocked him, despite Allar and Tengwall’s stature at Penn State.

While family connections tie him to Georgia Tech, writing these books has converted Vodopia to the Blue and White. He said, “it’s easy to be a Penn State fan now,” when speaking of his experience working with Allar and Tengwall.

Making an impact

In many ways, Tengwall’s “The Men Up Front” and Allar’s “The Men In Back” stand in contrast to the notions many have come to associate with NIL.

To start, the venture is about more than money. Allar announced this fall that his proceeds from the book will be used to support scholarships in his hometown Medina (Ohio) Youth Gridiron Football program. With these scholarships, children can participate regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

For Vodopia, it’s about producing something long-lasting. He expressed that Allar and Tengwall were creating something that would last a lifetime. Vodopia hopes that athletes can look back on their books with pride after their playing careers.

For Allar and Tengwall, the books will help them prepare for the future. Vodopia feels the books are outlets the athletes have used to build their professional profiles outside their budding football careers. The skills they have exposed themselves to during these books’ drafting, publishing, and marketing processes will remain useful long after Allar and Tengwall take off their helmets for the final time.

But most importantly, it’s about Allar’s 2nd-grade teacher, who sent Vodopia a note expressing her excitement to read about her former student. It’s about the dad who commented that his five-year-old son is now a Drew Allar fan after learning to read with his book. It’s about the meet-and-greet and autograph sessions Vodopia hopes he, Allar, Tengwall, and Penn State can collaborate to schedule in the coming months.

Ultimately, these books are about more than NIL. They are about connecting with fans. They allow Allar and Tengwall to interact with the Penn State faithful in a previously unthinkable way.

“Everyone gets something – it’s a win-win situation,” says Vodopia. “These books are really what NIL was supposed to be.” 


Sean Clifford has some bold statements ahead of the NFL Draft

On Friday, Sean Clifford had some bold statements ahead of the NFL Draft in mid-April.



Penn State veteran Sean Clifford, Penn State football
Sep 17, 2022; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) takes a snap during the first quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

STATE COLLEGE, PA — On Friday, the Penn State Nittany Lions held their pro day at the school’s football facilities. There, 6-year Penn State football quarterback Sean Clifford made an impact on pro scouts, and made some bold claims about his combine snub and NFL hopes. Whether you love him or hate him, Penn State veteran Sean Clifford believes in himself, and believes that he is ready for what professional football has for him.

Penn State veteran Sean Clifford believes that he is ready for for the NFL

Here is some of what Penn State veteran Sean Clifford had to say during his pro day performance on Friday.

“I feel like I was snubbed with the Combine for sure,” Clifford said. “The body of work that I’ve had with these teams here; when I didn’t see my name as a Combine guy, I felt disrespected for sure. But, hey, it’s just more fuel to the fire.

“Being able to come out here, show the scouts what I got, and being able to really just put on a show, it’s been a lot of fun, and a good way to cap off a great career at Penn State. So I’m really thankful.”

Sean Clifford has an impressive body of work with Penn State football

During his six years in State College, Penn State veteran Sean Clifford broke numerous Penn State football records — such as passing yards, passing touchdowns, and more. Additionally, Clifford became the winningest Penn State quarterback of all-time, compiling a 33-15 record and two New Year’s Six bowls during his four seasons as a starter.

When asked how he through his pro day went, Penn State veteran Sean Clifford claimed that it went “Really well … Especially getting out there and being able to show my speed. I think that’s something I really wanted to come in and kind of re-prove. I know that I’ve shown speed on film. But I wanted to come out here and post a good time. So being able to post a 4.57[-second 40-yard-dash], I’m proud of that number.”

Now that his pro day has passed, Sean Clifford has his attention on getting into the NFL — he will likely be signed after the draft as not many teams are in need of a 24-year-old quarterback. Still, he believes that all he needs is a chance.

“I just need to be in a camp,” Clifford said. “I just need to be able to be in a practice with the pros. Because I know I’m a pro, [and] I know I can come in and add value to a team. I know that more than anything. I still think that I can play in the [NFL], 100 percent, provide to a team, win games, the same way I did here.

“So it’s just being able to come out, talk to as many scouts as possible, get to know some coaches. It’s just being able to get around a bunch of teams, because I truly feel like no matter where I’m at, I could add a substantial amount of value.”

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Penn State quarterback room dips in annual ESPN rankings

The Nittany Lions are a few spots down from where the 2022 QB room ranked.



Drew Allar, 2023 QB rankings

STATE COLLEGE, PA — Ahead of every college football season, ESPN ranks the top quarterback rooms in the sport. Seeing as QB is the most important position on the field, this ranking is a pretty important indication of how a team’s offense will perform throughout the year — ESPN ranks the entire room, not just the team’s starting quarterback. This week, ESPN released its 2023 QB rankings, and the Nittany Lions — led by sophomore Drew Allar — found themselves a few spots lower than they did a season ago.

Where did Penn State football rank in 2022?

With Sean Clifford and Drew Allar headlining Penn State’s quarterback room in 2022, ESPN ranked the Nittany Lions at No. 11 nationally a season ago. After winning the Rose Bowl and finishing 11-2 overall, Penn State football lost two of its three QBs from the 2022 room — Sean Clifford is graduating, and Christian Veilleux has entered the transfer portal.

With only Drew Allar remaining from last year’s room, many thought that this preseason dip in the rankings was inevitable; after all, no one has truly seen Allar or Pribula play ball yet.

Where do Drew Allar and Penn State fall in the 2023 QB rankings?

This year, Penn State comes in at No. 15 nationally in the 2023 QB rankings — just four spots down from last year’s rankings despite losing 2/3 of the room and a veteran starting quarterback. With the nation’s No. 1 recruit from 2022 — Drew Allar — at the helm this year, Penn State fans are hoping for much bigger and better than what the program got under Sean Clifford.

Behind Drew Allar is fellow sophomore Beau Pribula, who has been turning heads during spring ball this far, and could find himself a stand alone role on the Penn State offense this year. According to James Franklin, his most attractive trait is that he boasts an opposite skillset than what Sean Clifford and Drew Allar have.

Behind Pribula at QB3 is true freshman Jackson Smolik.

What is the expectation for Allar & Co. this year?

After four years of Sean Clifford, all Penn State fans are ready to turn the page. While Clifford’s teams had some great seasons — such as 2019 and 2022 which both won 11 games and New Year’s Six bowls — he was never enough to get the Nittany Lions to the next level. Now, Penn State needs to get more from the massive Drew Allar and his counterparts.

As I have written before, the Penn State Nittany Lions do not need Allar to be elite in 2023 to make the CFP. That being said, if Penn State wants to win a national title, elite is the only thing that can be expected of Drew Allar. We will know a lot more about this year’s offense on September 2nd when Penn State kicks off its 2023 season at home against West Virginia; for now, the expectations for Allar and Co. are all over the place.

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Penn State needs KeAndre Lambert-Smith to be a true No. 1, Franklin says

The Nittany Lions need their veteran wide receiver to be one of the best in the Big Ten this year.



Penn State football KeAndre Lambert-Smith
Nov 27, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith (13) runs after a catch during the second quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

STATE COLLEGE, PA — Heading into the 2023 season, the Penn State Nittany Lions are losing some solid talent at the wide receiver position. A season ago, standouts like Parker Washington, Mitchell Tinsley, and Brenton Strange were some of Sean Clifford’s favorite targets; however, as we turn the page to a brand new season this fall, Penn State football will be without all three of these pass-catchers. In year one of the Drew Allar era, head coach James Franklin claims that the Nittany Lions need KeAndre Lambert-Smith to be a true No. 1 receiver.

Penn State football news KeAndre Lambert-Smith to be a true No. 1 receiver

The Penn State football team is looking solid at wide receiver right now despite all of its departures from the 2022 squad. The Nittany Lions managed to add two solid receivers from the transfer portal and still have some in-house talent that they can fall back on. That being said, Penn State needs one man to go above and beyond this year: KeAndre Lambert-Smith.

A season ago, Lambert-Smith caught 24 passes for 389 yards and four touchdowns — his best performance of the year came against No. 8 Utah in the Rose Bowl game on January 2nd; there, he hauled in three passes for 124 yards and a touchdown during the Nittany Lions’ 14-point win over the Utes. After the Rose Bowl performance, KeAndre Lambert-Smith claimed that, while the 11-2 season was nice, Penn State football is looking for bigger and better in 2023.

James Franklin says Lambert-Smith needs to be a top performer in the Big Ten, not just at Penn State

Here is what head coach James Franklin had to say about KeAndre Lambert-Smith during his media availability on Tuesday afternoon:

“He’s been really good so far this spring,” Franklin said. “We need him to be THE guy, a true number one [receiver], not just at Penn State but really in the [Big Ten] and a guy that people are talking about nationally.”

James Franklin added that Penn State is still figuring out some depth issues when it comes to the wideout room. “There is going to be a competition really with all of [Penn State’s receivers] — I think that is probably one of the big question marks between now and the first game.”

After an incredible 2022 season, the Penn State football team is looking for even better results from its offense. Right now, the quarterback, running back, offenisve line, and tight ends all appear to be somewhat in place; however, as the spring goes on, the Lions must figure out who will start and who will sit when it comes to their receivers. The one thing that we do know for sure: KeAndre Lambert-Smith is going to be a crucial factor in Penn State’s passing game this fall.

Thank you for reading Basic Blues Nation. Please follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news and insights on your favorite Penn State athletics.

For feedback, questions, concerns, or to apply for a writing position, please email us at or direct message us on our social media. It’s due to your support that we can become one of the market’s fastest-growing Penn State sports outlets!

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