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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.” 

Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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