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Monday, April 1, 2013
Undersized LB/S Fossati big on talent

By Josh Moyer

Mark Fossati (Montvale, N.J./St. Joseph) has heard it all before.

Go ahead, tell him he's too short. Remark about how he hasn't grown since his freshman year. Say 5-foot-10 is too tiny for a 2014 linebacker or safety. Go on, tell him -- because he doesn't care.

Mark Fossati
Mark Fossati, right, has toured the Penn State campus, tried on a Nittany Lions uniform and was invited to attend the upcoming spring game.
"I know people think that," he said, "but I know I can play at the next level. Obviously, they say if I'm taller I'd be better. But I can't change that. Hopefully, someone just sees me for the player I am here."

The curly-haired athlete, a two-way starter, earned a spot on USA Today's second-team defense after a season-long performance in which he dropped more jaws than ball carriers. He broke a school record with 154 tackles and had a hand in a half-dozen fumbles. Even ESPN Watch List cornerback Jabrill Peppers told The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record that the 195-pound athlete "is the best linebacker I've faced. ... When he hits you, you know you've been hit."

Fossati evolved into a bruising starting fullback, started at middle linebacker and played a combination of safety, kicker and tailback. On kickoffs alone, he added 14 tackles to his totals -- in spite of him being the one kicking off the ball.

"He kicks the ball off, runs down the field and still makes the tackles," said his coach, Tony Karcich. "And one of them was a safety. Just figure that one out."

He's no Sidd Finch. Fossati is as real as St. Joseph's state championship trophy. And, despite his size, colleges are slowly beginning to pick up on the player whose coach wonders aloud just how many scholarships he might have had already, if he were three inches taller.

He recently visited Princeton and attended Rutgers' junior day. But one of the bigger surprises came from a more intimate look two weeks ago at Penn State. Although some schools -- such as Boston College -- are looking at the undersized player as a safety, the Nittany Lions want him elsewhere. Linebacker U envisions him at linebacker, and tight ends coach Jon Strollo drove through Montvale just to learn more about him.

"Listen, I have a couple really high-profile kids that everyone in the country wants, so coaches are coming in for those guys first," Karcich said. "But Strollo, he just came in with an agenda, like, 'I've got to see this kid.' I guess he saw his film on YouTube or whatever."

Fossati laughs when that film is brought up. He can still remember his teammates whispering behind his back, "Oh, God, how'd he do that?" on some plays. He recalls picking up a fumble from his tailback, avoiding nearly a half-dozen tacklers and finishing with a touchdown.

His coach rattles off big plays from the top of his head so quickly it seems he has a list tacked up to look at while on his office phone. There's the 23-tackle performance against Peppers' Paramus Catholic team, the 61-yard punt against Don Bosco and the time he ripped the football cradled in the arms of Bergen Catholic's quarterback and sprinted back 79 yards to force overtime. And there's more. So much more.

"I hear the comments from some of the young kids, like, 'Did you just see what Fossati did?' " Karcich said. "When he does something anymore, it gets to the point where, oh, it's just Fossati again."

Said Fossati: "Yeah, I hear that all the time. But I just kind of laugh at it. It's funny to me now."

The small linebacker, who draws his fair share of "Rudy" comparisons, isn't sure where he might take his talents. He doesn't know whether he'd prefer a city environment or a country one; he just wants that first offer.

When PSU linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden spoke with passion about how Fossati could earn the opportunity to start on special teams as a freshman and how he admired his playing style, Fossati was blown away. He toured the campus, was invited up for the spring game, and tried on a white Penn State jersey in the locker room.

He smiled when he donned that No. 34 uniform. Because he wonders whether -- he hopes -- he'll be wearing a similar jersey, a major college team's jersey, a little more than a year from now. The questions about his height cross his mind every now and then, but he tries to push them aside and focus on this next season. The goal, he said, is to make sure his play and those accolades aren't ignored because of just three inches.

"It's crossed my mind before," he acknowledged. "It would be cool to see myself with more scholarships, but that's just the way it is. As far as being an unknown player, well, being a well-known player would be better.

"I've just been getting bigger and faster and now, hopefully, I'll be able to do just as good -- if not better -- and draw more college interest."