AMHERST, Mass. — The NFL scouts have come to see Adam Breneman up close. To inspect the left knee that once forced him to give up football—and determine for themselves if he's truly repaired. To hear the story of how the one-time savior of a fractured Penn State program quit the game and stumbled into a career in politics, only to end up here, playing for a football program that has won a grand total of six games in the past three seasons.
Here is Amherst, Massachusetts, the home of UMass football. It is the middle of August, six days before UMass will open its season against Hawaii.
Wearing all white—white uniform, white leggings, white gloves and white shoes—Breneman runs routes on the UMass practice fields. He is a sculpted 6'5" and 255 pounds and glides in and out of routes. Playing alongside teammates who aren't blessed with NFL-blessed bodies and futures, he is impossible to miss.
The scouts sit with a chain link fence between them and the field, holding clipboards and taking notes. Their employers' logos are plainly visible on their polos. Shrewd NFL minds don't typically flock up here to assess talent, but the past month has been an exception.
"On talent alone, he's a terrific player," one NFL scout says of Breneman. "But the knee is definitely an issue. He knows that. We know that. He'll be thoroughly checked out by everyone's medical team. But if he can stay healthy, he will be a steal for someone."
As they look on, Breneman catches every ball thrown his way. The passes make an unusual sound when they make contact with his hands, in part because there is almost no sound at all. No thump or thud or crack. The energy of each throw is simply absorbed, one fluid, inaudible motion at a time.
"For the eight years I have been throwing to him, I think we can count the drops on one hand," says UMass quarterback Andrew Ford, who also played with Breneman in high school and is one of his best friends.
"It's unbelievable," Ford adds. "He's a wide receiver in a tight end's body. When he drops a ball, it's a bad ball."
Last season, Breneman was first among FBS tight ends in receptions (70), tied for second in touchdowns (eight) and second in receiving yards (808). This season, he's a bit lower in the cumulative stats, having only played in six games, but is first among tight ends and 16th overall (receivers included) in receiving yards per game (96.8).
All this despite having retired from football two years ago—his dream of playing in the NFL seemingly dashed.
His body had betrayed him, and Breneman had moved on. He left Penn State and became the campaign manager for a Pennsylvania state senator, Mike Regan, who was so enamored with his potential that he offered Breneman the job of his chief of staff.
But while he was embracing his new career, his left knee began to heal.
And now here he is, in the twilight of a college career that has taken him from the epicenter of one of the greatest scandals college sports has ever known to a city still learning how to love its football program.
Somehow it's exactly where he is supposed to be.
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Overlooking the freshly painted field inside Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, the home of UMass football, Breneman is unsure of where to begin.
He wears a white long-sleeve shirt and sandals, and his blond hair is blinding. He looks comfortable, and yet he has so much to say. And when he speaks, he sounds nothing like a typical 22-year-old.
His words are calculated and thought out. His smile shows no lingering signs of the physical and emotional anguish he dealt with for the better part of the last five years. "In a lot of ways, I am right where people expected me to be," he says. "I'm a returning All-American in my redshirt senior year."
"I don't think that leaving Penn State when I did was the right choice," he adds. "But it ended up being the right choice."
Things are different now then they were back then. He isn't mobbed on campus like he once was. He no longer has to worry about having the perfect amount of gel or wearing the right outfits for the cameras.
Before Breneman played a single snap for Penn State, they wore his jersey. They chanted his name when he visited, then just a 16-year-old embracing the movement. They celebrated his mere existence at a time that something—anything—could carry them forward.
"I was known at Penn State as the guy who would help save the program," Breneman says. "And yes, I liked it. I really did. But at the same point, I wanted to be known as a guy who was good at football, too."
As a standout at Cedar Cliff High School, Breneman was a 5-star prospect, according to Scout.com, and one of the most coveted tight ends in the nation. Growing up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, a short 90-minute drive from Penn State's campus, Breneman's love for the program was passed down through his father, Brian, at a young age.
Then the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal rocked the entire sporting universe. It hit even harder in the communities near the program—a nightmare that got deeper and darker seemingly every week.
The timing of the scandal and Breneman's college decision collided all at once. He became more than a player who could help win games; he was a symbol of the school's hopeful rebirth.
Despite tearing the ACL in his right knee during his senior year of high school, Breneman held offers from almost every major college program. Listening to the radio with his father on his way to physical therapy one July afternoon in 2012, the two learned of the crippling NCAA sanctions handed down to Penn State. They sat in silence for a moment before Adam stepped out of the car and into the facility.
The massive scholarship cuts and four-year postseason ban ensured Breneman would almost certainly never play for a competitive program. Nearly instantly, his phone erupted. College coaches wanted to see how determined he truly was to go to Penn State.
"As parents you're trying to weigh what's best for your son," Brian Breneman says. "The challenge with Penn State was getting caught up in it as a fan. He rooted for this team his entire life. Adam felt a responsibility."
Breneman and quarterback Christian Hackenberg ultimately committed to Penn State and head coach Bill O'Brien. They decided to be a part of the healing. While their presence was celebrated before they ever played a down, their play as freshmen only amplified the hysteria.
Penn State, after talks of the death penalty and decades of program ineptitude, won seven games in 2013. Breneman caught touchdown passes in his final three games, including a 68-yarder at Wisconsin to end the year.
"I thought I was going to be there for three years and then be a first-round pick in the NFL draft," Breneman says. "I was on top of the world."
The following month, O'Brien, the primary force behind Breneman's commitment and many others, left for the NFL. As Breneman acclimated to new head coach James Franklin, his left knee started to ache.
It didn't happen on a single play—just a constant throbbing that worsened as the season approached. The procedure to alleviate his pain, which Breneman has been advised not to discuss, was expected to lead to a full recovery the next year.
Breneman opted for surgery and a redshirt season. By the middle of the following offseason, he was in the best shape of his life. "I was squatting the house," he says. "I clocked a 4.62 40-yard dash that summer at 250 pounds. I was ready."
Before the following season began, though, his knee endured a setback. Perhaps he pushed it too hard or too quickly, which is what doctors suggested. Perhaps it was simply bad luck. Either way, he appeared in only two games during the 2015 season, finishing the year with zero catches.
"It was a low point in my life," Breneman says. "There was a point there that I didn't want to go to the football building. I was just a worthless scholarship. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was going to do something."
In December, Breneman earned his degree in business management at the age of 20. The following month, he left Penn State— writing a letter to the fans to thank them for the unwavering support.
"People took it as a retirement letter," he says. "And you could certainly call it that. I just didn't know."
Mike Regan's campaign needed a boost. Not just a boost—a cost-effective boost. He needed someone who could connect with younger Pennsylvania voters. The right person at the right time.
With his eyes set on the 31st District Senate race in Pennsylvania, Regan searched for his campaign manager in late 2015 prior to the April primary.
A year prior, Breneman had spent a day shadowing Regan as part of a class assignment. "His maturity level was off the charts compared to some of the other kids who came in," Regan recalls of him. "He asked all the right questions and was interested in the bills I introduced. I threw that name out, and the team thought it was a great idea."
Breneman didn't give the opportunity much thought at first. But with his father's encouragement, he ultimately reached out to Regan. Within weeks, he was immersed in an intense political campaign. It was his first job.
He wore dress pants and freshly ironed shirts rather than thigh and shoulder pads. His days began at 7 a.m. and regularly ended shortly before midnight. Instead of running routes or rehabbing, Breneman was blessed with a $1 million budget to use as he saw fit.
He approved mailers and organized volunteers. He helped jump-start interest on social media with that key demographic in mind. When he went to dinners and functions with Regan, often it was the campaign manager who commanded the most attention.
"He was a local celebrity," Regan says. "There was a block of people from the ages of 18 to 35 who knew exactly who he was. Adam is also a master self-promoter, and we loved that he turned those skills toward me."
By April, as the primary approached and spring football began, Breneman had embraced his new life. He always had a passion for politics growing up—in particular for the cutthroat and competitive nature of heated campaigns.
While he rested his knee, per doctors' orders, this was his outlet to compete. "My mind was not in football at all," Breneman says. "It was a brutal, stressful business, and I was into it."
The race was expected to be tight until the very end, with four vying for the spot. Some close to Breneman questioned his decision to get involved to begin with, thinking Regan had little chance of pulling it off.
On election night, Regan's team planned a party regardless of outcome. As he and his wife Fran pulled up to the election party, Regan learned through a phone call that they had just beat Jon Ritchie, a former NFL player also running for the position, by eight votes in Ritchie's former high school, which was a polling center. He looked at his wife and told her, "We won."
Moments later, Regan watched his team receive the same news through a window. Overcome with joy, Breneman leapt in the air to celebrate.
"He looked like John Mackey catching a ball over the middle," Regan says. "That was the first indication that it was feeling better. You can't jump like that with a bad knee."
Regan received more than 52 percent of the votes, winning the primary with ease. That November, he was elected to the State Senate.
The offer was almost too good to be true. Before they were even victorious in the primary, Regan asked Breneman to stay on as his chief of staff. He wasn't concerned with his lack of experience or all the learning he would have to do on the job.
"That's a position you don't get coming right out of college," Regan says. "People start working at the capitol when they get out of college, and if they get that job by the time they're 35 or 40, they're lucky. I was ready to give that to him right away.
"Everybody realized I had a rising star."
This was a breakthrough. It was an opportunity for a 21-year-old to make a very good salary and start out with an enviable career arc. Breneman tentatively committed to take the job.
As his professional career was taking off, Breneman checked back in with his doctors. After months of inactivity, they determined that his left knee was completely healed.
Given his friend's clean bill of health, Andrew Ford slowly planted the seed. After throwing balls to Breneman for three seasons at Cedar Cliff High School, Ford attended Virginia Tech before spending a year at Lackawanna Community College and then transferring to Massachusetts.
"For six months, there was no way he was coming back to football," Ford says. "He was set on where he was and had a great job." But still, Ford dropped hints here and there. In one final push, he asked his friend to run routes with him for just one day to see how he felt.
Early that day, Breneman met with Regan to outline the next steps in his new life. By the afternoon, he was catching footballs, pain-free, for the first time in years.
"That was the moment and the switch," Breneman says. "Things changed overnight."
A few days later, Breneman met Regan at the Hilton in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to tell him he was attempting a comeback.
"I didn't think there was any way this would work," Regan says. "I tried to talk him out of him. But there is no doubt in my mind that he made the right decision."
An ice pack sits atop UMass head coach Mark Whipple's left knee, which is elevated on his desk inside his office. Facing outward is a picture of Whipple from the 2005 Super Bowl, which he won as an assistant with the Steelers.
A few days later, Whipple would watch his senior tight end catch nine passes for 179 yards against Hawaii in the team's opener—the kind of performance he has seen every day in practice since he arrived.
"He has a big catch radius," Whipple says of Breneman. "He makes it look easy when it's outside the body. It's just all very natural. He reminds me a lot of Jason Witten."
Whipple's connection to Breneman dates back to Penn State. His son, Austin, was a quarterback for the Nittany Lions and Breneman's roommate. It was here that coach and player began to build a rapport through visits and postgame meals, unaware they would eventually reunite.
Breneman's decision to join Whipple's program came as a surprise to many given the way it has struggled in recent years. In some ways, though, this was a perfect place to start anew. Franklin attempted to re-recruit Breneman when he asked for a release from the program, but he wanted a fresh start.
"There was a perception that Coach Franklin and I didn't get along and he pushed me out," Breneman says. "It's really not what happened. He was very supportive when I was hurt. I wanted to do something away from the spotlight."
Breneman arrived on campus hours before his first practice. There was no crowd there to mob him at the entrance like he was accustomed to. He arrived without major fanfare, becoming the team's starting tight end that day.
The intensity of his schedule during the campaign allowed him only a handful of workouts after leaving Penn State. He was out of football shape. But his knee, for this first time in years, felt normal.
After catching only two passes for six yards in the team's opener in 2016, Breneman caught touchdowns in his next two games and closed out the year with six touchdown catches in his last five games. Despite spending much of the year catching up on lost time, he was still dominant.
"I think that time off during his political run really helped him and his body," Whipple says. "I just don't think he was ready to wear a suit and tie yet."
Early on, UMass strength coach Joe Connolly worked Breneman in slowly. Aware of his injury history and lack of training, Connolly checked in with Breneman before each new exercise.
By the third or fourth day, he stopped asking. There were no limits on what he could handle.
"To not train and make it through a Division I college football season at the level that he played at, that's tough to do," Connolly says. "From the moment he's been here, he hasn't missed a thing."
Finally healthy and productive, Breneman could have cashed in after a productive season. He could have thanked UMass for the revival and declared for the NFL draft.
But instead he decided to come back for his final year of eligibility without much discussion. He put his dreams of playing in the NFL on hold—hoping to show NFL teams, once and for all, he is completely repaired.
Although he no longer plays for the program, Breneman can't help it. When Penn State takes the field, he is glued to the game through his phone or the television. His friends and teammates sometimes tell him to let go of the past, but he would rather not.
The program he grew up with—the one he committed to at a time when it needed him—will always be a part of him.
"I couldn't be happier for him," Franklin says of Breneman. "The best thing that happened to him was that he went into politics. There's nothing that is going to drive you back quicker to college and football than politics. He's as good of a kid as there is."
It took a while for Breneman to embrace this time in his life, in part because it didn't fit what he always imagined his path would look like.
In fact, most of what's happened the past five years hasn't been what he anticipated. But the highs and lows have molded him into what he has become—someone whose life will never be fully tied to the sport he plays.
"Football is something he does and loves, but it's not who he is," Brian Breneman says. "When it does end, he'll be successful in whatever he decides to do."
In the meantime, the comeback will continue. NFL minds will continue to flock to the middle of Massachusetts to see it for themselves. They will ask the questions they are required to ask—about his left knee and everything that has led to this moment.
"What's the chink in the armor?" a scout recently asked Connolly shortly before the 2017 season began on a visit. "He can't be as good as he sounds."
It's not an answer he has to manufacture. Having gotten to know Breneman in his time at UMass, from the weight room to the reps on the practice field to the hours they've spent talking about life and where football fits in, Connolly knows the appropriate response.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.