The legend of the arm began about a decade ago, on a frigid day in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. The finals of the NFL's Punt, Pass and Kick competition, held during halftime of that afternoon's Steelers game, were drawing to a close, and 10-year-old Anthony Morelli gripped the pigskin before his final throw.
Zippppp! Fifty yards. On a line. Game over. The 60,000-plus in attendance went crazy, and Greg Morelli knew the dream he and his only son shared was a half-field closer to becoming reality.
Today, the arm will be on display for another large crowd, as an expected 40,000 will pour into Beaver Stadium at 2 p.m. for Penn State's annual Blue-White spring game. Only now, the 10-year-old boy is a 20-year-old man, and the Nittany Lion offense is his to lead. His chance to show off the arm that made him the nation's No. 2 high-school quarterback, the maturity that carried him through two humbling years on the Penn State bench and the leadership skills that may surprise you is here.
And Anthony Morelli is itching to pull the trigger.
Talk Penn State football with fans, players, coaches or opponents, and Morelli's name is bound to surface quickly. They'll talk about his size (6-foot-4, a bigger and stronger 220 pounds), his feet (not as heavy as advertised) and whether he has a handle on the playbook (yes -- please stop asking).
But sooner or later, they'll talk about his arm.
Not many players who have put on a Penn State uniform -- or any sort of uniform -- can throw a football quite like Morelli. Out passes that get there in a heartbeat. Slants through three defenders. Deep balls that don't want to come down.
"If I'm running a deep route," says Deon Butler, Penn State's leading returning receiver, "and I get 30, 35 yards down the field, if it's not there, I keep going, 'cause he can chuck it up there, he can throw it real far. I have to be more aware on deep routes that I don't slow down."
Yes, the legend was born in Three Rivers. But it didn't stop there. Morelli and his father used to work out at the Penn Hills High School field on Sundays. A group of younger kids would hang out and wait until the end of the sessions, then gather together in the end zone and start petitioning.
"You can do it!"
With Greg looking on with a mix of worry and pride, Anthony would usually grant their wishes. Starting at the opposite 25-yard line, he'd take two or three steps and uncork deep spirals two yards into the end zone, where they descended on the eager kids like missiles.
Even now, Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno and receivers coach Mike McQueary, who have seen some big arms go through the program, will stand and shake their heads at some of Morelli's throws.
"He has such a quick release," Paterno says, "and tremendous arm strength. And it's so tough to react, because the ball gets there so fast."
And if would-be receivers have had a tough time grabbing his passes this spring, Morelli has befuddled defenders even more.
"When he throws the ball on time," says cornerback Justin King, "I can almost say it's impossible to get a good jump on the ball."
The addition of this quick-firing cannon to the Nittany Lion offense won't bring about widespread changes -- Morelli's predecessor, Michael Robinson, could throw it too, Paterno points out -- it does open up the field that much more for Penn State's array of dangerous receivers.
"The routes will be the same, the depth will be the same, but you might throw more outs," Paterno says. "More deep corner routes, more deep comebacks, because you know the ball is going to get there."
Continue the Morelli discussion, and the leadership issue inevitably arises. Every year, at every program, the quarterback is expected to provide some kind of leadership presence. Replacing a senior is always difficult. Replacing one like Robinson, the definition of a team captain and one of the most respected players in Penn State history? Impossible.
But the signs of Morelli's maturation and desire to lead the offense have rippled through the locker room all spring.
"He's been a great leader," says Penn State center A.Q. Shipley. "Last year, he kind of knew it was Mike's show. But once we got back from the Orange Bowl, he became more vocal. He's not hesitant. He comes in the huddle, speaks up, calls the play so everyone can hear him. He's shown he is a great leader."
The differences between Morelli and Robinson go far beyond running ability. After waiting three years for his chance to start at quarterback, Robinson spent last spring tinkering with his mechanics and met or talked with Joe Paterno nearly as often as one of the assistant coaches. Morelli has left his mechanics alone -- why mess with a good thing? -- and only sees the elder Paterno during practice.
Robinson was a media darling; reporters leaned on his every word. Morelli, though noticeably more comfortable with the press this spring, is polite but short, his answers coming as quickly as his passes.
Morelli's competitive fire, however, burns just as hot as Robinson's.
"They both play with the same kind of anger, not anger, but an edge to them," Jay Paterno says. "They both want to be great, not good, great. They may make one or two mistakes, but then they buckle down and make sure they won't make the same mistake again."
After Morelli made one such mistake during a recent practice, head coach Joe Paterno let him know about it. Instead of sulking or snapping back, Morelli calmly replied, "OK, Coach, that was last play," then proceeded to complete his next four passes.
"Those little things are seemingly insignificant," Jay Paterno says, "But I see them and think, 'Hey, this kid's making a lot of steps that way.'"
The wait is over
Potential. The word is part of the package that comes with a world-class arm, 48 scholarship offers and a spot on a perennial college football power. For the last two years, Penn State followers have had endless chances to discuss Morelli's potential, mainly because they didn't have many chances to break down his play on the field.
Thirteen passes as a true freshman. None in a meaningful game situation. If he felt wistful watching fellow freshman Chad Henne lead Michigan down the field, or if he believed he could have done more than Zack Mills or Robinson did with Penn State's stodgy offense in 2004, Morelli didn't say. Instead, he worked hard and prepared to battle Robinson for the quarterback job in 2005.
But that season, as it turned out, became a repeat of the one before. Robinson passed and ran for more than 3,100 yards and 28 touchdowns, setting the school single-season total offense record, while Morelli threw just 20 more passes, again in mop-up time. Morelli's potential remained ... potential.
"You're not gonna come in where you have a four-year starter in Zack Mills and move him out of the way, I don't care who you are," Greg says. "Then you've got Robinson sitting behind him, and he's paid his dues, and Joe gave him his shot, and rightfully so."
"It was real tough, but it was a learning experience," Morelli says. "I'm gonna put that behind me now and get ready for the season."
Morelli, who roomed with Robinson on road trips last season, admired the way Mills and Robinson handled their respective leadership roles and says he will take those memories into the huddle. Robinson established credibility by playing any position he was asked, dutifully waiting his turn under center. Morelli's credibility comes from his talent. His teammates expect big things from him but have been careful this spring to deflect any pressure on their quarterback.
"He's handled it great," says wide receiver Derrick Williams. "He's the same guy that was there last year. He hasn't been bigheaded or anything like that, he's just doing the best he can to lead his team and get better."
No starting job is a lock at this point in the year. Daryll Clark will return to practice at the end of the semester. Pat Devlin will arrive this summer. But for now, and until he gives it up, it's Morelli's show. He is establishing himself in the huddle, in the locker room. The time for watching and learning has come and gone. It's now time to learn while doing.
The most encouraging thing, Jay Paterno says, is that most of the time, Morelli knows where to go with the football, the chief litmus test for young quarterbacks. Most encouraging for Greg Morelli, who has seen every one of Anthony's throws, is the growth off the field.
"He's matured into a man," Greg says. "He's caring and yet he's opinionated now. He has likes and dislikes. In the past, he'd go with whatever you wanted him to do."
The arm is ready. The head is ready. The team -- his team now -- is ready.
"I don't put pressure on myself," Morelli says, "I don't let that get to me. I'm just gonna go out and play football."
His potential remains great. But, beginning this afternoon, fans will no longer have to discuss Anthony Morelli's potential.
They will see it for themselves.