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Top Prospect Prepares Non-Acceptance Speech

Anthony Vernaglia of Orange Lutheran is 6 feet 4, 218 pounds. He’s such a talented football player that he accepted a scholarship offer to Notre Dame in August after he rejected offers from USC, Penn State and Virginia.

He plays receiver and outside linebacker. His father, Kip, played for Joe Paterno at Penn State, but he clearly gets his toughness from his mother.

“If he’s not home by 8:15, I’ll kick his butt,” his mom, Betsy, assured a sportswriter calling on the phone.

“She’s the one who yells at the refs and cheers the loudest when we score,” Vernaglia said.

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Vernaglia has received one grade lower than an A in four years of high school. He lifts weights relentlessly and practices as if there’s no tomorrow.

“He’s just a motor that doesn’t stop,” Coach Jim Kunau said.

Unsatisfied with his speed, Vernaglia kept working hard until he got faster.

“I’ve never really been the fastest kid in the world,” he said. “I figure if I can’t run past them, I’ll go through them or over them.”

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Whether catching passes or tackling, Vernaglia is one of the best in Southern California. He caught a 73-yard pass for a touchdown against Santa Ana Mater Dei and has helped Orange Lutheran win its first seven games.

“I love it,” he said. “Our whole team works so hard. It’s incredible the stuff we do and to finally get respect, I’m very glad.”

Respect should be given for the way Vernaglia and his family went about the recruiting process. His parents left the decision to their son, which wasn’t easy.

During a recruiting trip to Penn State, Kip was reunited with Paterno, who turned to Anthony in the middle of Beaver Stadium and said, “Do you know how proud your grandfather would be to see you here?”

The whole recruiting process was emotional for Kip. One day, he went to pick up an express letter from Indiana. He didn’t know what it was about. He opened it in a parking lot and saw it was a handwritten letter from Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham offering his son a scholarship.

“I thought of my father and was crying,” Kip said.

His father died in 1979, during his senior year at Penn State. Paterno flew on a private jet with Kip’s two roommates to attend the funeral in Hoboken, N.J.

As difficult as it might seem for a heavily recruited high school athlete to choose a college, agony comes when the athlete must inform the other schools of their rejection.

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Many simply don’t want to do it. They’ll get their coach or parents to make the phone call. But telling someone bad news is part of being an adult and fulfilling a responsibility.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Vernaglia said, adding that his parents told him: “Hey, you [have] got to be a man about calling them.”

Vernaglia called Pete Carroll at USC and Al Groh at Virginia. Those were tough enough, but nothing compared to letting Tom Bradley, the defensive coordinator at Penn State, know his final decision. Bradley had been a college teammate of his father.

“That was the hardest one,” Vernaglia said. “That was the heartbreaker. I got through it and don’t like to think about it. I hate disappointing people.”

Vernaglia is making a huge sacrifice by choosing Notre Dame.

Forget that he’ll have to leave behind his surfboard and the Southern California climate.

The ultimate sacrifice, as far as Vernaglia is concerned, is having to survive without In-N-Out Burger

“It’s going to break my heart,” he said. "[My parents] are going to bring [a hamburger] in a little heat container.”

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Vernaglia never has to worry about going hungry with the way his parents are.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “The food is great. I’m surprised I’m not 250 pounds because we eat all the time. They take stuff out of the refrigerator and create something you could eat at an Italian restaurant.”

USC still hasn’t given up recruiting Vernaglia, but he took his official visit to South Bend the weekend of the USC-Notre Dame game, and even though USC won, 45-14, Vernaglia didn’t change his mind.

“Going on my visit reaffirmed everything,” he said.

It’s not as if he’s going to leave California behind permanently.

“I love the beach, I love the water,” he said. “It’s going to be a rough change, but I’m going to school. I’m going to bring my snowboard and I’m sure I can find some place to wakeboard. I don’t know if you can ever take California out of me. We do things different.”

He appreciates his parents and coaches for “setting standards so high I can’t even see them.”

And for those who might have doubts about what Vernaglia can accomplish in college, don’t worry.

“I’m in the business of proving people wrong,” he said.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.


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