By David Willis
---- — It wasn’t long ago that Will Eikenberry believed his lacrosse stick would be his closest companion when he entered college in the fall.
Now, the inanimate friend will either remain in his Andover home, or possibly be a decoration in his dorm.
“It’s strange to think this will be my last season with my lacrosse stick,” Eikenberry said. “But I’m sure it will be around, and maybe I will bring it to college to have in my room and throw the ball around some.”
Eikenberry entered the fall of 2013 believing that he was headed to play college lacrosse for Division 1 Delaware on scholarship after a stellar season at prep school Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
But after an outstanding start to his senior football season at Andover, the linebacker’s highlight film began opening eyes around colleges, finding its way to the desk of then-Penn State coach and Andover native Bill O’Brien.
Eikenberry suddenly found himself an unlikely Division 1 football recruit and, after months of careful debate, made his final decision two weeks ago to join the iconic Penn State football team as a preferred walk-on.
But not before he plays one final season of lacrosse for the Golden Warriors.
“It is bittersweet that this is my last season of lacrosse,” Eikenberry said. “But I am so excited to play football at Penn State. I love football, and how often do you have the chance to play in front of 110,000 people?
“But I am going to miss lacrosse because I love that sport, too. I want to do everything I can to help Andover make a tournament run to cap off my career.”
It has been a long journey for Eikenberry, who for a time believed he would never play football again, let alone for one of the sport’s most storied programs.
Eikenberry began his career at Brooks School as a freshman, before transferring to Andover High the following year, and quickly emerged as a two-sport start.
The sophomore led the Golden Warrior football team in tackles with 87, while in lacrosse he emerged as a standout midfielder.
Following that season, looking to further pursue college lacrosse, Eikenberry transferred to lacrosse power Brewster. While starring there, he began the college search.
“I went through the whole college recruiting process,” he said. “I talked to schools, and eventually chose from five or six Division 1 lacrosse programs. I decided on Delaware, which is an awesome program. I was all set to go there to play.”
While lacrosse was a success, Eikenberry missed attending school with his friends at Andover High, and missed playing football — which he had to give up because Brewster does not field a team.
“Most of my time at Brewster, I didn’t think I would ever play football again,” he said. “I went to some Andover games like against North Andover and St. John’s Prep and it was tough to watch the team have so much success (MVC Large champs), and not have the chance to be a part of it. That made me rethink my high school choice.”
Eikenberry began a dialogue with Golden Warriors football coach E.J. Perry and his staff, and by the time the 2013 pre-season arrived, he had officially rejoined Andover High and its football team.
Initially, Eikenberry remained sure that he would attend Delaware to play lacrosse. But that suddenly came into question after two huge games on the gridiron to start the season against North Andover (15 tackles, TD run) and BC High (16 tackles, three forced fumbles, interception return for TD).
“After the BC High game, we started to send my highlight film and some workout numbers out to different colleges,” he said. “Coach Perry really talked me through the whole process. He also knew coach O’Brien from Andover, which helped the tape that could have gone into the trash get to him.”
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Eikenberry finished the fall with a team-high 96 tackles and three interceptions and rushed for four touchdowns. Combine that with his 4.67 time in the 40-yard dash and 305 max on the bench press and interest from college football teams continued to grow.
O’Brien and Penn State then offered Eikenberry the chance to play for Penn State as a preferred walk-on. When O’Brien left the school to become head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans, new Nittany Lions coach James Franklin reaffirmed the offer.
“Coach O’Brien was with me from the beginning,” he said. “When the new coach and his staff came, I was worried I could get lost in the shuffle. But coach Franklin called me two days after he was hired and told me they had reviewed my tape and they still wanted me to play for them.”
But Eikenberry was not about to rush into a decision as massive as playing football at a major Division 1-A school, along with giving up a sport he once thought was his best.
“I had to take a step back and review everything,” he said. “It’s hard to not just say ‘yes’ right away to an offer like that. There is so much excitement. But you have to look at it realistically.
“In order to play in a program like that, you have to be obsessed with football. It was overwhelming at first to get a grip on the dedication I would have to put into it. Plus, I had committed to Delaware for lacrosse. It was very difficult. I visited Penn State twice and sat down with the coaching staff. I had to see if they really believed in me.”
Finally, in early March, Eikenberry made his decision. He would suit up for the Nittany Lions.
“This is a truly special opportunity,” said Eikenberry, who will play outside linebacker. “On one of my trips, the coaches took us through the gates at (Beaver Stadium) and they played the crowd noise and game music and looking at those (106,000) seats, it was overwhelming. I tried to imagine what game day will be like, but nothing will prepare me for what the first game will be like. I would not have committed if I was not confident in my abilities.”
Before Eikenberry heads off to State College, Pa., he has work left to do at Eugene V. Lovely Field as the leader of the Golden Warriors’ lacrosse team.
“I love lacrosse,” he said. “I am pumped for the season. We have a great group of kids and a stellar group of seniors. We have a lot of talent. I feel like we can play for a state title.”
Andover coach Wayne Puglisi is certainly happy to have Eikenberry back on his team.
“He has all the tools,” Puglisi said. “He is big, strong, fast and his lacrosse IQ is very high. It is pretty impressive to see someone his size move that fast, but he also sees everything. He knows when a guy misses a screen or doesn’t do his job and is quick to point it out.
“And Will is also a great guy. He has a great sense of humor and meshes well with the guys. I think I missed Will the person just as much as Will the player when he was gone.”