Area man's Penn State football collection represents 40 years worth of memories
Like countless other Scranton area residents, Dr. Ken Gentilezza, lives for Penn State football. But it's fair to say the Waverly Township, Lackawanna County, resident has taken his fandom to the next level.
He never misses a home game at Beaver Stadium and has attended dozens of away games and postseason bowls.
Every year, he and his wife, Susan, give a partial scholarship to a deserving member of the Nittany Lions.
When he became dissatisfied with the quality of the PSU clothing sold in State College's many stores, he simply started producing his own custom line through local wholesaler Kevin's.
And then there's the spacious finished basement of his home, a veritable shrine to Nittany Nation.
Just about every square inch of wall space in Gentilezza's man cave is dedicated to his four decades-long devotion to Penn State. He's never done an official count, but there's easily several hundred items, from signed helmets, jerseys and footballs to blown-up photos to a handwritten note by Penn State's former coach, the late Joe Paterno.
The leather couches he and guests sit on to watch Penn State away games are Nittany blue. So is his bar. Even the bathroom is decked out in full PSU-themed splendor.
Besides Paterno, many of Penn State's all-time greats make appearances throughout, including Scranton's own Mike Munchak, Eric Shrive and Matt McGloin. Former coach Bill O'Brien, who recently left the Lions to coach the NFL's Houston Texans, has a more modest bit of space dedicated to his brief yet effective tenure.
Gentilezza views the collection, and Penn State football in general, as a full-blown hobby. He derives the same pleasure from it that other guys do from hunting or fishing.
"This," said Susan as she surveyed the fruits of her husband's labors on a recent afternoon, "is definitely his passion."
"It just gives me a great feeling," said Gentilezza, the managing partner at Northeastern Rehabilitation Associates, P.C.
Gentilezza, 55, first started decorating the basement around 1996, about four years after he and his wife built the house.
By then, he had been a Penn State diehard for more than 20 years. It started, he said, when his father, the late Angelo Gentilezza, took him to a game at Beaver Stadium during the early 1970s. At the time, Heisman Trophy-winning running back John Cappelletti was the Lions' biggest star.
"We lost to Navy in the rain," said Gentilezza, a West Scranton native. "But it didn't dampen my spirits. I caught the bug."
He ended up getting his bachelor's degree in biology from Penn State, and continued to faithfully follow the Nittany Lions during his medical studies.
For one of his first dates with Susan, he took her to the 1985 Penn State-Notre Dame game at Beaver Stadium. They ended up having to wear garbage bags to protect them from the horrible weather.
"I said to myself, 'Who is this guy?' " she joked.
"Our first two years of being together, Penn State only had one loss. So, she had no real idea what I was like after a loss," Gentilezza said with a laugh.
Eventually, Susan was fully assimilated into Nittany Nation. The couple became season-ticket holders, and during the early 1990s they started attending bowl games, where interactions between fans and the team are more commonplace, resulting in greater autograph opportunities, Gentilezza said.
It was then that his collection began to grow, and grow, and grow some more.
Today, the setup has a museum-esque sophistication to it, curated into specific sections and themes. Gentilezza often takes older stuff down and replaces it with newer additions.
The oldest artifact is a 1933 Penn State pennant that sits in a glass display case that also includes a football from the 1994 Rose Bowl, in which Penn State clobbered the Oregon Ducks to put the capper on a perfect 12-0 season.
The oddest piece might be the helmet Gentilezza won as a door prize at a luncheon held before the 2005 Orange Bowl. Half of it is Nittany Lion white and navy, while the other half is the red and gold of the Florida State Seminoles.
The Lions triumphed in that game and were led to a 12-1 record that season by quarterback Michael Robinson, whose official Big 10 jersey hangs in a full-size wood locker Gentilezza installed next to the bar. It looks exactly like the real deal, right down to the shoulder pads Gentilezza put in it.
Other jerseys sit on the wall behind glass. They include the numbers of some of Penn State's finest linebackers, among them Paul Posluszny, Shane Conlan and Jack Ham, who went on to become one of the anchors of the Pittsburgh Steelers' four-time Super Bowl-winning defense.
All of those jerseys are white, with the exception of Ham's, who gets sole navy blue treatment "because he was fierce," Gentilezza said.
Some objects hold a special sentimental value for Gentilezza. His late mother, Carmella Gentilezza, collected bells, so there's a PSU bell on display in her honor. Situated near that is an old Citrus Bowl baseball cap Gentilezza's father started wearing a few years before getting to attend the actual bowl, a PSU win over the Tennessee Volunteers. A few months later, he passed away.
"That was a great trip. So that hat is a reminder of it," Gentilezza said.
A good deal of wall space is devoted to enlarged photos of iconic on-field moments, like the Sports Illustrated cover showing Penn State receiver Gregg Garrity after his last-minute catch against the Georgia Bulldogs in the 1982 Sugar Bowl, and Don Graham's jubilant pose following the Lions upset of the Miami Hurricanes in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. Both wins earned Penn State the National Championship.
Gentilezza purchases the photos from newspapers, magazines and Internet dealers. Many were in frames at one time, but he recently started converting them into painting-like canvas wrap.
"The frames are good, but I think this has a nicer appearance," he said.
Other photos show him, family members and friends at games and other team-related functions. In one, the Gentilezzas are partying with a shaggy, gray-haired USC fan before the 2008 Rose Bowl. The guy was none other than the father of Rivers Cuomo, frontman of the popular band Weezer.
Not long ago, Gentilezza converted daughter Olivia's old playroom into a pictorial documenting the 2012 season, when the Lions managed to post an impressive 8-4 record despite crippling NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He has a picture with the signatures of every senior member of that team.
"That 2012 year was so special. I honestly believe those young men saved the program," he said. "It was probably my favorite year following Penn State football."
Of course, McGloin, now a quarterback with the NFL's Oakland Raiders, was a huge part of the team's success. Gentilezza has become close with him, as well as Shrive, an offensive lineman who just graduated from Penn State, and both of their families.
One of Gentilezza's favorite photos is a candid shot of McGloin and Shrive standing not far from each other in a throng of PSU players. Also in his possession is the first helmet the two ever signed.
"Matt didn't even have a number yet," said Gentilezza as McGloin's No. 11 jersey loomed a few feet away, part of another section dedicated to 2012. "Matt, really to me, you can say what you want about Bill O'Brien, but I think Matt made Bill O'Brien as much as Bill O'Brien made him."
Like McGloin, Paterno has his own dedicated section of the basement. Gentilezza had the chance to chat extensively with the coaching icon on a few occasions. During one such encounter, Paterno signed a football for Gentilezza.
"You can see I was a rookie back then, because I didn't know about white-paneled footballs," said Gentilezza with a laugh as he pointed at the brown regulation football etched with Paterno's scrawl.
Gentilezza's daughter also had a couple of successful encounters with Coach Paterno. At a luncheon before the 2002 Capital One Bowl, Olivia ran behind the dais and had Paterno sign her American Girl autograph book. Following a big PSU win at Northwestern during the '05 season, Paterno signed a hat for her as he walked to the team bus.
As Gentilezza walks through the basement, beaming from ear to ear while recounting the stories behind each piece, it's clear that the collection is as much a time capsule as it is a showpiece. All the great times he's had through the years because of Penn State football come rushing back in an instant.
"It's a lot of good memories," he said. "That's what it is. Memories." Priceless possession
One of the stand-out objects in Dr. Ken Gentilezza's Penn State memorabilia collection has to be the hand-written letter, below, the late Joe Paterno sent him in June 2009.
Paterno had visited the Scranton area a few weeks earlier. During that visit, Gentilezza not only had the chance to chauffeur the legendary coach but also had a good, long conversation with him.
In addition, Gentilezza gave Paterno several Penn State football sweatshirts and pullovers that he designs through local clothing wholesaler Kevin's.
Paterno happily accepted the gifts, and a few weeks later he sent Gentilezza this note, written on official Penn State football stationery, to inform him that he had worn one of the tops to the office that morning on account of the "cooler" weather.
"They are great," Paterno wrote, before adding, "I enjoyed my visit to Scranton - I always do - because of the great people of N.E. PA."