P.J. Byers remembers swimming in the pool at his childhood home, using one of those floating noodles as a makeshift snorkel to see how long he could stay underwater.
These days, the 27-year-old Penn State fullback still has that same affinity for being in the water.
As an active duty member of the United States Navy officer program and an aspiring Navy dive specialist, the breathing equipment Byers now uses is a little more sophisticated.
His journey has taken the Harrison City native from Marietta College in southern Ohio, to the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to San Diego and finally to State College, where the Nittany Lions will host the U.S. Naval academy this Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Penn State’s military appreciation day will coincide with the game, and for Byers it’s a chance to play against a group of men he’s come to admire.
“The guys coming out of the academy, they’re prestigious officers that come out of there,” Byers said. “When they graduate, they’re amazing officers. The way they lead is different than the average officer.”
Byers himself will be a commissioned officer when he graduates from Penn State, but will still have a year of training to complete before becoming a dive specialist.
Though his dive training is already extensive.
The three years he spent at Pearl Harbor involved training in explosives detection, which is the path Byers hopes to take upon graduation. He’s also done work repairing ships and submarines. One particular submarine job gave Byers the biggest underwater scare he’s had to date.
Part of the job was placing a large object under the submarine. When that object fell 40 feet to the ocean’s floor, the soot that kicked up coupled with the fleeting light from the setting sun made it nearly impossible to see anything.
“It made our flashlights useless,” Byers said. “I was able to do the job basically blindfolded.”
Still, that may not be the most unusual thing Byers has encountered during his training. While in San Diego, he worked closely with the Navy’s dolphin trainers.
“Basically the dolphins are there to find underwater explosives,” Byers said. “It was extremely interesting, I never thought I would do that kind of job.”
His original dreams to be a Navy SEAL were dashed when he failed to meet the requirements of the vision test.
Rather than get down on himself, Byers explored his options and set his sights on becoming a dive specialist.
“Being in the Navy you get to challenge yourself and see what options you have,” Byers said. “Being a Navy diver was the one thing that stuck out to me because it’s a fast-pace, high-risk job and that’s how I want to challenge myself with my career.”
Byers is also challenging himself by trying to balance school, football and his obligations to the Navy.
In addition to classes, practice and learning his duties as a member of Penn State’s scout team, Byers, who walked on to the Penn State roster in 2010, has to meet with his lieutenant once a week, and report for weekly general military training.
As a member of the scout team, or “The Dirty Show” as its affectionately referred to by coach Bill O’Brien, Byers has been tasked with mimicking Navy fullback Noah Copeland this week as the Lions try to prepare for the Mids’ triple-option offense.
Balancing the loaded schedules may seem like a lot of work on the surface, but Byers uses the similarities he sees between the Navy and football to help lighten the burden.
“I think it’s a lot of the same challenges,” Byers said. “We have one mission here and that’s winning every game. We work toward that mission just as a dive team would.”
His military background has given Byers an innate leadership ability that his teammates have been drawn to. He may not see any time on the field, but even as a member of “The Dirty Show” Byers has done his part in leading the team through what now seems like one hardship after another.
“I think a lot of people look up to P.J.,” defensive end Pete Massaro said. “A lot of people overlook the role of the offseason, but P.J. did an outstanding job this offseason and he continues to be a leader off the field.”
Byers isn’t the only player with a military background on the team, freshman defensive end Brent Smith spent eight years in the Marines out of high school and served two tours of duty in Iraq.
Their unique back stories have become a source of interest on the team, particularly Smith’s.
“I was really interested in the life over there and kinda what it was like,” said linebacker Glenn Carson, who roomed with Smith during fall camp. “We got to talking about that and different things like what they did in their spare time, things like that.”
Neither Smith nor Byers have seen any playing time through Penn State’s first two games, and Byers isn’t getting his hopes up about playing this Saturday.
But that doesn’t mean the future Naval officer hasn’t given some though to the prospect of playing against Navy.
“If I got any kind of carry or any kind of block, or just any kind of playing time it would mean the world to me,” Byers said. “I’m already more than grateful that I have a position on the team and I’m helping out as scout player. Playing against the Navy, it would be awesome.”