For many elite athletes, it’s a challenge to cultivate an identity outside of their sport. When that sport is taken away so is a piece of that person. In many cases, competition is an athlete’s greatest avenue for self-expression, so when that road is closed, no outlet remains.
Adam Breneman was always more than a four-star football recruit or an All-American tight end, so when the avenue of football was closed for repairs in 2014 and closed for good in 2017, he had plenty of paths to pursue. In fact, he had so many roads laid out in front of him that he could’ve used a map.
“There were always things in my life I wanted to do other than play football,” Breneman told me this December, reflecting on the journey that brought him from star Penn State tight end to college football’s preeminent Tik Tok star.
“I always said, ‘Football is what I do, it’s not who I am.’ I always knew that when the day came that I couldn’t play football anymore, I wanted to do other things, I always knew I was going to be ambitious in another path of life.” Then, almost in passing, no longer tinged with the disappointment of what could have been, Breneman said the words that, for everyone outside of his life, defines his story, “it just came sooner than I wanted.”
Nowadays, at just 28 years old Breneman is retired from football and is taking on the sports media world with a social media-first formula.
“For me, it all started with producing content on social media, and every opportunity I’ve had since then, broadcasting with ESPN and CBS, the podcast, everything has come from my content,” Breneman said.
His media career has blossomed with nearly 200,000 TikTok followers, large followings across other social media platforms, a successful podcast, and opportunities in mainstream media as a color commentator for ESPN and CBS college football broadcasts. In 2013 when Breneman, arrived in Happy Valley from nearby Mechanicsburg Pennsylvania, he was known for just one thing: playing football.
Back then, the Penn State football program was still reeling from NCAA sanctions. Yet, Breneman, one of the top high school tight ends in the country, along with five-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg, signed up to play for Bill O’Brien and the Nittany Lions. Even with the prize of playing in a bowl game off the table until 2016.
“There weren’t a lot of people who thought that we should go there when we went there,” Breneman reminisced, “During that time, there wasn’t a lot of hope around Penn State, there weren’t a lot of things to look forward to for fans.”
Breneman wanted to restore a sense of hope to that community, but he didn’t know that soon his own football future would look a lot more bleak than his university’s.
Prior to arriving at Penn State, Breneman tore his ACL as a high school senior and missed his final high school football season. He made a full recovery by 2013, and as a freshman, the 6-foot-5 tight end caught 15 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns.
Then, the knee injury just wouldn’t go away. Breneman missed the entire 2014 season and was out for the season in 2015. Two years removed from making three catches for 78 yards against Wisconsin in the final outing of his freshman year, Breneman, who had already graduated with a business degree in three years, wrote a letter to the Penn State fans and announced his retirement from football.
It concluded, “I will love Penn State and I will love the people of Penn State for as long as I live. A day will not go by that I do not wake up and thank God for sending me to this great school. I always knew since a young age this was the place I belonged. It did not always go the way I planned, but I trust this was the plan for me. I would rather go through the challenging times at Penn State than have any other experience anywhere else.
Thank you, Penn State. I will bleed blue and white forever and ever. I love you, Dear Old State, and I will forever be indebted to you.”
During his time in Happy Valley, James Franklin took over the program after Bill O’Brien left for the NFL. Breneman never played a snap for Franklin, but his impact on the program was paramount to the turnaround that led to the 2016 Big Ten title.
Following the announcement, Franklin told Jourdan Rodrigue who was then at the Centre Daily Times, “I know that it was difficult for Adam to step away from the game, but he felt it was the right time. We are so proud of his work in the classroom, having earned his degree in three years. Adam is a special young man that has left his imprint on not only the Penn State football program but the Penn State community at large. He has been a difference maker at a very young age and has a bright future ahead of him.”
That clearly wasn’t lip service or “coach speak.” The impact that Breneman made on the Penn State community in just three years, with only one season on the field, was profound, and he didn’t realize it until much later.
After Breneman retired from football, he took some time away from the rigorous rehab program that was intended to get him back on the field. Suddenly, his knee started to feel better. So much so, that he decided to break out the old football cleats again and ramp up his training.
Eventually, Breneman felt healthy enough to unretire. He transferred to the University of Massachusetts and played two seasons for the UMass Minutemen. Fueled by anti-inflammatories and a lot of days off, Breneman’s dream of an NFL career rose from the ashes.
In 2016 Breneman played 12 games for the Minutemen and caught 70 passes for 808 yards and eight touchdowns. He came back healthy enough to play again in 2017 and made another 64 catches for 764 yards and four touchdowns, but it was early in his first season away from Happy Valley, that he realized just how strong the bond he formed with the Penn State community was.
“After one of my first games at UMass, I had a pretty good game, and I remember one of our staffers came to my locker and gave me like 10 to 15 notes, handwritten notes, and I was like ‘what are these?’ and he said ‘we got mail for you at our facility,” Breneman recalled wondering who could be sending him mail, “it was Penn State fans. Writing notes to me wishing me luck at UMass, and saying we appreciate what you’ve done for us at Penn State, we know your career didn’t go the way you wanted it to here, but awesome to see you having success.”
Meanwhile, Penn State was having success. The Nittany Lions were on their way to the program’s first Big Ten title since 1994. After Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, and Mike Gesicki led the Nittany Lions to that 2016 conference championship, Breneman received a text from a former coach.
“When the game ended, I got a text from Bill O’Brien that said, ‘I know you weren’t on the field, but that championship doesn’t happen if you and Christian (Hackenberg) and your teammates don’t go to Penn State when you did, so congratulations.”
O’Brien wasn’t even around to see the contributions that Breneman made to the coaching regime that succeeded him. Franklin routinely talked with Breneman about ways to break down the wall between the players in the locker room and the new coaching staff. Especially for the ones who had played Joe Paterno in 2011, and then Tom Bradley, and then Bill O’Brien, and now were resistant to the young coach from Vanderbilt.
Breneman’s knack for breaking down walls has carried over into his post-football career. It certainly helps in getting candid answers from the players and coaches that he interviews for his podcast Next Up with Adam Breneman.
From his years at UMass, Breneman knows a thing or two about how players can avoid giving the media a straight answer.
He reminisced on the times he, and his teammates, had to hide just how bad his knee really was, “When I was at UMass, it was a secret, we wouldn’t tell anyone about it because we knew that the NFL scouts were coming in. We couldn’t let anyone know how bad my knee really was because the goal was to get to the NFL and then maybe get it fixed once you’re on a team and get paid a little bit.”
That meant other parts of his body had to compensate. Not just to hold his knee together on the field, but a hamstring or an ankle had to take the blame for his absence every once in a while.
“At UMass, I wasn’t really practicing much,” Breneman said, “So when scouts would come in and I wasn’t practicing one day, everyone would say ‘Oh, Adam has a bad hamstring,’ or ‘Oh Adam’s ankle is hurt.”
He even kept the media off his trail up until a month before the NFL draft, when his chronic knee injury left him no choice, but to walk away again.
“I went to the Senior Bowl and you can look it up right now, there are headlines that say Adam Breneman will miss Senior Bowl with a hamstring injury.”
That part he’s not lying about. There are multiple of those exact headlines. Eventually, the knee left him no choice. After a brief stint in politics, and a season on Herm Edwards’ staff at Arizona State, Breneman found himself in media, and that led him to the University of Washington where he interviewed quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
He asked Penix about his two ACL surgeries and how he was able to return to the field. Penix spoke about his doubts, he spoke about the reasons he kept returning to the field, and finally, he said the one word that is most difficult for an athlete who has decided to walk again from their sport to hear.
Penix said, “At the end of the day I knew I couldn’t be that quitter.”
For a business major, with no traditional journalism background, Breneman has a unique ability to relate to athletes and break down those walls for his interviews. His journey was similar to Penix’s in so many ways, but the ending is quite different.
Breneman did have to walk away, but he didn’t quit. He made the right decision for his long-term well-being. That doesn’t mean that word “quit” wasn’t a hurdle to overcome.
“I struggled with it for a while,” Breneman said. “By the end of my career, I really didn’t have a choice. I didn’t really feel like I was quitting, or I had to make a decision, I couldn’t play anymore… That made it easier, but also harder because I was not making a decision, I was done. I got dealt the cards I got dealt and it was now on me to figure it out and play the hand that way.”
Now, in sports media, Breneman does have a choice, and he’s choosing it all.
Breneman’s career is emblematic of the proliferation of the “new media” that is athlete-driven and personality-oriented. His followers are coming in droves to his television appearances and before long he might just be the biggest voice in college football.
“People ask me a lot, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to be a broadcaster? Do you want to be a content creator? Do you want to do sports betting content? Do you want to be a podcast host? What do you want to be?’ and I always say I want to be all of it.”