#schoolsafety | 3 surgeries and a vegan diet later, ex-PSU safety John Petrishen transforms into Pitt linebacker

Some people run from change.

John Petrishen embraces it like he’s making a new friend, constantly seeking ways to redefine himself as a student and athlete.

The oldest player on the Pitt football team (42 days older than wide receiver Tre Tipton with whom he played AAU basketball in the sixth grade), Petrishen, who will turn 25 on June 1, started his collegiate career as a meat-eating safety at Penn State. A year ago, as a Pitt linebacker, he switched to an exclusively vegan diet.

“No meat at all. Just fake meat,” Petrishen said. “Everybody says I’m powered by plants. It’s different, but I’m used to it now.”

The 189-pound high school safety now says he weighs 225 on a 6-foot-1 frame.

“I’m bigger and leaner than I have ever been,” he said, proudly pointing to his 6% body fat. “Now, I’m messing around with offensive linemen in the box (as a linebacker). I’m little bit heavier, stronger. I feel great.”

Meanwhile, he’s keeping his mind sharp. A Central Catholic graduate who grew up in Lower Burrell, he has an undergraduate degree from Penn State and is pursuing a master’s degree as a graduate student at Pitt, taking a mix of sociology and business courses.

Then, there are the surgeries, the ultimate in body transformation. He had three in the first four years of what has become a seven-year collegiate career. (He returned to Pitt this year, thanks to the free season of eligibility granted by the NCAA.)

The procedures hindered Petrishen’s progress as a football player, but he no longer sees the injuries as a curse.

“If you asked the 18-year-old version of me, I would tell you that would be my worst nightmare,” he said.

“It was very challenging, very trying at times. Sometimes I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’

”I’ve learned so much. I feel like I’ve really grown as a person. My character has developed. I’ve become a lot more humble. I’m grateful for the whole thing.”

He said friends jokingly call him “old.” At the least, he’s older – three years older than many Pitt graduate seniors.

“I don’t really feel old,” he said. “I was sidelined and on crutches and had three surgeries and I was out of three of those seasons. Really, I think of this as my fourth year, my senior year.

“I’ve never lost my love for the game. I’ve always stayed strong and always had the same goal intact. Still chasing my dream and getting as many degrees as I can.”

After switching from safety to linebacker at the outset of 2020 summer camp, Petrishen learned the star (outside) linebacker position while contributing on special teams. He played in all 11 games, recording four tackles against Notre Dame and blocking a punt at Clemson.

On scrimmage plays, he was — and is — the No. 1 backup to star linebacker Cam Bright.

“I’m becoming more comfortable (at linebacker),” Petrishen said. “Really, for me, it’s all about confidence. Learning on the fly, I was thinking. But now I’m more confident with it.”

Now that he feels like he knows the position, he declares, “This is the season I’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

Not many football players can say they played for Penn State and Pitt. “I feel like I have a very unique perspective,” Petrishen said. “I absolutely love both schools.”

Petrishen had 35 scholarship offers, including one from Pitt, when he was a senior at Central Catholic. But while Pitt was transitioning from Paul Chryst to Pat Narduzzi, Petrishen signed with Penn State.

“It felt like the right decision at the time,” he said.

Four years later, he transferred to Pitt and was on the Panthers’ sideline for the final Pitt/Penn State game at Beaver Stadium in 2019.

Awkward? Not, really.

He did admit it was “weird,” because he had just left Penn State two weeks earlier. Nonetheless, the experience turned out well.

“All my teammates at Penn State were so nice to me there,” said Petrishen, who wasn’t in uniform because he hadn’t been cleared after shoulder surgery. “It wasn’t awkward at all. I’m still super close with all of them.

“It’s really the best of both worlds for me. I grew up a Pitt fan. I love Penn State, too.”

Having a past with Penn State while attending Pitt can be tricky, however.

During Pitt’s off week that year, Petrishen and some Pitt teammates, who also had attended Central Catholic, decided to check out their former school’s game at Fox Chapel.

“It was really cold,” Petrishen said. “I was getting out of my car, (and) the only jacket I had was a Penn State letterman jacket.

“I almost put it on and, then, I thought to myself, ‘No, that’s not a good idea.’ ”

Good call.

“It turns out the first person I saw when I walked into the stadium on the sideline was Coach Narduzzi. That would not have been a good turnout.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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