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PSU's TJ Malone

TJ Malone: 'My Journey Has Never Been Conventional'

May 26, 2023
Gary Lambrecht
John Strohsacker

Occasionally, Penn State graduate student attackman TJ Malone will review saved photos on his phone that remind him how far he has come in such a short period of time.

Two days after his four goals had helped Penn State build just enough cushion against Army to preserve a 10-9 NCAA tournament quarterfinal victory — sending the Nittany Lions to their second-ever final four weekend — it was time for Malone to savor the present by looking at some unpleasant pics taken back on May 23, 2022.

“A year ago [Tuesday], I was getting around in a wheelchair or on crutches, unable to walk. I had had my first hip surgery on April 23 and my second hip surgery three weeks later,” said Malone, whose fifth-seeded Nittany Lions (11-4) will face top-seeded Duke in an NCAA semifinal Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. “It’s crazy what a year can do. My journey has not been super-linear or normal. But I have been very, very blessed.”

A YEAR AFTER UNDERGOING THREE SURGERIES, including a sports hernia procedure in September 2022 that finally rid him of initially mysterious pain and discomfort that had dogged him for nearly two years, Thomas Joseph Malone leads Penn State in goals (33) and assists (32). He was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

His sharp, fast, versatile game has steadily returned during the 2023 season. He has elevated a revitalized Penn State squad that suffered through a 3-11 crash last year — including five one-goal losses — without its injured leader.

Malone speaks like a young man who has absorbed hefty doses of adversity and perspective over his five years in State College, Pa.

“It was a confusing, frustrating process at times, not knowing what was causing my pain, which goes back to after the [2020] season got canceled [due to the pandemic],” Malone said. “Being able to play without pain this spring has been a blessing. It’s been great to approach games again with the joy and enthusiasm I love to play with.”

Even before things began magically for Malone at Penn State in 2019 — when as a freshman he started at midfield, earned three Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards and was an excellent complement to star scorers Grant Ament and Mac O’Keefe during the program’s first run to the final four — Malone had carved a highly unlikely path to the Nittany Lions.

He was an undersized, barely recruited, high-energy and impressively skilled player at the Haverford School (Pa.), where he developed for two seasons on the junior varsity before flourishing and welcoming a growth spurt as a varsity player. Now listed at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Malone had been a 104-pound freshman in high school. His original driver’s license at age 16 lists his height at 5-4.

“[Malone] was tiny, with a great stick,” said Ament, Penn State’s all-time points and assists leader, who was a senior All-American at Haverford when Malone was a freshman. “TJ loved lacrosse in a way I’ve only seen in a few people I’ve met. It was hard not to root for a kid who really wants to be great.”

While Ament and O’Keefe and other teammates such as Chris Sabia were pushing Penn State forward as a developing power, Ament never forget about Malone. He had drawn scant early recruiting interest and had committed to Division III power Amherst in the fall of his senior year at Haverford.

“He was always the smallest kid out there when he was younger, back in the early recruiting days,” said Mark Malone, TJ’s father. “He was around kids getting recruited in the eighth grade. He didn’t really start growing until three or four years later. He felt like he was never going to get to that [Division I] level. But he kept pushing ahead. He really learned how to play the game at Haverford.”

During Malone’s senior year, when he was named a USA Lacrosse All-American and Inter-Ac and Philly Lacrosse Co-Player of the Year, Ament advised Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni to look at his former – and still available – high school teammate.

“I remember watching Haverford play Episcopal in an overtime game. TJ was a terrific field general at attack, who played left- and right-handed,” Tambroni said. “When I got in the car, I knew, without question, that [Malone] was someone we were going to pursue.”

By early June of 2018, a year after he was checking out schools such as Richmond, Furman, Davidson and Wake Forest — and open to the idea of playing club lacrosse — Malone had suddenly found an ideal Division I match in his home state.

Malone grew up in West Chester, about a 25-minute drive from the home of the Philadelphia Eagles, where he will perform on Saturday. He committed to Penn State on June 6, 2018 and was on the State College campus two months later. Malone was the last recruit signed in that incoming class.

“TJ played well, really from the get-go,” Tambroni said. “He was fearless in his approach, willing to come in, make mistakes and just play hard.”

“It was an awesome year. I was a role player for the stars, trying to fit in. The offense was their show,” said Malone, referring to Ament and O’Keefe, who posted single-season records of 96 assists and 78 goals, respectively. “They made [scoring] look so easy.”

Attackman Jack Traynor, a fellow grad student and one of five Penn State players left from the 2019 team that finished 16-2, remembers Malone playing more than background music. He wound up with 30 goals on 43.5-percent shooting. Malone also fed O’Keefe for the game-winning goal in overtime against Johns Hopkins that decided a classic Big Ten championship battle, 18-17.

“You’d think a freshman on a team ranked number one for a lot of the season would be a little timid and take the back seat to the older guys, but TJ showed up here with an incredible amount of confidence and did some incredible things on offense,” Traynor said. “The lights are never too bright for him.”

MALONE’S PROMISING FRESHMAN SEASON ENDED PAINFULLY. During Penn State’s 21-17 loss to Yale in an NCAA semifinal, Malone suffered a knee injury that required surgery in the fall. He was up and running in time for the 2020 season, scoring 16 goals and adding seven assists to lead the Nittany Lions to a 5-2 start before the NCAA canceled spring sports.

When Penn State returned to the field in a limited capacity in the fall of 2020, Malone was experiencing nagging groin and hip discomfort. That worsened throughout the shortened 2021 season that featured exclusively an expanded Big Ten schedule. Despite barely practicing that season, Malone led the team with 43 points, including a team-high 18 assists. But the Nittany Lions finished 4-7.

Malone would not play in a regular season again for nearly two years.

“He was really laboring just to get through a quarter or a half. We didn’t know what it was. We did know that rest and rehab were not doing the trick,” Tambroni said. “What made it worse is we headed into 2022 and he was still dealing with the unknown, and it’s taking its toll mentally and physically on him. Then we got it correctly diagnosed in the winter.”

After Penn State doctors recommended a hip specialist in Chicago, Malone learned he had two torn labrums. Each hip problem was fixed surgically, as Penn State wrapped up its 3-11 season.

Yet more discomfort continued for months. Last September, Malone had sports hernia surgery. Doctors removed a torn adductor tendon from his groin, where three tendons would do the work of four.

Although Malone was finally on the road to recovery, it was not a given that he would use a fifth year of eligibility to return to play more lacrosse. He had graduated with a finance degree and was working toward his master’s in business analytics.

“I was still dealing with pain in the fall of ’22. Some people in my support system were saying, ‘Hey, retire from lacrosse. Save the stress on your body.’ I thought about it,” Malone said. “The sports hernia surgery really helped. I trusted the doctors. Once we came up with a training plan to get on the field again by a certain date, I decided to go for it. It’s all been worth it.”

Malone was surprised by his level of conditioning in January, when he tied for first in a sprint endurance run. He gradually gained more confidence moving in the flow of lacrosse in the first two months of 2023.

“Every week since those days, and it continues still today, TJ has gotten a little bit better,” Tambroni said.

Malone agrees. He points to the night of April 8 against Johns Hopkins as the game in which he truly felt as if he played freely for the first time since 2019. After spotting the Blue Jays a 5-0 lead, Penn State charged back with a 10-2 run to take a 10-7 fourth-quarter lead. The Nittany Lions withstood a furious Hopkins comeback before forcing overtime and taking a 12-11 victory.

Malone finished with four goals and four assists, scooped eight ground balls and also had five turnovers. He played with speed and toughness and abandon. He carried his guys.

“There is a difference between being reckless and rogue, going outside the game plan,” Tambroni said. “TJ plays with so much courage and conviction. He’s not afraid to take calculated risks and make mistakes. Some players are too apprehensive to do that. He has earned the right to take a shot or throw a pass that looks non-traditional.”

And Malone, playing in his second final four, has earned his chance to go for it in Philly, where Penn State will attempt to win the first NCAA title in school history.

“TJ created his luck this year in a lot of ways,” Ament says. “He’s done everything right off the field — his nutrition, his sleep, hydration, reading sports psychology books, maintaining a 3.8 GPA. His back was kind of against the wall, and he turned the opportunity into the best outcome possible.”

“My journey has never been conventional, from getting cut from club teams, to not making varsity at Haverford for two years, to being a late recruit at Penn State, to being injured in college,” Malone said. “It’s been tough, but it’s made me so much better as a person.”