As a standout tight end, Adam Breneman loved to catch passes.
But now that he’s working in politics, the former Penn State football player is all about the ground attack.
“I wasn’t very big on the ground game when I was playing football,” he said. “But I’ve grown to love it.”
Breneman is campaign manager for congressional candidate Dr. John Joyce in the new 13th district, which stretches across 10 counties — from Westmoreland east to Adams, snagging all of Somerset, Bedford, Blair and part of Cambria along the way.
Leaning on lessons from his football days, Breneman built his “great ground game” — a system of supporters who made calls and knocked on doors in what he characterized as “old-school, grass-roots campaigning.”
The game plan worked: Joyce emerged as the winner in an eight-candidate Republican primary field and will meet Democrat Brent Ottaway in the general election.
“I think there are a lot of parallels between football and politics,” Breneman said.
“Election Day is like game day. You either win or you lose and you go home either way.
“In college football, you put in a lot of work in order to play — what, 12 games? For us in politics, you train and prepare for one day — or two. But those competitive juices flow here, too.”
Breneman’s playing days featured both triumphs and setbacks — which he says helped prepare him for the challenges he now faces in the political arena.
A native of Mechanicsburg, Breneman was a standout at Cedar Cliff High School on the playing field as well as the classroom. He graduated with a 3.90 grade-point average and was a member of the National Honor Society and the Distinguished Honor Roll.
Breneman was tight end with the Nittany Lions from 2013-15. As a true freshman, he played in 12 games and started five — making 15 receptions for 186 yards and three touchdowns. His 68-yard score against Wisconsin is the longest touchdown play for a tight end in Penn State history.
But he missed all of 2014 and most of the 2015 season with knee injuries that he believed had ended his time playing football.
After a year away from the game, Breneman joined the University of Massachusetts program as a graduate student and enjoyed two seasons with the Minutemen, where he was a two-time Mackey Award finalist — considered among the best tight ends in the country. In two years at UMass, he had 134 receptions for 1,572 yards and 12 TDs.
Attending UMass allowed Breneman to earn his master of business administration degree. He had graduated in three years at Penn State, with a major in business and a minor in political science.
But his time with the Minutemen ended much like his days at Penn State. Doctors told him ongoing knee problems would keep him from playing in the National Football League. “They kind of said, ‘Look, there’s no solution here.’ That was tough to hear.”
So he turned to his second love — politics, which Breneman said “filled that void for me when I had to stop playing football.”
“I had always followed politics closely,” he said. “My roommates would make fun of me. I would stay up late to watch the mid-term results come in. They would look at me and say, ‘Why do you care about the Louisiana primary?’”
As a 20-year-old, Breneman was picked to work on the 2016 campaign of state Senate candidate Mike Regan in Pennsylvania’s 31st district.
A fellow Cedar Cliff alum and a state representative from the Harrisburg area, Regan emerged successfully from a four-way primary race and then won the Senate seat that November.
After earning his MBA, Breneman took a position as a consultant with Red Maverick Media. One of the firm’s clients was a Blair County physician who was launching a campaign in the new 13th congressional district.
Breneman said he and Joyce “hit it off right away” and the ex-football star was hired as the candidate’s campaign manager just eight weeks before the May primary. Breneman lived in an Altoona motel for two months and directed Joyce’s successful bid for the GOP nomination.
“It was a whirlwind eight weeks,” Breneman said, noting that he had his 23rd birthday during the campaign.
The GOP primary featured more football analogies, including what Breneman characterized as “trash-talking” in television ads. But Joyce “refused to go negative” and avoided being penalized by the voters.
“It’s tough to get hit and not hit back,” Breneman said.
The summer is the political equivalent of halftime — when candidates and their teams adjust their strategies ahead of the fall campaign circuit and the November ballots.
Even in the Republican-heavy 13th district — a prime playing field for a Donald Trump-supporting contender — Breneman is taking nothing for granted.
That means the gifted pass-catcher will be rolling out that ground game again.
“You always run,” Breneman said, “like you’re 10 points behind.”
Minemyer is the editor of The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat, which is owned by CNHI. CNHI is also the parent company of The Daily Item.