Bizarre day highlights Penn State's past, present, future

Posted: November 12, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The day most Penn Staters hoped would never come arrived with a tragic twist they could never have imagined.

On a sparkling autumn Saturday that temporarily pierced Happy Valley's ongoing darkness, the post-Joe Paterno era dawned with a 17-14 loss to Nebraska before a surprisingly calm and upbeat sellout crowd at Beaver Stadium.

The bizarre, difficult day highlighted this beleaguered program's glorious past, gloomy present and uncertain future. It was tinged with nostalgia, emotion and the same mix of disillusion and disbelief that has beset Penn State nation since news of the child sexual abuse scandal landed like a meteor on Central Pennsylvania a week ago.

"It's really strange here today," Dan Smarsh, a 20-year season-ticket holder from Elmira, N.Y., said before the game. "We all knew Joe was going to leave one day. But who would ever have thought it would be like this? It's shocking."

Without an opportunity to say goodbye to Paterno, who hours after announcing he'd resign following this season was fired late Wednesday via a phone call, the big crowd still found several opportunities to cheer him.

Seemingly unconcerned with the ambiguities that remain about the coach's role in an alleged cover-up, the 107,903 fans erupted into occasional chants of "JOE PA-TER-NO" and "JOE-PA", and whenever a halftime video display showed a glimpse of him, they cheered wildly.

Before the game, fans lined up to pose for pregame photos with the bronze statue of the coach. Thousands more wore blue T-shirts that contained such supportive messages as "Don't Blame Joe, Bro", and "Coach Paterno, Only One Thing: Thank You".

A private citizen again after 61 years and 714 games on the Nittany Lions staff, Paterno had to watch the game on TV, although where exactly was unclear as of Saturday night. The former coach was not home during the afternoon, returning later in the evening.

While he may have been absent in body, Paterno was still a significant presence, hardly a surprise since until Saturday he'd been associated with every Penn State game since 1949.

The peaceful passage of the afternoon came as a relief for university administrators, who despite calls for its cancellation from various corners including child-protection groups, fans and alumni decided the game ought to be played.

"I believe," said acting Penn State president Robert Ericson, "that the right decision was made."

The two great fears - that lingering resentment over Paterno's firing might lead to violence as it had with Wednesday's student riot, or that angry fans might boycott the game - went unrealized.

Not long after the day dawned clear and crisp, state troopers on horseback and additional police and security re-enforcements began roaming the stadium area, fearful of what might be the next unpleasant surprise in an unimaginable Happy Valley week.

It never came.

"I can't tell you how proud and pleased I am, especially with the students and athletes and the character and class they displayed," Ericson told reporters.

Though some were able to buy last-minute tickets at or below face value, the game was a sellout. The majority of fans wore blue, as student leaders and school officials had urged, to help raise awareness about child abuse.

Far from violent, the gathering seemed remarkably serene given the nonstop diet of bad news they'd been fed the previous week.

"I felt that maybe today the healing process has started to begin," said Ericson.

That mellow mood was evident in the tailgate lots, in the casual pregame parade of fans around the stadium's rim and in the raucous reception the Nittany Lions received when they disembarked from their four blue school buses 11/2 hours before the noon game.

When the lead bus turned the corner on Curtin Avenue at 10:22 a.m., the thick crowd of fans flanking the entrance and those lining stadium balconies above burst into a loud and sustained ovation.

"I've been to a lot of these and this crowd is about twice as big as any other one I've seen," said Smarsh.

Paterno's usual seat in that first bus - front row, passenger side - was left empty, an homage to the coach who led the Lions to two national titles and won 409 games in an honors-filled 46-year career.

Interim coach Tom Bradley also decided not to run onto the field ahead of his players as Paterno always did. His players changed their entrance routine too, walking out slowly, silently, arm-in-arm.

"I'm really proud of these kids," said Bradley. "They didn't quit."

If there were any lingering anger once the big crowd entered, it seemed to dissipate in moving pregame ceremonies.

Players from Penn State and Nebraska, plus a hundred or so PSU football alums, gathered at midfield for a pregame prayer. That prayer was led by Nebraska assistant Ron Brown, who coincidentally is a graduate of Paterno's alma mater, Brown.

That followed a solemn moment of silence for victims of child abuse. Fans and both teams then stood and, with a fervor and volume that intensified with each note, sang the school's alma mater. Ironically, given the week's sordid news, it contained these lines:

"When we stood at childhood's gate

"Shapeless in the hands of fate

"Thou didst mold us, Dear old State"

And when the defeated Penn State players left the field, 23 seniors for the last time, fans stood and silently applauded as the Nittany Lions disappeared into the dark tunnel behind the south end zone.

That's not to suggest that everyone in attendance was content.

Some held signs suggesting the fans ought to be paying more attention to child sexual abuse issues than football. A plane flew overhead trailing a banner that read, "Pray for the kids, not the cowards and liars."

Athletic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz were indicted in what prosecutors allege was an effort to cover up Sandusky's behavior. Paterno and absent assistant Mike McQueary have drawn criticism for not reporting the rape of a 10-year-old boy to police.

Bradley said he called McQueary, on administrative leave and a principle figure in the charges against Sandusky, before the game, but that his cellphone cut out midway through their discussion.

If the fans did have a villain, it was the Board of Trustees.

"My support for this university has ended," said Willis Herr of Lancaster, a Penn State grad who wore a bright blue fright wig. "I've been a football season-ticket holder since 1971 and I've got basketball tickets in the first row. But I'm done. My wife wouldn't even come to the game today she was so angry.

"The man gave 61 years to this university and they fired him by telephone?"

Curiously, afterward, there was considerable talk among players about a series of letters to and from Paterno and alumni that were written and received in the last few chaotic days.

Paterno wrote briefly to the team on Thursday. It was read just after another encouraging note from a group of Penn State football alums called the Letterman's Club.

"They both just urged us to keep fighting, to play hard and make Penn State proud," said lineman Devon Still.

Jay Paterno, meanwhile, said he felt moved to compose a letter to his father, delivered it to him but asked him not to open it until after the game.

"This has been an emotional couple of days for us," said a red-eyed Paterno, who was circumspect in his postgame remarks. "I know I didn't sleep at all on Wednesday night."

Paterno, out of the coaches box and on the sideline to aid a scandal-depleted coaching staff, wore one of his father's familiar windbreakers. In fact, it was the one the elder Paterno had worn when he surpassed Bear Bryant on the all-time coaching victory list.

"I didn't even realize that," his son said, "I just grabbed it out of the closet."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.

 

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