Sorrow and resolve on this day for Penn State faithful

No ordinary Saturday: Rather than charging onto the field at Beaver Stadium, Penn State players entered silently Saturday, holding hands. "We wanted to express that we were unified, that everyone was together," said senior linebacker Nate Stupar. "Nothing is going to break us, nothing can tear us apart."
No ordinary Saturday: Rather than charging onto the field at Beaver Stadium, Penn State players entered silently Saturday, holding hands. "We wanted to express that we were unified, that everyone was together," said senior linebacker Nate Stupar. "Nothing is going to break us, nothing can tear us apart." (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 13, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - They appeared in the tunnel at the appointed moment and entered the stadium in neat rows, file after file of football players walking unhurriedly with their arms linked together.

On a normal football Saturday at Penn State, the home team enters in a rushing torrent of emotion, but this was not a normal football Saturday. It was like no game in the 125-year history of Penn State football. This was the game played after a week of horrible revelations that had left their world unhinged.

"We wanted to express that we were unified, that everyone was together," said senior linebacker Nate Stupar. "Nothing is going to break us, nothing can tear us apart."

If the events leading up to this game didn't succeed in that, he might be right.

In a week during which the ground shook and opened up around this insular campus tucked among the central Pennsylvania hills, what took place is still mind-boggling:

A grand jury indicted a legendary former assistant coach for an unspeakable pattern of alleged child sexual abuse, and two high-ranking university officials were charged with lying about what they knew about it.

Head coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham B. Spanier were fired.

An assistant coach was vilified for failing to do more to stop an alleged sexual assault he witnessed in 2002 and had to be removed from the staff for his own safety, according to the university.

And the football program became a national symbol of what could happen when collegiate athletics is allowed to exert too much power over the school it represents.

That was quite a burden to carry into Beaver Stadium, and it's no wonder the players linked arms to hold themselves together as they walked onto this familiar stage on a golden autumn afternoon. They were greeted by cheers from a sellout crowd and passed between deep lines of former players who made it a point to return to campus for this particular senior day.

The generations hold hands within this program, and not just because of the continuity represented by Paterno, who was in his 46th year as head coach and his 62d season on the coaching staff. It is the fathers and sons and entire families who pass down their places in the stands like treasured heirlooms. It is fathers and sons who play for the team, and then find themselves graying and on the sidelines to greet the coming generation.

On the first play from scrimmage on Saturday, there was an homage to this lineage and a symbolic salute to Paterno. The offense ran a fullback dive into the line, the most elemental of all plays, one that reaches back to the beginnings of the game. It is a play that Paterno's best teams, all of which had stout running games, used almost as a signature.

This time, the ball was given to senior Joe Suhey, whose great-grandfather Bob Higgins played football at Penn State beginning in 1914 and who would eventually coach the team from 1930 to 1948, the second-longest tenure for a head coach in school history. Suhey's grandfather, father, two uncles, and a cousin also played for Penn State.

So, yes. On this final home game of this final season in Joe Paterno's career, in what figures to be the last game coached in Beaver Stadium by much if not all of the staff he assembled - at this moment in which the past is much more secure than the future - the first play was a fullback dive and Joe Suhey got the ball. It was his only carry of the day.

It was similar spectacle all afternoon, a time capsule in motion, and it was handled well for the most part. When the two teams met at midfield before the game for a group prayer led by Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown, it was a poignant moment in the hushed stadium. Assistant coach Jay Paterno wore his father's coat from a record-setting game in 2001, and that was touching.

For Penn State's football community, this day was meant to show both sorrow and resolve, and it was a success in every regard except the final score. Penn State came back from a 17-point deficit to trail, 17-14, but the Lions' last real drive ended when a fourth-down play came up excruciatingly short.

It has been a week of watching as the program was measured carefully, and not all of the failings were as easily defined as those measured against the 10 yards of chain stretched between two posts.

The sins of the few affected the good intentions of the many, and on Saturday, the whole football community - and it's a big one - took the opportunity to come together and say just that. "What happened here, that wasn't us," was their message. It was heard.

The fans and the players and the remaining coaches and administrators did and said the right things before the intense scrutiny of the world. The real test of integrity, of course, is doing the right things when no one is watching, and some of their leaders seem to have let them down badly in that regard.

"I felt today that maybe the healing process started to begin," new president Rodney Erickson said.

"This was a horrific thing and we all feel that way, but time heals all wounds," Jay Paterno said.

How long a process, and how much time, is the unknown. Even on a perfect autumn afternoon, in this pretty town in the country, before all these good people, it still felt as if there are many miles to stumble before the walking is ever normal again.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns recent columns at www.philly.com/bobford and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

 

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