It’s a little after seven o’clock. The sun in upstate New York has long since set over the western hills, and a steady rain is slowly turning to snow as the temperature plummets towards freezing. The towns that are nestled around this spot are quiet – their residents have returned home to huddle around fires. No one’s going outside in this weather.

Yet here on an open field the size of a large Walmart, the mood is different. Four thousand young men and women dressed in army camo are standing around a football field. In the stands, a group of students are singing – or more accurately, chanting – Christmas carols, their enthusiasm more than compensating for their shaky efforts at holding a tune. A line is forming at a hot chocolate truck near the bleachers. The football field is lined with groups of students who are packed in so close to the field that whenever a player runs towards the sidelines there is a ripple effect in the crowd as people attempt to move out of the way. The game is an annual tradition here – a flag football grudge match between the upperclassmen and the underclassmen.

I’m at West Point – the home of the United States Military Academy. The camo-clad young adults in front of me make up the corps of cadets, the future officers of the US Army. On sunny days, the site of their football game is one of the most beautiful spots in the country. To the west, tree-covered hills envelop the school, offering a cozy background for the stone-gray barracks, library, and chapel. To the east, the land slopes down to the Hudson River at a spot where the river curves its way past a series of high bluffs. George Washington realized the strategic importance of this particular plot of land early in the Revolutionary War, establishing a fort here and stringing an iron chain across the river, which successfully prevented British ships from transporting troops along the waterway.

Despite the fact that many of the cadets are only six months away from possible deployment, war now feels a long ways off. The camo is not in response to some foreign invader, it’s preparation for a more immediate foe: the Navy. “The cadets wear their combat gear all week because they’re ‘going to war’ against Navy,” a tour guide told me. With finals only a week away, this celebration is a respite from the library – a rare opportunity to let loose before returning to the strictness of military life.

On Saturday, the Army and Navy football teams will meet for the 115th time. For Army, the game is a chance at revenge after falling to their rival each of the previous twelve meetings. The recent history and the fact that the Black Knights are a double-digit underdog in the game have only intensified anticipation for the game. Rumors are floating around that the Army Superintendent – the school’s equivalent to a college president – will cancel finals if Army wins. “We’ve never seen an Army win against Navy, but we’ve heard stories about how drastically life changes if we win. You get more free time, there’s more access to parking, officers are less strict on some of the rules,” one cadet told me.

Signs of the rivalry are everywhere. On the roof of the field house, the shingles spell out “Sink Navy.” An archway over one of the central paths on campus is named the “Beat Navy Tunnel.” “Beat Navy” is plastered on posters and flags, weights and milk cartons. “It’s not just football,” a West Point alum explained to me. “We want to beat Navy in everything – soccer, boxing, basketball. I don’t know if we have a chess team, but if we do, we’d want to beat Navy in that too.”

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Rain slaps against my face, and I claw at the hood of my jacket, struggling to pull it lower over my exposed forehead. The pothole-ridden sidewalk is filled with pools of water, and I leap from ridge to ridge in an attempt to avoid completely drenching my already-wet sneakers. There’s no one else walking these streets, and those in the cars that speed by are probably too empathetic to laugh at my dance-like movements. December has arrived, and with it, the Midwest has turned a dreary grey.

As I move further from campus, the collection of fast-food joints and big box stores gives way to the remnants of a once-vibrant city center. Large homes line the street, but their exteriors are dilapidated and their lawns are unkempt, suggesting that much has changed since their construction. Long blades of grass are fighting their way through cracks in several of the driveways. It’s been years since families called these buildings home.

I crest a small hill and dart across the road onto Main Street. Multi-story buildings line each side of the street. Squint hard enough, and I can imagine a bustling downtown complete with movie theatres, department stores, and happening bars. But that was years ago. Now the dark buildings seem to blend into the grey sky around them. I slow to a walk as I head up the street.

A few restaurants and a delightful-looking cheesecake shop stand in contrast to the decay around me. Most of the buildings are at least partially vacant. The painted store-signs tell visitors more about what used to be there than any current enterprises. It must have been at least two decades since “SEARS” actually occupied the place that still bears the company’s name. The majority of the stores are antique shops, selling tangible reminders of the city’s once-prosperous past. To the north, I can see the outline of industrial buildings – a mill or factory maybe. Places that at one time employed thousands. On an overpass at the far end of the street, near the point where the road dead ends into a railroad station that transported hundreds of soldiers a day during the World War II years, a banner of Martin Luther King Jr. from the March on Washington proclaims: “I have a dream.” Life here may have changed when the last mill left town, but it did not stop.

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IMG_3171Saturday was a big day in college football. In Mississippi, Ole Miss knocked off fourth-ranked Mississippi State. In Ohio, Florida, and Oregon, a trio of playoff contenders held off upset bids from archrivals to remain in the national championship race. And in Alabama, the Iron Bowl lived up to its billing as Auburn gave the mighty Crimson Tide all it could handle before fading late.

In the midst of the excitement, Penn State hosted tenth-ranked Michigan State in a game that served as little more than an afterthought for most outside observers. Michigan State entered as a double-digit favorite, but, with two losses, the Spartans were essentially eliminated from playoff contention and had no shot at winning the Big Ten title. Penn State entered as a team in turmoil. Their promising 4-0 September had given way to a 2-5 record since, including a loss the previous week to lowly Illinois. The Nittany Lions had clinched a bowl berth, their first in three seasons due to NCAA restrictions, but to most Penn State supporters, the season was a disappointment, and Saturday’s game would do little to change that.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Happy Valley. In my mind Penn State was a series of stereotypical images I’d seen on TV of a proud program marred in controversy: 106,000 diehard fans at the annual white out game juxtaposed with shots of press conferences and courtroom proceedings. To me, Penn State was the no-nonsense, working-man’s program of my childhood – the team that still played on a grass field and wore jerseys with no names on the back. But Penn State was also the newscast portrayal of a troubled program whose leaders had turned a blind eye to child sex abuse committed by one of its own. Penn State was the cover-up and the drama around the investigation – an investigation that eventually sent the offender, Jerry Sandusky, to prison and resulted in the termination of the school’s President, Athletic Director, and legendary coach, Joe Paterno.

Now, two and a half years removed from the Sandusky trial, the news trucks have moved on, and, to a large extent, so have the college football analysts. The announcement of the reduction in Penn State’s sanctions earlier this season barely made headlines outside of Pennsylvania. If I wanted to see the new epicenters for college football, I’d be better off elsewhere. But driving into State College on Saturday morning, I was excited to witness a bit of the real Penn State – to get a glimpse of something beyond the 30-second sound bites and TV broadcasts. Despite the team’s poor record and the likelihood of defeat to the Spartans, Saturday’s Senior Day offered the perfect setting for my exploration. For on Saturday, the final class of students and players who were on campus before the Sandusky trial bid a final farewell to their Penn State football experience.

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