Saturday 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.
The current senior class arrived at Penn State a little more than three years ago. Over 75% of them hailed from Pennsylvania. Many were long-time Penn State fans – the sons and daughters of alums. They grew up watching games on TV and making pilgrimages to State College on Saturdays in the fall. They entered school excited to become a part of the proud football tradition. Two of the three years prior to their arrival, the Nittany Lions had won eleven games, and in 2010, Penn State welcomed one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
Of that scholarship class of 20, only five remained on the team for their fifth year to be honored at senior day on Saturday. The rest either transferred or quit the team.
Much can be said about the five Nittany Lions who stayed. The summer before their redshirt sophomore year, the NCAA announced its punishment for the Sandusky affair, which amounted to a wave of crippling sanctions, including a four-year bowl ban, a $60 million fine, and a large reduction in scholarships. In an instant, they went from being part of a promising class with national title aspirations to young leaders of a team in disarray.
They could have left. No one would have blamed them. They played no part in the Sandusky scandal, and yet, they were the ones being asked to pay the price. The coach who recruited them had died the previous fall after being unceremoniously ousted from his job. The four-year bowl ban meant they would likely never get a chance to play in the postseason, and the scholarship reductions imposed by the NCAA drastically reduced their chances of remaining competitive. But instead of searching for an easier path, the five fifth-year seniors still on the roster decided to stay. During their careers, they’ve played for four different head coaches. Against all odds, they’ve led their team to back-to-back winning seasons, and this year, they have the chance to play in a bowl game. They helped keep the program above water at a time when many were questioning whether it could survive.
But it’s easy to think of the players in isolation. While they certainly sacrificed a great deal in terms of their collegiate expectations, they did not do it alone.
On Saturday, the upper sections of Beaver Stadium sat empty. Huge swaths of the student section were filled with nothing but aluminum bleachers. The cold weather, the expectation of a resounding defeat, and the plethora of entertaining games on TV had convinced many people to stay home for Thanksgiving weekend. Even many of those who did make it to the game were easily induced to leave early. When Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford scored on a three-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter, hundreds of fans packed up and headed for the exits. After the Spartans turned a Penn State fumble into seven more points just three minutes later, thousands of other fans joined in the exodus.
One section remained. As loud as they were during the Senior Day pregame ceremonies, the senior student section did not let cold weather or a lackluster performance ruin their day.
They too were forced to pay the price for the sins of the university’s former leadership. The Sandusky scandal garnered national attention during the fall of their freshmen year. Within weeks, their peaceful new home was transformed into a feeding ground for the 24/7 news cycle. Throughout their first year, they had to hear reports from around the nation about how terrible Penn State was. They were stopped for interviews on their way to class and forced to defend a place they were just getting to know. Even the innocent act of celebrating their team at a football game became the subject of national criticism. After all, NCAA President Mark Emmert attacked not just the individuals directly tied to the Sandusky case, but the entire Penn State culture when he described the goal of the sanctions as “not to be just punitive, but to make sure that the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of education, nurturing, and protecting young people.”
Three years ago, the current seniors went to college like kids anywhere. While most did not go to Penn State because of the football team’s prowess, the prospect of fun-filled Saturdays in the fall was certainly a draw. When the Sandusky scandal broke, they weren’t offered the option of transferring penalty-free like the football players. Instead, they were given the challenge of standing by their university – of showing on a daily basis all the good that is done at Penn State.
Over the past three years, they have helped see the campus through its darkest hour. They were there for the candle-lit vigil when Joe Paterno died. They were there the next fall when Penn State won their first game of the Bill O’Brien era – a win that brought tears to the eyes of most of the stadium. They were there for the news cameras and press conferences, the courtroom hearings and the campus-wide rallies. But more important than any of the football moments were the little things – the things that in normal times would not be questioned. They were there for the classes, the exams, the internships. They were there to show that Penn State is a place worthy of celebration – not just on the football field, but also in the community.
The Penn State seniors did not have a normal college experience. The half-empty stadium during a game against a top-10 team was a reminder of that. But they may have gotten something more. They got the opportunity to think critically about what their university stood for and then rally behind that. They got the chance to fight back against those who cast Penn State aside. Together, football players and normal students alike, the current seniors got to come together to celebrate in their school.
As the game wore on Saturday night, the senior section got livelier and livelier. At each stoppage of play a different group from their class was announced for recognition – the cheerleaders, the mascot, a student who was awarded a Marshall Scholarship. Every time the announcement was made, the student section erupted. Their singing and dancing stood in stark contrast to the depressed crowd around them. They knew they were cheering for more than just the people on the jumbotron, they were cheering for each other. In forty years, they will probably have forgotten the outcome of this game, but they will always remember the bond that they formed together.
When the game ended, the two teams shook hands at midfield. As the Spartans headed towards the locker room, urged on by the handful of grateful fans who had made the trip, the Penn State players head for the student section. Following a tradition that began two years ago in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, the team joined the students in singing the alma mater. Arm in arm, the students who had endured so much swayed back and forth. When it came time for the line that drew so much controversy during their freshmen year, the seniors did not hold back in belting out: “May no act of ours bring shame, To one heart that loves thy name.”
By that time, the cameras had moved on – off to the Iron Bowl in Alabama or the Civil War in Oregon. Few, if any, of the reporters who once overran the campus remained to watch this final chapter for the class that has seen it all. But in that moment, I knew my trip had not been in vain. Penn State may be down – the empty bleachers and 6-6 record are impossible to ignore – but the Nittany Lion spirit remains. And for that, Penn State fans everywhere have this class of seniors to thank.
Be sure to check in next week as I travel to Ohio to watch Mount Union take on John Carroll in the Division 3 quarterfinals.