Recognizing who stayed
What, then, is the best thing for O’Brien’s new family, his Nittany Lions, his new community? Since he was hired in January, weeks before Paterno died, he has tried to navigate those questions and more. During a springtime caravan around the northeast with other Penn State coaches, in which he was thrust into the role of featured speaker and main draw as boosters filled hotel function rooms to chant “We Are! Penn State!”, O’Brien was adjusting to what his new role means.
“I’m still struggling with why people want to take their picture with me,” he said during a stop in Baltimore.
The photos, for some fans, represented their own chance to move on from the scandal, which hasn’t fully released State College from its hold. This week, the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student newspaper, ran a story on how Sandusky’s charity, the Second Mile, will delay its plans to transfer its remaining assets to a Texas charity. A group of former Penn State faculty members lambasted Freeh’s report, saying it was based on “scant evidence.” Each day brings the possibility that someone, somewhere will prevent the community from turning its thoughts elsewhere.
In the midst of considering how to handle different aspects of all this, O’Brien consulted with his players. As the Nittany Lions prepared for Ohio, a potent mix of rap and heavy metal blasted from speakers at the program’s practice facility, rattling the cloud-dotted blue sky above the central Pennsylvania hills, spurring the players to bounce and clap through their stretching. Under Paterno, Penn State famously wore jerseys without individual names on the back. The message: No player would be more important than the team. But O’Brien considered the fates of these particular players at this particular time. They deserved, he thought, recognition.
“I felt it was important for the people out there to really know who these kids were that stuck with this program, that stuck with this university, that are going to help — not lead, just help — this community moving forward,” O’Brien said.
So Saturday, for the first time, the Nittany Lions will run onto the field at Beaver Stadium as one team, but with some individuality. When O’Brien announced in August that last names would be stitched onto the back of each jersey, junior safety Malcolm Willis called his mother, instantly excited.
“I feel like it’s an honor for me to represent my family name and also represent the Penn State football name and the university,” Willis said.
Hodges, one of the Nittany Lions’ best players, said when he pulls on his blue jersey with his name across the back, it will be “one of the greatest feelings, just to be able to represent my family.”
O’Brien, too, will represent his own family. There is no telling how long Jack will live, or what his life will be like if he does. That is the O’Briens’ reality. Regardless of the 100,000 voices with their 100,000 opinions, regardless of the outcome against Ohio or next week against Virginia or beyond, that will not change. His commitment to this job — “I hope we’re here for a long, long time,” he said — is unwavering. But it is different, separate, from his commitment to Colleen, to Jack, to Michael.
“It’s all intertwined,” O’Brien said. “It’s hard to deny that that’s a big part of your thought process, your life. There’s not a second of the day that you don’t think about your sons, Jack and what he’s going through, and Michael and your wife — whatever profession you’re in. It gives you great perspective on what’s important in life.”