Penn State game vs. Nebraska is an emotional end to an emotional week

November 12, 2011

The fight song had been played, the alma mater sung, a moment of silence observed — any of them capable of producing goosebumps or tears on a day such as this. Penn State’s players had just burst out of their tunnel — not at their usual brisk run, led by their 84-year-old icon, but at a solemn stroll, arm-in-arm, captains in front. And now, minutes before the cathartic kickoff, the Nittany Lions were moving en masse toward the 50-yard line, joined by their Nebraska counterparts.

Eventually, the massive prayer circle at midfield would come to include both teams’ coaches, as well as the hundreds of Penn State ex-lettermen invited to stand on the team’s sideline as a show of unity. A stadium swollen with 107,903 fans and nearly 600 media members fell silent as the players kneeled and prayed.

The extraordinary gesture served as the emotional climax to a week unlike any other on this campus, or anywhere else in college athletics. A week after the news broke of a child sex-abuse scandal involving a former Penn State assistant coach, they played football again at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, and it somehow felt both comfortingly familiar and permanently altered.

The Nittany Lions fell, 17-14, to the visiting Cornhuskers — perhaps not surprisingly given the events of the last week — in a clash of Big Ten title contenders, but that was perhaps the least important detail on a day that stood out for other reasons. It was, perhaps most significantly for Penn State fans, the first game without Joe Paterno on the coaching staff since 1949, and the first without him as the head coach since 1965.

“Dad, I wish you were here,” Jay Paterno, the coach’s son and a Penn State assistant said into an ESPN camera after the game, overcome with emotion. “We love you. Thank you.”

Paterno was fired Wednesday by the university’s board of trustees, four days after Jerry Sandusky, his longtime defensive coordinator, was charged with molesting at least eight boys between 1994 and 2009. Two university administrators were charged in an alleged cover-up, and the university president, Graham Spanier, was dismissed by the board.

As Paterno, the winningest coach in NCAA history, presumably watched from his brick, ranch-style home just off campus, virtually all official vestiges of him were scrubbed from Beaver Stadium. Merchandise with his likeness was gone from the kiosks. His name was never mentioned over the public-address system, his likeness shown only fleetingly in highlight reels shown on the video board.

However, even as interim coach Tom Bradley, a loyal Paterno lieutenant, prowled the sideline as his replacement, it was abundantly clear that the man known lovingly as Joe Pa was on the minds of the blue-clad fans who packed the stands.

“Joe Pa — he taught us morals and everything else. This is a way of life. It’s not a place — it’s a family,” said Angela Finelli, wearing a T-shirt with Paterno’s likeness and messages such as “Thanks for the memories / 62 years of great service / We will never forget you, Joe Pa.”

At the end of a week of soul-searching and intense emotion, the Penn State family immersed itself in the comforting rituals of football, in hopes that the familiar symbols and traditions would bring a sense of normalcy at the end of a week that was anything but normal.

Clip-on Nittany Lions flags flew from the cars lined up bumper-to-bumper along Route 26 into Happy Valley. In the sprawling grass parking lots surrounding Beaver Stadium, tents were being erected, blue-and-white tablecloths were being stretched across fold-up tables and charcoal grills were being lit. At any one moment, in any direction, there was at least one football being tossed in the air.

In the Purple Lot, where the spaces are numbered individually, Rob Tribeck of Harrisburg, Pa., arrived at 6 a.m. with a group of about a dozen friends and family members, and began setting up their tailgate in spot No. 8515. Prominently displayed in the middle of the site was a life-size cut-out of Paterno.

“Joe has been traveling with us for years,” Tribeck said. “We felt bringing him today was necessary. . . . We all knew this day would come — but no one thought it would come today, and certainly no one every imagined it would come like this.”

In the hours before the game, the bronze statue of Paterno outside Gate F served as an emotional hub of sorts. Fans lined up in orderly fashion for a turn to stand beside “Joe Pa” for a picture.

On the stone wall behind the statue were two inscriptions: “Joseph Vincent Paterno / Educator / Coach / Humanitarian” on one side, and a Paterno quote on the other. “They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone,” it said. “I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.”

Among the visitors to the Paterno statue were more than a few Nebraska fans, such as Patrick and Kerri Kelly of Newman Grove, Neb., who had their picture taken next to Paterno’s likeness.

“As visiting fans,” Patrick Kelly said, “we just want to show the proper respect for someone who gave so much to this sport.”

All around, the machinery of big-time college football continued to grind and churn. Parking lots filled up, at $40 a pop for cars, $80 for RVs. Sweatshirts and hats flew off the shelves. The next generation of prospective Nittany Lions — a group of high school football recruits, conspicuous in their multicolored letterman’s jackets — soaked in the atmosphere outside the entrance.

Once the game began, things felt almost normal at Beaver Stadium — until the Nittany Lions fell behind 17-0 in the third quarter. They mounted a comeback and twice had the ball in the final moments, needing only a field goal to tie the score. But they turned the ball over on downs once, and finally the clock ran out on them.

The band played the fight song over and over as the players left the field through the tunnel, and a good half the crowd remained in its seats chanting “We are . . . Penn State!” until the last player was gone.

Said Bradley: “I felt today that just maybe the healing process began.”

The sun was getting low over the hills. The ex-players gathered in threes and four, grouped by era, under the goal posts to catch up. And over at Joe Paterno’s house on McKee Street, a crowd was already starting to form on the lawn.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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