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.