STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The low sun hid behind a lower ceiling of gray clouds late Tuesday afternoon here as Michael Mauti — helmet on his head, pads over his shoulders and thighs — watched a trainer tape his hands, preparing for another practice in a career of practices. Nearly five years ago, he came here the son of one former Penn State player and the brother of another. He has since performed the duties and suffered the indignities of a linebacker. He has endured surgeries on both knees. And he is hardened.
The taped hands, the padded practices, the low clouds and the cold wind — that’s what he signed up for. Everything else? No. A thousand times, no.
“I came in here as a boy and I’m leaving here as a man,” Mauti said earlier this week, hat on backward as he sat on a couch at the Lasch Football Building. “This is as real as it gets as far as adversity goes in your life, and I think this is a great test. It was a great test.”
What this football season means to Penn State as a whole is impossible to say, because it is still ongoing, with Saturday’s game against Indiana and one other remaining. This is a campus with 39,192 undergraduate students, 5,487 graduate students, 14,101 full- and part-time staff members and 560,658 living alumni. How this football season — the first without its late, legendary coach, the first after the revelation of heinous crimes of a former assistant, and the first played under severe sanctions placed on the program in the aftermath — fits into the greater community is a matter of personal opinions that may differ among the 619,438 characters listed above.
But there is no denying the season has had an impact across the campus, across a wide swath of people who consider themselves “Penn Staters.” What each takes out of it has been, and is, up to the individual.
“None of us signed up for this,” Mauti said.
On the morning of Nov. 6, 2011, Laura March and Stuart Shapiro sat on the striped couch in their apartment about five blocks from campus, and they started to digest the Sunday newspapers. Two days earlier, Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator under Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno, had been charged with 40 counts of sex crimes against boys.
March, a State College native who went to Penn State as an undergrad and was back for graduate work, knew what Sandusky, what Paterno, what the football program meant to the school, the town, the state. Shapiro, pursuing his MBA, was only then getting indoctrinated in the culture of Penn State.
“We were just getting more and more anxious about what happened,” Shapiro said.
“And I remember, because these people were our leaders, feeling so disappointed,” March said, “and like somebody needed to do something.”
March, an arts student, thought about the pink ribbons worn by NFL teams to promote awareness of breast cancer research. She wondered what color symbolized child-abuse prevention. A Google search revealed the answer: blue, eerily similar to Penn State’s blue. The couple was off.
“We’re pretty over-ambitious, no matter what,” Shapiro said.
March began posting ideas to raise awareness to her Facebook page. Monday morning, she bought a spool of blue ribbon to bring to a friend’s house that night. She wanted to make ribbons for distribution across campus. “I didn’t want to pressure them,” she said. But then she checked her Facebook page again. Her thoughts had taken hold. She contacted the athletic department, which had been scheduled to hold a “White Out” for that week’s game against Nebraska in which the entire crowd would be encouraged to wear white.
By midweek, department officials reached back out to her. The “White Out” would be off. March, Shapiro and their friends and supporters were welcome to take over and stage a “Blue Out.”
Tuesday night, March dashed together a logo. By Friday, they distributed thousands of hand-tied ribbons at a candlelight vigil to honor the victims. And by Saturday, when Beaver Stadium filled with blue, they had raised nearly $50,000.
This football season, with more time to breathe and prepare, they held a second Blue Out. They raised nearly $80,000.
March and Shapiro are both 27. They plan to graduate and leave State College in the spring. But they have partnered with a student group that will carry on the Blue Out going forward. They have changed forever.
“It epitomizes what somebody who believes in social justice, believes in critical engagement and civic engagement, can do,” March said.
On the night of Nov. 9, 2011, university trustee John Surma stood with the board at his back and the press to his front. He said the board had removed president Graham Spanier from his post. Then, he made the announcement that took the breath out of the community: “Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach, effective immediately.”
Anthony Lubrano, Penn State ’82, watched in horror. The board members looked expressionless, disengaged.
“Like so many Penn Staters, I was angry,” he said, “and I didn’t know what to do next.”
Lubrano had long been a donor to Penn State’s athletic department, and, indeed, the baseball park in the shadow of Beaver Stadium is named for him. But he had never been involved in university governance. He began conversations with Franco Harris, the former Penn State running back and Pro Football Hall of Famer. By January, the pair decided Lubrano should run for one of the nine seats on the board of trustees elected by alumni.
“I ran because of the events of Nov. 9,” he said.
Lubrano produced a campaign Web site and bought television spots in two central Pennsylvania markets, an unprecedented move. And in a video, he clearly outlined his pro-Paterno stance. Even after the coach died in January, Lubrano vowed to use his tenure on the board to clear his name.
“First, this was not a Penn State scandal,” Lubrano said in the video. “Second, this was not a Penn State football scandal. And third, this was certainly not a Joe Paterno scandal. To imply or suggest that Joe Paterno would jeopardize the well-being of a child to protect a football program tells us,” and here, he spaced out his words, “You. Did. Not. Know. This. Man.”
Lubrano, with Harris’s endorsement and a letter of recommendation from Paterno’s widow, won a seat on the board. Since, he has publicly and vocally railed against what he sees as injustices in and inaccuracies surrounding the entire affair. Perhaps most contentious is the board-sanctioned report by former FBI director Louis B. Freeh, which asserted that the school’s leadership, including Paterno, deferred to a “culture of reverence for the football program” and repeatedly “concealed Sandusky’s activities” from authorities.
“His conclusions were hellacious,” Lubrano said this week. He called Freeh’s investigation “a witch hunt.” He sat for an interview — as did Harris and others — for an online documentary called “The Framing of Joe Paterno.” His blood all but boils when he hears Penn Staters say things like, “We have to move forward.”
“Talk to any psychologist,” Lubrano said. “They all say the same thing: In order to heal, you have to identify what was causing the pain. It’s clear to me: The pain was caused by the manner in which this was handled, the way Joe Paterno was treated. Until we address that, we’re never going to heal.”
John Cheslock grew up as the son of a football coach in Akron, where people held deep loyalties to Ohio State’s football program. He is also a Penn State professor, married to a Penn State grad whose parents met as Penn State undergrads. So he has, as he said, “a close personal tie to the institution.”
Some of Cheslock’s work has focused on intercollegiate athletics. This fall, he attended a pair of Nittany Lions games. He cannot go just as a fan, because he is an academic, too, and the two cannot be fully separated.
As a faculty member at the Center for the Study of Higher Education, as he had discussed the Sandusky case and Paterno’s ouster and the sanctions with colleagues, Cheslock decided the university’s larger problems were to be solved by the administration and others. He and his wife held difficult conversations with their two young children about child abuse. But his work at the university, and the work of others, moved forward unfettered.
Yet at the early October homecoming game against Northwestern, with 95,679 fans in the stands, it was hard to ignore the focus — the unrelenting focus — on Penn State through the football program. It is territory with which Cheslock is intimately and academically familiar. Yet the scene was striking.
“Everyone knows the world’s sort of watching,” Cheslock said. “So you wonder: How can you simultaneously sort of have a little bit of that emotional release, but you don’t want the world to be interpreting that as, ‘Oh, this is just business as normal’? It makes it a little complicated. How do you simultaneously express that release, but also honor the victims?”
Such themes have come up in Cheslock’s classes. Last spring, a course he teaches on organizational theory in higher education drew a broad representation of students, some who grew up in and around State College and others from far afield. Discussions arose on how the case fit into Penn State’s athletic department, Penn State’s campus, Penn State’s culture.
“Those conversations, those are moments in the class that will stick with people 20 years later,” Cheslock said. “I think the intensity of dealing with everything that transpired has created that emotional spark that, a lot of times, allows learning to take place.”
Part of the evolution of Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal — whatever that is, whatever it will be — happened the night of Jan. 7, 2012, when Bill O’Brien was named as Paterno’s replacement, the Nittany Lions’ first new football coach in 46 seasons. That night, O’Brien met his team for the first time. Afterward, a senior linebacker came forward to introduce himself. And at that moment, Michael Mauti told the new coach about how the weight room needed to be overhauled. He wondered about the offseason lifting program.
“Who was that kid?” O’Brien asked someone on the way out.
Over the summer, after the NCAA used the Freeh report to ban the Nittany Lions from bowl games for four years and limit their scholarships from 2013 to ’17 — among other crippling sanctions — O’Brien found out. Twenty-two Nittany Lions will exhaust their college eligibility after the Nov. 24 game against Wisconsin. On the morning of July 23, that group of seniors watched NCAA President Mark Emmert announce the penalties against Penn State. Some players threw things against the wall. Nearly all voiced their frustration.
And then they held the program together.
“You look around the squad room, and you’re saying, ‘Well, if he leaves, then he’s going to leave, and it’s going to be a chain reaction,’ ” Mauti said. “So our goal was to eliminate the first domino. We literally had to create a strategy for keeping our team together. We had to recruit our own friends.”
Recruit them, for what? Any of them could have left Penn State with no penalty because the NCAA waived the normal rule that requires transfers to sit out a year before playing again. Coaches from rival schools flooded the players’ phones. Some even arrived in State College and showed up outside players’ dorms. In that should-I-stay-or-should-I-go mayhem, Mauti made phone calls, sent texts and made personal pleas to get players to stay.
In the end, just nine left. Mauti now faces the final two games of his college career not knowing the future, either for himself or the program. But asked if staying, and encouraging others to do so, was worth it, he is steadfast: “Absolutely.”
“We knew it was much bigger than us, ever since last year,” Mauti said. “We knew that we were playing for more than ourselves and our team. It was for our university and our community.”
Tuesday, as afternoon turned to evening, Mauti and his teammates practiced at the center of that community, albeit in isolation. The lights above the practice fields behind the Lasch building glowed bright, yet only coaches and staff saw the work. There, with the outline of the hills in the distance fading into the blackness, the temperature dipped below freezing, the wind picked up, and a coach yelled, “Mauti, you’re back in!”
Michael Mauti ran from the sideline, strapped his helmet back on, and took his spot at linebacker. When the ball was snapped, he burst to fill a hole and laid his shoulder into a teammate, the latest bit of work in a career filled with it.
What the 2012 Penn State football season means is open to individual interpretation. When Michael Mauti considered the question that day, he took a moment to look around the squad room in which he had tried to keep his team together. Then he put his right palm on his chest and said, “Respect.”