A lot of words were spilled Saturday describing the pregame scene at Beaver Stadium in the place once known as Happy Valley. As the players from Penn State and Nebraska knelt together at midfield for a lengthy prayer, one word jumped to mind above all the others: surreal.
The whole scene, the whole day and the entire week were surreal.
After Nebraska had beaten Penn State, 17-14, Saturday afternoon in what once would have been described as an important football game, Tom Bradley, who will hold the title of interim football coach until Penn State’s nightmare season is finally over, said that he hoped the healing for all involved in the ongoing tragedy had begun.
To heal, one has to acknowledge that he or she is injured or sick. One has to seek help of some kind and then go through a rehabilitation process. No doubt some — perhaps many or even most — at Penn State are doing just that. But until all of those who lead the school and those who are part of the school understand that nothing was done to them, healing will be very difficult.
Joe Paterno is neither a victim nor a scapegoat — as some have suggested — in any of this. He was, and is, very much a part of it. Everyone knows the names and roles of the other major players in a tragedy that has been unfolding at least since 1998, in all likelihood since well before that.
There are those who argue that Paterno and assistant coach Mike McQueary are being treated as if they are somehow more villainous than Jerry Sandusky, the ex-Penn State assistant who is charged with crimes so monstrous that just reading the charges as described in the grand jury indictment is sickening.
Sandusky is the person who set all of this in motion, of that there is no doubt. If he is guilty, there is almost no penalty he can pay that fits his crimes. But there is also little doubting that for years he was enabled by a number of people at Penn State — Paterno clearly being the most important of them, even though he may not be legally liable.
Because Paterno was such an iconic figure, there will always be those who see him as some kind of victim in all this. But as the week went on there appeared to be more and more recognition of the fact that for some actions — or inactions — there are no excuses to be found, only apologies to be made.
The candlelight vigil on behalf of the victims on Friday night, held on the same spot where students had lost their minds on Wednesday night, was certainly a sign of progress. The way the players handled their entrance to the field on Saturday, no doubt at least in part as a tribute to Paterno, but also clearly with an understanding that there was no pretending that this was just another football Saturday, was moving and heartbreaking at the same time.
None of the players is guilty in any of this. Yet their lives were also turned upside-down in the last week. One can’t blame them for still feeling devotion to their coach. When someone you love makes a mistake — no matter how horrific it may be — you don’t stop loving him. Almost everyone who played for him at Penn State loved Joe Paterno.
If the players’ point Saturday had simply been to “win one for coach,” you can bet they would have come charging out of their tunnel, whipping the crowd into a frenzy as they charged to the sideline. Their slow walk, arms locked, most looking straight ahead, clear-eyed but clearly emotional, set the proper tone for a day that was going to be filled with sadness regardless of who won the game.
No one in that stadium could have felt more heartbroken than Jay Paterno, the quarterbacks coach and the last Paterno now standing at the school. On the day of what was no doubt his last home game as a coach at his alma mater, he did his job, he told people he loved his dad and he ducked no one.
It is going to be a long time — years and years — before a new norm can be established at Penn State. The old norm is gone. The notion that the empire Paterno built was the shining light in the foggy morass of big-time college football is gone, probably forever. How revered was Paterno among those with whom he competed? One longtime coach said this the day after he was fired: “Here’s the list of big-time coaches I would absolutely swear to you never cheated: Joe Paterno.”
Now, Paterno’s legacy will be that he never cheated but he lost his way in a crisis that went well beyond breaking any NCAA rules.
If only Paterno and those around him had recognized on Wednesday that he had to step down immediately.
Perhaps then the healing could have started that day. Instead, when the board of trustees did what it had to do that night, there was more pain and embarrassment when the students took to the streets. Now, there will be healing, but there is a good deal of pain still to come.