UNIVERSITY PARK — It took four overtime periods, but Penn State secured a homecoming victory Saturday that one fan called a “miracle.”
After the win, about 1,500 supporters gathered outside Beaver Stadium with a light in hand and fell silent in honor of the late former coach Joe Paterno.
“It was a miracle win. The top five games I saw in 20 years. It was awesome. It put the happy back in Happy Valley,” said 1995 Penn State graduate Frank Caputo.
Ten-year-old Evan Martin added that it was the best game he ever saw.
Those gathered in memory of Paterno made what they called a perfect ending to a perfect day.
Blue and white floral bouquets were arranged to form a “409” at the former site of Paterno’s statue near Gate F. Notes that accompanied the bouquets will be sent to Sue Paterno.
Vigil organizer Heather Wilson said that 147 bouquets were used to make the sign.
One note said, “still in our hearts.” Another said, “no one will ever take your memory. You are forever missed.”
A “white out” filled Beaver Stadium as the Nittany Lions handed the Wolverines their first loss of the season. .
But many fans said that while they think homecoming weekend showcased the essence of Penn State, Paterno made that spirit a reality.
“We are because he was,” Wilson said. “I know there was a lot of controversy, but he spent decades at Penn State and made us who we are. We owe it to him.”
The vigil was organized after a friend of Wilson’s mother’s had a dream that Penn State students and alumni circled the stadium with candlelight in his honor, Wilson said.
“We had to make that a reality. We had to capture the magic of it,” Wilson said.
Wilson said she and co-organizers Susan Deitterich and Pam Berg advertised the event on Facebook. Six hundred people confirmed their reservations online, but more showed up after the game.
“It’s sad that he passed in such an awful time, but we keep his memory alive,” said Nikole Jeffers, who’s been attending Penn State games since 1976. “It’s a way to remember him in a positive light and kind of the perfect ending to a great day.”
Former Penn State nuclear engineer professor Tony Barratta said he knew Paterno.
“I knew him as a fellow faculty. This is kind of my way of supporting him,” Barratta said. “I think he was wronged, but I’m here and we’re here to keep his memory alive.”
Wilson said she plans to make the vigil an annual event during homecoming weekend.
During the game, student section season ticket holder sophomore Alex Sullivan said that homecoming is a time for the Penn State family to unite.
“It’s a special feeling that we’re a part of Penn State and that we can be together,” he said.
With few Wolverine fans in the stand, Michigan supporter Michael Paris, of Ohio, said that being a part of the experience gave him goosebumps despite being the odd man out.
“I’ve never seen such a thing. This is my first time here,” Paris said. “The atmosphere here is great, and the Penn State fans are surprisingly nice.”
Paris said he was in town on a gas and oil project with Eclipse Resources, and took time to head to the game in a blue and maize Michigan jersey.
During the day leading up to the game, Boalsburg native Nancy Boal celebrated her 80th birthday with a surprise celebration with more than a dozen friends and family at the RV lot outside the stadium.
She was floored by the party, as her sister surprised her from Colorado, and other family flew in from California to celebrate her birthday and cheer on Penn State.
“It brought a tear to my eye,” Boal said. “It’s been the best birthday yet. I can’t think of a better way to spend it than with the people I love, cheering on a team I love and having my health.”
Boal, a longtime Nittany Lion fan, said she makes it to most home games and often travels with the team. She was in Indiana last week and is hoping to drive to Columbus, Ohio, for the Penn State-Ohio State game on Oct. 26.
Other fans also were celebrating the homecoming game.
On the east side of Beaver Stadium, Boalsburg resident Bill Barnes met friends for a tailgate. He goes to every home game and joins in a tailgate theme each week with his group.
At Saturday’s tailgate, they ate fried chicken, cornbread and other Southern grub. At the first home game against the University of Central Florida, the group had an Irish theme to honor both Bill O’Brien and UCF coach George O’Leary, who have Irish last names, Barnes said.
“The homecoming game is always the biggest,” he said. “The whole atmosphere is a really good time.”
Barnes, a 1992 Penn State grad, said that as a diehard Nittany Lion fan, he rarely misses a game and often travels to away games. He also plans to be in Columbus on Oct. 26 for the game against Ohio State.
“That’s going to be another big one,” Barnes said. “We’re just going to have to ‘Fight on, State.’ ”
Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @M11azzo.