Penn State football fans celebrate start of James Franklin era at Blue-White game

bmilazzo@centredaily.comApril 12, 2014 

— Bill Belton reached across the table and shook Garrett Van der Horne’s hand right before he signed the 6-year-old’s Penn State football jersey.

Garrett didn’t say anything, but his face lit up as he hid behind his mother, Rachel Dempsey.

“He’s not usually the shy guy, but this is a lot of fun for him,” Dempsey said.

Dozens of kids and their parents — and Nittany Lion fans in general — lined up outside waiting for Gates A and B to open for an autograph session Saturday morning before the kickoff to the Blue-White game.

The team took seats along the sideline of the field signing autographs. The offense took the west side of Beaver Stadium, while the defense was on the stadium’s east side.

Brady Lucas’ goal was to get the whole team to sign a team poster, but said if he didn’t reach his goal, getting signatures from Belton and quarterback Christian Hackenberg would be just fine.

“They’re two of my favorites,” Brady, 9, said.

His parents, Dave and Laura Lucas, of York, are both Penn State alumni, and Nittany Lion blood runs through his family’s veins.

“It’s nice for fans that the university allows the athletes to be so interactive with the public,” Laura Lucas said. “I know Brady’s down here now with this big grin on his face.”

Brady said it was “cool” to see the stadium for the first time from the eyes of the players.

And the athletes said it was a good way to connect to the public.

“It’s a great opportunity to be here and give back,” Hackenberg told the CDT. “We love our fans and I’m really happy with the outcome.”

The autograph session was last held in 2012 and had been held every year since at least the early 1990s, said Jeff Nelson, Penn State assistant athletic director of communications.

The signings were put on hiatus last year because then-coach Bill O’Brien wanted to treat the day of the Blue-White game more like a regular game day, Nelson said.

While the highlight for some was getting the chance to meet the players, other fans were simply basking in the ambiance of the tailgating atmosphere and hoping for an exciting scrimmage.

The Blue team defeated the White team, 37-0, in front of an estimated 72,000 — the third-largest crowd in game history, Nelson said.

When first-year coach James Franklin took the field, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. He then yelled to the crowd, “We are” and they chanted back, “Penn State.”

Fans said they were happy with Franklin’s leadership and the strengths of the team, but hopes it carries into next season.

“Hackenberg was on fire and what Franklin brings is positive energy for Penn State at a time that still has the scandal following us,” said student Alex Hagen. “I’m hoping he can be a good leader for the team and has the execution behind all his talk.”

Penn State alumni Steve and Susan Sampsell, of Virginia, are original members of a tailgating group formed in 2000 that calls itself the “Labor of Love” tailgaters.

Each home game, they set up near Berkey Creamery by 6 a.m.

“I live 3 miles away and people ask why I’m here so early, but it’s a way of life and tradition,” said another member, Deb Young. “I think it’s worth it for the seven or eight times a year we do it.”

The men are in charge of the grilling and menu for the day, while the women are in charge of cleanup, Susan Sampsell said.

“It’s a tradition that’s entering the second generation,” said Sampsell, who has two daughters at Penn State. “It’s fun to be together and each year we keep accumulating more people, but that’s the spirit of Penn State.”

The group is made of a couple of dozen people who are each in charge of a different tailgating responsibility. They keep track how even track have a sign-in sheet from an old hotel registry to see how many people and from what locations the group attracts, and sometimes hold donation drives for charities during the season.

“We welcome everyone,” Sampsell said — even fans of the opposing team.

And while they’re excited for the new era of football under Franklin, they still support the old regime. Steve Sampsell sported a blue-and-white “Billieve” shirt in honor of former coach Bill O’Brien, who took a job earlier this year with the Houston Texans.

“I just hope he takes to the Penn State way and lives up to what he says,” Young said about Franklin.

Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @M11azzo.

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