On Sept. 9, more than four dozen members of arguably Penn State’s greatest team gathered at Beaver Stadium to relive history. Former quarterback Todd Blackledge came down from the announcing booth to chat with old teammates. Some wore their old blue and white jerseys. Others simply sported “1982 National Champions” hats.
During a break in the action — a timeout from the Nittany Lions beating up on Pitt — each player was recognized individually over the speakers for helping achieve glory 35 years ago.
Yes, it’s been 35 years since Penn State won its first-ever national championship. Thirty-five years since the Nittany Lions beat five ranked opponents, including No. 1 Georgia, en route to a celebration in New Orleans.
Even though that season — and that night at the Sugar Bowl — happened 35 years in the past, it’s all still fresh in the Nittany Lions’ memories.
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“The whole four years I was there, the objective was to win a national championship,” running back Curt Warner said. “That’s something we set out to do Day 1.”
This is the story of Penn State’s 1982 title charge.
The year before was somewhat of a missed opportunity for Penn State. The Nittany Lions went 10-2 in 1981 and still finished an impressive No. 3 in the polls. But six weeks into that season, Penn State was No. 1 and fell at Miami and later to Alabama. A memorable 48-14 win over No. 1 Pittsburgh and blowout of No. 8 Southern California in the Fiesta Bowl was a positive finish — but the Nittany Lions felt they were on the cusp of something greater.
Todd Blackledge, quarterback: “We finished that year on the right kind of note, knowing that we were a top-5 type program. ...We were very motivated and very driven in the offseason, in the summer. Back then, it was not common for guys to stay there in the summer and go to summer school. You did that if you had to catch up academically, but no one stayed there just to work out like they do now. We had a lot of guys to make the decision to stay up there and go to summer school so they could work out and get ready for that ’82 season.”
Gregg Garrity, wide receiver: “You look at the chemistry as a whole on that team, everyone did enjoy everyone else. We were real tight, almost like a family. If we saw someone was going to get in trouble or something else was going on, we’d get him out. We took care of each other. Maybe because we knew we had something special. But in the end, I think it’s because we really cared for each other.”
Harry Hamilton, “hero”: “Remember, there was some success in the 70s. ... There was a confidence that wasn’t an arrogance, if you will, but an expectation of high performance, of quality performance. Because of that, when we took the field, there was almost an expectation that we were going to prevail, that we were going to win. The teams that we would face needed to not so much fear, but definitely respect — ultimately respect — that air of confidence and expectation that we would dominate the contest.”
Mark Robinson, safety: “We were a little disappointed the year before. But this year was our year. ...We kind of felt like this was our shot.”
Those positive vibes were translating to the field. Penn State, which started the season ranked No. 8 nationally, beat Temple soundly in the opener. The Nittany Lions handled Boomer Esiason and Maryland 39-31 in Week 2 and blew out Rutgers 49-14 the following Saturday. The No. 5 Nittany Lions made it 4-0 against No. 2 Nebraska, winning a 27-24 thriller in Beaver Stadium’s first night game.
The next opponent, though, was Alabama — Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Alabama. Joe Paterno was winless against Bryant. The Nittany Lions lost in the Sugar Bowl in 1975 and 1979; a win in the latter would’ve secured Paterno’s first-ever national title. In 1982, with No. 3 Penn State traveling to No. 4 Alabama, the Crimson Tide were kryptonite again. The Nittany Lions fell 42-21, causing a look-in-the-mirror moment for Penn State.
Bill Contz, offensive tackle: “Minutes after the game, we’re in the locker room and Joel Coles — a fifth-year senior — gets up on his stool in full dress and proceeds to deliver one of the most impassioned and emphatic speeches to his teammates I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms. Joel reminded us that we didn’t play well, but the season’s not over. We’re going back to State College. We’re going back to work. We still have a lot of opportunities. We knew what was ahead of us. We had ranked teams on the schedule. If it worked in our favor, we could get back in this thing.”
Mark Robinson, safety: “You know, Coles-y was an emotional guy. I looked up to him. He was a big-brother figure. He and those guys, when we came in, they took us under their wing. They helped keep our heads level. ... But Coles came in screaming and yelling and because of him being that big-brother figure, I was sitting in the back thinking, ‘He’s right. He’s exactly right.’”
Jon Williams, running back: “It was incredible. The speech was not that we sucked. The speech was, we’ve got to move forward. We’re better than this. We can’t put ourselves in this bubble of, woe is me, we lost to Alabama. It’s over and done with. ... It was an incredible speech. Incredible. Incredible.”
Greg Gattuso, defensive tackle: “We had to rally from that, and we did.”
Coles’ speech resonated. The Nittany Lions — who fell from No. 3 to 8 after the Alabama loss — began their climb back to the top. Penn State returned home and dealt with Syracuse in a 28-7 win. The Nittany Lions shut out No. 13 West Virginia 24-0 in Morgantown, blew out Doug Flutie’s Boston College 52-17, demolished NC State 54-0 and went on the road to South Bend where they outmuscled the Irish 24-14. Penn State was back up to No. 2 in the polls, just in time for No. 5 Pitt to come to town for the regular-season finale.
Harry Hamilton, “hero”: “I think we always had some doubt. Like, Alabama, how did that happen? There’s always doubt that can creep in. But to a person, to a man, to an athlete, maybe even to a coach — can’t speak for that end of things — that doubt was overcome by what we felt we were capable of. It was almost destiny at that time. We had come there to do that, to do a job and be successful. I don’t want to make it seem like we knew we were going to be national champions. But something had been established.”
Greg Gattuso, defensive tackle: “We were desperate to get a win there. We thought if we won there, we’d go. The year before, we knocked them out of the national title game, and I’m pretty sure they came to try to knock us out of the national title game.”
Bill Contz, offensive tackle: “It was for all the marbles. We lose this game, and the chance at the national title goes up in smoke.”
Penn State trailed 7-3 at halftime having committed three turnovers. It was a frustrating start. But the Nittany Lions didn’t quiver in the face of pressure. Midway through the third quarter, Blackledge connected with Kenny Jackson for a 31-yard touchdown — a score that lives in Penn State lore.
Todd Blackledge, quarterback: “It was very, very windy. Cold as you would expect. But very windy. The wind really affected the kicking game for both teams. It affected the ability to throw the ball. The one thing that happened was, almost all the points were scored when the team was going with the wind. The last time Pitt had the ball before we hit the touchdown to Kenny, I’m pretty sure they had a punt, and the punt hit the wind and didn’t go very far at all. We took over in good field position. Then we hit the touchdown to Kenny and put the game where we wanted it.”
The score was 10-7 — and thanks to three more field goals by Nick Gancitano, the Nittany Lions held on to win 19-10. As a result, Penn State did it: The players rallied from that humbling loss in Birmingham and neared a national title berth. All they had to do was determine what bowl they wanted in a team meeting.
Mark Robinson, safety: “Joe came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re No. 2 in the country. Georgia is No. 1. We can play in any bowl we want to. We’re independent.’ He’s running down the list of bowls. ‘But if we play in the Sugar Bowl, we’ll play Georgia for the national championship.’ And everyone’s like, ‘Yeah! Yeah! National championship!’”
Four years removed from falling in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, the Nittany Lions were heading back to New Orleans, preparing for another shot at the national title. The matchup was No. 1 Georgia (11-0) against No. 2 Penn State (10-1). It was the biggest game any of the Nittany Lions ever played in.
Mark Robinson, safety: “The weight of the world was on our shoulders. It was all of us. But Joe used to say, ‘Take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.’ Every day at practice, remember, ‘Take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.’ He kept our minds focused on blocking, tackling, catching, our preparation trying to get ready for the game.”
Harry Hamilton, “hero”: “I can remember some of the film sessions leading up to it. It wasn’t carefree, but it was, ‘Everybody do their job, and we will come out on top.’ That’s the way it was. As we reviewed film, as we practiced, it was a team of destiny is what I believe. We were destined to prevail. We just believed.”
Mark Robinson, safety: “I remember when we were in the meeting room and Joe said, ‘You know, we’re going to play Herschel Walker. Pretty good back. Heisman Trophy winner. You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to bounce him outside.’ He stopped in the middle of the meeting room and said, ‘Robbie, I want you to come clean him up.’ I just remember my heart beating and I went back to 219 Shunk Hall and was doing one-handed pushups saying, ‘I’m gonna kill Herschel Walker. I’m gonna kill Herschel Walker.’ He empowered me. I just thought, we’re not going to be denied. We’re gonna beat them.”
Even with the extra pushups, Walker had a fine performance in the Sugar Bowl (28 carries, 103 yards, touchdown). Warner outplayed him with 117 yards and two scores, but Walker’s touchdown came when Georgia needed it most. He scored from one yard out on Georgia’s first series of the second half. The Bulldogs cut Penn State’s halftime lead to 20-17. It was a tight affair. That is, until early in the fourth quarter — until “The Catch.”
Gregg Garrity, wide receiver: “We ran that play several times during the year. You have Curt and McCloskey going down the seams, and Kenny and I on each end going down the sidelines. Just the four of us were doing nine routes. I was open during the year a few times, but so was someone else or whatever so I never really got the chance to get one of those during the year.”
Todd Blackledge, quarterback: “Going into that play, we ran the ball six consecutive times. That play was a play-action pass out of the I-formation on a run down situation. They had to respect the run. Gregg was a sneaky fast guy. He was super quick, but he was faster than people gave him credit for. He was guarded by a freshman cornerback. They had a veteran safety in Terry Hoage, but the play-fake and the fact that we had success running it, he respected the play fake, wasn’t able to help over the top, and Gregg ran right by the freshman. I just cut it loose. I thought at first maybe I threw it too far.”
Gregg Garrity, wide receiver: “It seemed like it took forever to get there, but the only thing going through my head is just, ‘Catch it.’ Don’t worry about anything but catching it. Don’t drop it. Worst-case scenario, we have it down inside the 5 and we’ll probably score after that. Just catch the ball.”
Todd Blackledge, quarterback: “Gregg ran under it, extended and made a great catch in the end zone. He’s a sure-handed guy, and I knew that was the play we needed.”
Gregg Garrity, wide receiver: “The place was going nuts.”
Todd Blackledge, quarterback: “It’s one of the most memorable plays of my career.”
The 47-yard connection from Blackledge to Garrity put the Nittany Lions ahead 27-17 in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t over at that point — Georgia found the end zone with six minutes to go — but that gave Penn State its necessary cushion. It was the final touchdown pass of Blackledge’s Penn State career, the one that helped secure the program’s first-ever national title. As time wound down, the realization of what had happened set in.
Bill Contz, offensive tackle: “As the seconds roll off the clock and you’re shaking the Georgia players’ hands, you realize, at least for me, that my Penn State career had ended. And it couldn’t have ended any better. Such a high note. You release the elation. All the hard work you put in. We played our way back into it and beat Georgia. Walking off the field with six seconds left is when you realize the focus isn’t on the game anymore. It’s the atmosphere.”
Jon Williams, running back: “It was so surreal. You were looking at your teammates going, ‘We’re No. 1? We’re national champions? We’re really No. 1?’”
Mark Robinson, safety: “I came off that field totally physically and emotionally drained. ... I remember being so tired and sitting in my locker. I was maybe 10 feet from Coach Paterno, and all the media microphones were stuck in his face. ‘Coach, how did you do this?’ ‘How’d you get your team here?’ All these questions were shooting at him, and he just stopped and said, ‘Stop it. Stop it. It’s not about me. You should be interviewing those players out there!’ He starts yelling at the top of his lungs. I was so tired I couldn’t pick my head up in my locker. I was just sitting down thinking, ‘Man, now I’ve got to talk to those guys. I didn’t want to talk to them.’ [laughs] I just wanted to embrace what just happened. That was Joe in one of his finest moments. I’ll never forget that.”
Jon Williams, running back: “Coach Paterno was preparing to go live on TV and he’s got Blackledge and Warner on either side. I’m back there going, ‘Light the cigars! Let’s light the cigars!’ And Joe’s going, ‘No, you can’t light the cigars! We’re going to be on national TV!’”
The celebrations continued around their locker room — and they didn’t stop that night. The next day, after the team flew back from New Orleans to Harrisburg, their Greyhound buses went on a mini tour en route to Happy Valley.
Greg Gattuso, defensive tackle: “I can’t even, it’s really hard to put into words. I’m not sure there was a big break between the small towns. It felt like the whole drive back to Penn State was lined with people. They pulled us in and took us into a stadium in Harrisburg. I don’t even know where we were. That was packed. The seniors spoke. Everyone cheered. The drive back up, all these little towns, their volunteer fire department or police cars had their lights on and escorting us through town.”
Bill Contz, offensive tackle: “People were lined up 322. ... People are waving their foam fingers and it’s 10 degrees. Are these people nuts? You watch all this as you’re going by and you’re in awe. It really dawned on me what Penn State football means to so many people.”
Mark Robinson, safety: “Until you get to a big game like that, you have no understanding of how people are going to respond. I was coming back like, ‘Oh yeah, we won the national title. That’s cool. But does everyone else feel as good as I do inside?’ We pulled up, and the pride and people out there yelling, ‘We Are Penn State.’ Rows and rows of people. I was shocked.”
Greg Gattuso, defenisve tackle: “To get back to the locker room, they were literally hanging on the buildings, sitting on top of the building. It was surreal. I just never expected anything like that. And the worst part, little side story, Dave Opfar — the other starting defensive tackle — went went into the Sugar Bowl tied in tackles for the season. We had a bet in the beginning of the year, whoever had the most tackles won a case of beer from their opponent. I out-tackled him in the game, and he gave me a case of beer. But when I got off the bus, by time I got to the locker room, three-quarters of the case was gone. People were taking beers out of the top of my case. I ended up with a six-pack.”
But it was a cherished six-pack, one beer for each ranked team the Nittany Lions played along the way. To many, Penn State’s 1982 slate is considered the hardest conquered by a national champion. To the players who went through the gauntlet — from 7-on-7 drills in the summer to defeating No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Nebraska, No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 13 Notre Dame and No. 13 West Virginia while rebounding at No. 4 Alabama — they believe they have a case as one of the greatest teams of all-time.
Gregg Garrity, wide recever: “I don’t think we get the credit that we deserve. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh the team with (Ki-Jana) Carter and (Kerry) Collins was great.’ Yeah, they were good. But I don’t think their defense was all that great. It’s impossible, well, which team is better? It might’ve been the ’86 team because they also won a national championship. Which team’s the best? I don’t know.”
Jon Williams, running back: “I would say we were better than the ’86 team.”
Gregg Garrity, wide receiver: “We have a very good case for us being one of the greatest teams not only from Penn State, but in NCAA history. We’ll never know. But what I do know is that we were the first ones. That’s something no one can dispute and no one can take away.”