It’s a nearly a straight shot from Penn State’s locker room to the metal gate that will open for the Nittany Lions as they step onto Beaver Stadium’s south end zone on Saturday.
Penn State players will emerge from their locker room for the 25-yard walk. The corridor will be dimly lit, the Pennsylvania limestone that lines the tunnel entrance will be cold to touch. The grandstands above their heads will rumble as they walk. They’ll take the field, take a slight right to their sideline and their entrance will be complete.
It’ll be the final time for 17 Penn State players.
A grand football entrance some of them dreamed of making when they were young kids, one that partially helped convince many of them to come here as recruits, an entrance that became a determining factor in keeping all of them here through the darkest period in program history.
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Senior safety Malcolm Willis figures it should be an emotional time.
“I don’t really think it’s hit us yet that it’s our last game at Beaver Stadium,” Willis said. “But I’m sure all of us will be really, really emotional come Saturday.”
They’ll all have plenty to look back on.
The departing class includes 12 seniors who have combined to take that walk 420 times. That’s not counting the times they’ve had to limp out or use crutches as all 17 combine for at least five serious knee injuries, multiple surgically repaired shoulders and other wounds. They’ve also combined to earn nine degrees early and plan to add the five additional ones to their resumes.
“We just have a bunch of guys who never quit, never give up,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “We’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs. Not only this season but in our football careers. I think that word is what’s going to be remembered from this senior class.”
No player on the current roster has played as much as Carson. He’s played in every game since he arrived on campus in January 2010, with 33 starts. Carson has been among the team’s top five tacklers each of the past three seasons. This year he’s leading the team with 75.
Carson said he feels like his time at Penn State has gone by quickly.
“It’s something that people have always told me throughout my entire career here, ‘Watch out, it’s going to go fast.’ And it really has,” Carson said. “It’s flown by and I can’t believe that this weekend’s going to be my last time walking out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel.”
He’ll be joined by Willis, guard John Urschel, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, receiver Brandon Felder, linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, center Ty Howle, tackle Adam Gress, fullback Pat Zerbe, punter Alex Butterworth and tight end Matt Lehman as true seniors making their final on-field appearances. Offensive tackle Garry Gilliam, defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz and linemen Kevin Blanchard and Bryan Davie also will not return and will be honored.
Like Carson, Willis, Urschel, Jones, Felder and Obeng-Agyapong have been heavy contributors over the last two seasons. Each has at least 15 starts with Willis, Urschel and Jones each having over 20.
They were all around for the last time Nebraska came to Beaver Stadium.
It was an emotional scene then with a pregame prayer shared between both teams starting the afternoon in a town just eight days removed from the Sandusky indictments. Joe Paterno had been fired and there was debate if the game should even be played.
“For so long I’ve been trying to block it out,” Carson said. “It was the only means of survival at one point. I’m sure one day I’ll look back and realize how crazy of a time it was for me. For now and until I’m done, it’s just something we went through and pushed through and we just always looked at football, always stayed on task.”
“Charlie-Mike: Continue the mission” is the saying they developed in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions that followed.
While the 2012 class remained committed, those who will walk out of the tunnel one final time on Saturday followed suit.
Originally from North Carolina, where he attended Bunn High School, Howle committed to Penn State before the 2009 season and didn’t put much thought into leaving two years later. Howle said once the option to transfer was offered, this is all he’d known.
“Honestly, we don’t ever really talk about it,” Howle said. “We don’t ever mention it. But I know going through it it’s shaped a lot of us and made us stronger. So we’re happy for the opportunity we’ve had here at Penn State.”
Zerbe was a local product who went through a serious knee injury during the tumultuous 2011 offseason. Despite the negativity swirling around the program, Zerbe couldn’t wait to return for 2012.
“I’ve grown up a Penn State fan my whole life and just having the opportunity to be a part of this team was great,” Zerbe said. “Having the opportunity this year to have a bigger role on special teams and in the offense has been more than I could ask for.”
All of Penn State’s current seniors continue to look at the 2012 season as sort of a rebirth. Urschel openly wondered if the highs of his senior season could ever top the emotional roller-coaster the 2012 season was. Last season’s group, which included Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Matt McGloin and Michael Zordich, among others, got their class added to the Beaver Stadium suites.
This group is still playing to finish the mission their predecessors started. They’re hoping they’ve done some inspiring along the way.
Carson’s spent his time here with linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden watching film of linebacker greats who came before him. He hopes his playing days will offer another player a few years down the line some tips on how the game should be played.
“He’s kind of shown us and demonstrated how guys have played throughout the year and how they played certain defenses, how they’ve tackled, how they’ve swarmed to the ball and how they’ve hustled,” Carson said. “And we just always try to emulate those guys before us and hopefully we can put on game tape, that people from the next generation will be able to watch us and learn from our games.”