STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A clear, sunny afternoon brightened the somber mood at Beaver Stadium as Penn State played Nebraska in the last home game of the season — and the first in 46 years without legendary head football coach Joe Paterno on the field.
While mixed feelings prevailed about the circumstances that led to Paterno's absence, one sentiment was universal: Justice for the alleged victims of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is more important than the university's football program or its reputation.
"Penn State is about more than football, Joe Paterno and this scandal," said Cliff Plank, who graduated from the school's architecture program in 2010.
While hardly any of Beaver Stadium's 107,000 seats sat empty, the week-old scandal that resulted in the dismissal of Paterno and president Graham Spanier hung over the game. Penn State students wore blue shirts to call attention to child sexual abuse.
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Sandusky has been charged with sexually abusing at least eight boys over a 15-year period, and a grand jury presentment shows that many people had direct or indirect knowledge of it but failed to report it, including Paterno, university officials and others.
Chris Cherinka, of Dunmore, Pa., said the focus shouldn't be on Paterno.
"We're worried more about Paterno than who the real criminal is," he said.
Several victims' rights advocacy groups rallied at Beaver Stadium before and during the game. A few students, including Adam Lloyd, sold blue bracelets for $1, with proceeds going toward the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
"We just want to support the victims," he said. "At the end of the day, that's why we're here. Everything else is trivial compared to what happened to them."
Kristine Ward, of Dayton, Ohio, was volunteering with the National Survivor Advocates Coalition on Saturday. As a Penn State graduate, she said she understands people's "loyalty to what was built here," but she called for Penn State to take the lead in helping the victims and advancing victims' rights.
"Knowledge is power, and a great university knows that better than any institution," she said.
The scandal exposes Penn State to a level of legal liability that's difficult to quantify.
The university has 24 campuses, and the fallout from the scandal will reach statewide.
Still-stunned school supporters came to the game Saturday in a show of solidarity.
"We still feel pride in Penn State," said Maureen Blandford, a local preschool and kindergarten teacher. "We're not going to be defined by this. This is not who we are."
Blandford and Karen Schuckman, a geography instructor at Penn State, were outside the stadium handing out bookmarks that said that only one in 20 cases of sexual abuse is identified or reported to authorities.
"It should never happen again," Schuckman said.
Paterno's failure to report what he knew to police_ the grand jury presentment said he learned about Sandusky's alleged activities in 2002 from a graduate assistant, now identified as assistant coach Mike McQueary — hasn't diminished the support for him.
Paterno, who will turn 85 next month, has coached in some capacity at Penn State since 1950, and not only built the program into a national powerhouse but also raised millions for the university. Many students consider him like a father — or a grandfather, and they think his legacy will outlast him.
"This is his school," said Joe Kelley, another recent Penn State graduate who's now an architect. "He will be coach forever."
Plank called Paterno "a scapegoat."
"He knew something," Plank said of Paterno, but so did others, starting with McQueary, who according to the grand jury testimony witnessed Sandusky allegedly raping a boy in a shower in a football building on campus, but didn't go to police with the information.
"I feel like he did everything he could," Plank said. "They can't fire the coach and not fire MFcQueary."
Mike Murray, a police detective from Norwalk, Conn., and a Penn State graduate who was tailgating Saturday, called the university's firing of Paterno a "rush to judgment."
"The board of trustees made a decision based on not knowing all the facts," he said.
But another tailgater, Karyn Black, of East Berlin, Pa., who has two daughters attending Penn State, said the trustees had to do what was best, calling the result a "no-win."
On Wednesday, thousands of students rioted in anger after Paterno was fired. But Friday night, thousands more gathered peacefully at the school's administration building in a candlelight vigil meant to honor Sandusky's alleged victims. Penn State police Assistant Chief Bill Moerschbacher said there were no problems with crowd control at the end of Saturday's game.
Allan Stuckey of Grafton, Neb., said he and his wife didn't attend Friday's vigil but watched it on TV. Wearing red Saturday to support Nebraska, Stuckey said it was his first visit, but he said he was impressed by the friendliness of the home team's fans.
"Everyone has been wonderful," Stuckey said, just before a man wearing a blue shirt walked up, put his hand on Stuckey's shoulder and said, "Welcome to Penn State."
Stuckey, too, expressed the feeling that more attention should focus on the victims.
"We have to protect the people among us who are the weakest," he said.
Penn State didn't score in the first half of Saturday's game and lost to Nebraska 14-17. But Stuckey said that's not so important.
"I want Penn State to do well," he said. "Life will continue."
(Tate reports for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Dawson reports for the Centre Daily Times.)
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