Three years ago, I was not in State College.
I was standing on a hot sidewalk in Tempe, Ariz., watching the rolling ticker on ESPN list off sanction after sanction, through a window at a local bar. There was a quote on the screen, a photo of NCAA President Mark Emmert next to it.
“What we can do is impose sanctions that both reflect the magnitude of these terrible acts and that also ensure Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry.”
I’ve seen a lot of stories about that day, July 23, 2012. Most I’ve read were written by people who were here when the scandal broke. They sat outside Joe Paterno’s house in the cold next to the students in their tents and on their blankets. They were in the first horde of reporters clustered around the Lasch Building and they were the ones I often saw in scrums holding microphones and recorders on CNN or ESPN as the details unfolded.
They were in State College three years ago to see the faces of the community when those sanctions — 15-member recruiting classes, a limit of 65 scholarships over four years, $60 million in fines and 112 wiped-out wins — were announced, like a knee to the gut. Or 112 knees to the gut.
I was not.
What I saw three years ago, as an outsider, was a terrible moment. And then there was an explosion of commentary and grief from both sides.
The saga of Penn State continued to develop, characterized by a deeply-dug line in the sand with shouting on both sides. The horror of the crimes, the severity of the punishment, the legal retaliation, the wondering, always wondering about who knew what and when. It was a national story, its own massive chapter in college football’s book.
On the outside, it was terribly fascinating. Or, terrible to find so fascinating.
Watching former head coach Bill O’Brien piece together a team after the departure of some players and the weight of the scandal, through my television and Twitter feed, looked like a flailing dog trying to get out of a pool.
After 2,200 miles and almost a month since arriving in town, after speaking to some of those who had been in State College, I realized O’Brien’s time at the head of the program was a giant game of tug-of-war — him on one side, heels dug firmly into 125-year-old turf, veins popping, hands raw on the rope, and an entire culture on the brink of exodus on the other.
What I saw on the outside, when head coach James Franklin was hired, was a man with somewhat of a career death wish, working with a program trying to upright itself and lift further sanctions, in the shadow of an enormous legacy.
What I see now, after only a month, is that Franklin’s not in the self-destruction business. He’s in the restoration business.
I wasn’t here when O’Brien put names on jerseys. Once again, I watched and read as an outsider, when the community reacted from both sides.
But I had a State College address when the slow swelling of excitement began in the community after Franklin announced the tradition of nameless jerseys would return. I got my first taste of what the culture of Penn State football meant to those who cherished it most. On a clear blue day in Central Pennsylvania, it was, to them, revival made tangible and the relief of a terrible pressure.
Games still have to be played. But they’ll be weightless ones, and that makes all the difference, no matter where in the country they are watched.
I could never pretend to understand what happened to Penn State three years ago, even through the eyes of the people here. I simply wasn’t here to see it for myself.
But I will be here for the future.