Penn State

Penn State Football: The Lion's Pride Asserts Itself

We weren't certain what to expect when we entered Beaver Stadium yesterday for the Penn State-Nebraska game.  It seemed an eternity since that miserably snowy Illinois game two weeks earlier, when Penn State eked out a win with the help of an innovative student section that distracted the Illinois kicker at the end of the game, causing the ball to fall harmlessly off the upright, and achieving Coach Joe Paterno's 409th win, the most wins in Division I history.

In just a week's time, Penn State's entire world had collapsed as we knew it.  It was a distressing week for anyone who associates themselves with Penn State:  students, faculty, staff, alumni, sports fans.  We were shocked, disgusted, ashamed, angry, afraid, confused, determined to know the truth. 

Many Penn Staters including me found ourselves trying to defend what Penn State is all about as this new world of social media caused us to have instant reactions to Facebook discussions, online postings, etc.  My family and many of my friends were clearly very concerned about me.  They saw a lot of anger in my posts on Facebook.  They were right.

Life at Penn State University Park in particular, with a media circus that was unprecedented, was distracting and distressing at best.  In any spare moment we were glued to whatever sources we trust to find the latest horrific news. 

I am first and foremost an educator at Penn State.  So in the midst of all this turmoil, I prepared for classes, taught classes, listened to four team projects, and even gave an exam.   I too was distracted, and any writing for a blog or media source was going to have to wait. 

No.  That's not quite right.  I have 3-4 drafts of articles I didn't publish because I found it hard to find the right words.  I was speechless.

But my students all know how much I love Penn State football and how much I admire Joe Paterno. 

So I found myself playing "den mother" to my students, as the week progressed.

These students were hurting.  Joe Paterno was their unconditional hero.  They love him more and revere him more than anyone can possibly imagine.

And their hero had fallen, drastically, dramatically, in a way that nobody could have ever possibly predicted. 

I gave them an exam the day Joe Paterno resigned.  In fact it was ten minutes after his resignation was announced.  When I walked into the classroom, my students said, "Professor Todd, before you pass out the exam, we want to know what you think."

I somehow found words and used quotes to explain what I was thinking.  And fought back tears. 

On Wednesday, the Board of Trustees fired Joe Paterno.  I was livid, as my friends and family on Facebook will attest to.  But after sleeping on it, I realized they had no choice but to fire both him and Dr. Graham Spanier, our university president.

Here is what I wrote to the students on Thursday morning, in an email entitled "Please Be Careful..."

"After a week of horrific stories and reactions to those stories I am as distressed as you about how the events unfolded this week and especially last night.  The horrible stories of abuse coming out of the grand jury investigation required that the Board of Trustees react swiftly and make decisions that will help the world regain trust in Penn State University.  We may or may not agree with them, but Penn State as an institution needed to be bold and forthright in taking a stand.

"I'm sure you feel cheated.  Angry.  So do I.  This was not the way Coach Joe Paterno's tenure as the winning-est football coach in Division I history should have ended.  It is not the way President Graham Spanier's tenure should have ended.  He was one of the most respected university presidents in the nation who did great things for Penn State.  It may take years to figure out whether or not this was the right decision."

I then went on to give students advice on how to avoid riots, to find a way to channel their incredible energy into something positive, and to hold their heads high as a Penn State student.  We would get through this by supporting one another.

I quoted Dr. Jim Thomas, Dean of the Smeal College of Business where I work, when he said in an emailed message to faculty,  "I will not let the horrible alleged actions of one and the inaction of a few others dent my love for this University with its 45,000 employees, 95,000 students, and 550,000 alumni. Penn State is much more than any one or a few individuals … it lives in and through all of us."

And so when I walked into Beaver Stadium about an hour before the game, and went to the mezzanine level, I stopped and looked around as the team was practicing.  Tears started to well up.  I realized how exhausting this week was.  I realized how much of a grieving process I was going through, that all of us were going through.

We honestly weren't sure what to expect, how this game would start.  All the former football players had gathered for this game, coming from far and near to support the team.  It was Senior Day for the football players, and the focus of Senior Day would normally have been on them.

They went through the usual routine of introducing the senior players, but it was unprecedented for them to be running through a tunnel formed of former football players.  It was a message of support for the seniors, but it was so much more. 

This was a day for the Penn State community to make a strong statement of solidarity to the world after a week of utter chaos and confusion.  The lion's pride gathered in mourning.  To support one another, to say:

We are...Still Penn State!

In the stands, we greeted each other with hugs, talked about how many times we had cried through the week, how hurt and distressed we all were.

But everyone was there.  No person we normally see in the stands around us stayed home.  The tailgates were still held.  It almost seemed normal for a big game against Nebraska.

But of course it wasn't.

The students showed up on time.  For a 12 noon game.  That was unprecedented in and of itself!  All wearing blue, to combat child abuse.  10,000 of those students spent Friday night at a candlelight vigil for the victims of child abuse.  I couldn't be prouder.

And then, the team walked out on the field.  Led by the captains, not their interim coach.  Not running as they usually do, but walking, in a slow deliberate pace, arms linked in arms, for all the world to see that this was a different day, a different game, this was not normal, but we as a team are together.

They sent us a message of determination and strength and solidarity in the face of immense adversity.  They were committed to seeing this season through.  Wow.

But the most incredible sight was what happened next:  the team members from both Penn State and Nebraska approaching each other on the field for what we thought at first was going to be an unusual show of sportsmanship and greeting.

And then kneeling down together to say a prayer, led by Ron Brown, the running backs coach for Nebraska.

The silence of the crowd - 107,903 strong - was stunning.  The prayer was not short.  It was a long prayer that the crowd could not hear (later we could hear it on Youtube).  The crowd became a bit impatient at the end, but the prayer went on.

And at that moment, one of the most unusually unexpected moments I have ever witnessed at a Penn State football game, I couldn't have been more thankful that this game was actually being held.  I couldn't have been more thankful for the display of unity by college football players. 

For the message that the Nebraska football team and their fans (I met several of them both before and after the game) understood our pain and stood with us in our pain.

As for the game itself, it was a 17-14 win by Nebraska.  A hard-fought battle, the stats mostly even, and Penn State had a shot at winning at the end of the game.

As the game was being played the passion of Penn State fans was about as intense as I had ever seen it, the crowd as loud as I have ever heard.  It almost felt normal again.  And for all of us the catharsis of rooting loudly for this group of seniors gave us some relief in a week of grieving.

We even actually had some fun.  And did our usual complaining about how we have no offense.

I am very proud of how the Penn State football team hung in there.  If it was tough for me this week I can only imagine how much tougher it was for them.  A thousand-fold at least.  

The student faces as we left the stadium were the most crestfallen I have ever seen.  A win would have gone a long way to helping them have something to be happy about. 

But I think that even they know that there are more important things in life than winning or losing a football game. 

What mattered most on this fall football Saturday was that this Penn State community - its students, its alumni, its fans, the players - come together to start what Coach Bradley called the healing process.

Congratulations to Nebraska for winning this battle and for demonstrating so much class!

Oh and by the way, welcome to the Big Ten.