James Franklin looked to his right and locked eyes with Malik Golden.
Both welling up with tears, Franklin had nothing but thanks to give.
Golden, one of Joe Paterno’s final recruits and a member of Penn State’s senior class, was minutes removed from his final game at Penn State.
Moments after falling in heartbreaking fashion to No. 9 Southern California 52-49 in the Rose Bowl on Monday night, Golden and the No. 5 Nittany Lions filtered off the field as confetti fell and the Trojans celebrated.
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But Franklin, sitting at the media center dais with Golden and Saquon Barkley at his side, wanted to let the Connecticut native know how much he and his classmates have meant to him and the program.
“The thing I’m probably emotional about more than anything is this is the last time that this football team will be together,” Franklin said. “These seniors like Malik, you know, it’s his last time he’ll be in the locker room with those guys.”
Overcome with emotion, the coach had to pause.
“That’s probably the thing that hurts me the most,” Franklin continued, “because Malik and his other seniors have been through so much in this program, and me specifically and Penn State will be indebted to you for a long time.”
Golden, disappointment encapsulating him, said any loss hurts, but this one really stung.
“It was the first time I’ve ever cried after a loss in college,” Golden said. “We’ve had some highs and lows, but I’m forever grateful to be a Penn Stater.”
One of Golden’s younger teammates, Barkley, was saddened for his older teammates. The sophomore was distraught about the loss himself, but in the back of his mind he knows that he’ll have at least next season in the blue and white.
This was it for the seniors.
“What these seniors have done for this program, and looking up to those guys, that’s a big reason why I even came to this school,” Barkley said adamantly. “We wanted to send them off on the right note. We fell short of that. That’s why to me this loss hurts so much.”
The Nittany Lions aren’t itching to flip the page, but the experience of playing in an instant Rose Bowl classic should be beneficial to players like Barkley, redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley, and other younger players.
Barkley said the loss “sucks” but that it can be used as motivation in the offseason.
“We were so close to being Rose Bowl champs,” Barkley said. “We still have so much work to do, and we’re still a young team with a lot of guys coming back.”
Still fighting back tears, Franklin, too, was able to look briefly toward the future.
Winning a Big Ten Championship is a noteworthy achievement, as is competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, and wherever the Nittany Lions finish in the final rankings will be higher than almost anyone could’ve expected.
That’ll provide a boost heading into winter workouts and preparation for 2017.
Franklin knows it’ll be difficult to do re-capture the 2016 magic and do even better, but he feels as though the program is heading in that direction, thanks in large part to seniors like Golden.
“It’s going to be a long, steady, difficult climb,” Franklin said. “If we just realize we’ve got a great opportunity right now and capitalize on it, keeping working, I think we can continue to build this thing and continue to do special things.”