The miserable reality of playing football is it is incredibly hard. There are the obvious physical demands — the inevitable challenges associated with so much colliding and running and exerting. It is also, and probably more so, a daily mental battle.
Every athlete will tell you there are moments they want to quit, when the shame of quitting actually feels preferable to whatever physical activity they happen to be doing at that moment.
There is a courage required of football players, a truism I was reminded of as I talked to Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch on Wednesday. He did not run from the reality of what playing for Penn State drudges up nowadays but attempted to do what he could to help clean up a mess not of his making.
The conversation ostensibly was about the Ticket City Bowl, kind of like the conversation at a bar is about do you come there often — which is to say not at all. I am not at all interested in how Penn State’s defense matches up with Houston’s offense, or the health of the Penn State quarterback, or the bowl at all. This is not a swipe at the fine folks of the Ticket City Bowl. I am not particularly interested in any of these games organized for the express purpose of lining the pockets of the few.
The interesting thing is Penn State and, well, you know.
The players called it "the situation," "the scandal" and "you know — the thing" as they talked. No further explanation was needed. Everybody knows the accusations against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, that he allegedly sexually abused young boys, that head coach Joe Paterno had known and failed to act appropriately, that Penn State had put the god of football ahead of children.
Guilty or innocent, Sandusky already has left a wake of destruction at the university he once claimed to love. Paterno fired. Criminal charges filed against administrators, which is to say nothing of the victims. It is an ugly mess and among the collateral damage are the current players, the ones left in a mess not of their making.
And there they stood again Wednesday answering impossibly tough questions with poise and preparing to play a game. There are some that say football does not matter at times like these. They say this so assuredly and with such conviction that we swallow it without questioning. But what does that mean? It just means the football does not matter to you.
But if you are from Orwigsburg, Pa. like Stankiewitch, it matters. It does not matter as much as a kid, not as much as doing the right thing. But it matters.
“About the only thing I ever wanted to do was play for Penn State,” Stankiewitch said. “This was my dream.”
So what do you do when your dream becomes a punch line, when people you’ve never even met hate you because of the alleged actions of a person you’ve never even met, when all you want to do sometimes is quit?
"Of course, you lay in bed and think ‘Why is all of this weight on my shoulders?’ But then again, you are like, ‘I’m tough enough. I can do this. And we’re a football team,’ " Stankiewitch said. "The role we have tried to take is to have a positive light through all of this. The best way we could do this is be good students and be positive role models in our community. Coach always said to be a contributor in society."
The best way they can think to do this is by trying to help build back the reputation of the university they pledged to represent. And the remarkable thing is these 18- to 22-year-old young men have handled this task with aplomb, much better than many of the adults. They answered the tough questions. They led the prayer before the Nebraska game that was so touching. They have not quit.
The acting athletic director and president talked to the team recently. Their message was thanks for being such great ambassadors. It is not easy to stick in a situation like this with the allegations and Paterno being fired and riots on campus and all of the shame brought upon the university and, consequently, them.
"It’s just part of life. We had nothing to do with it but we are going to be associated with it the rest of our lives," cornerback D’ Anton Lynn said. "Sometimes life isn’t fair."
This is just one of the lessons this year has taught them. It has not all been a loss despite the scandal and a disappointing record and the firing of their coach. They say this year has made them men. What else did they learn?
You have to face adversity head on.
You sometimes will be judged by the actions of others.
Life is not fair but it is what you make of it.
"It’s been a wild year, especially the last two months," running back Michael Zordich said. "And we are the front line of it. I don’t want to use the word scapegoat. That is the wrong word but we are the face of it and we are the first people out there that is going to help (start the healing)."
The easy thing, from the outside, is to want blood from everybody associated with Penn State. And if the allegations are true, there will be blood. But there is a lesson here, too, in the actions of student-athletes who have stayed and done their part to start what will certainly be an arduous rebuilding process.
The miserable reality is life can be like football. It is hard. And it requires courage.
What is sad is the kids are the ones at Penn State who had to teach this to everybody else.