After sweating through an early-morning workout outdoors, Penn State fullback Michael Zordich and his teammates gestured to excited fans to join their end-of-session huddle.
”One, two, three. Family!” they exclaimed in unison.
Amid uncertainty over who will stay with Penn State’s football program a week after the NCAA imposed stiff sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, at least 2,500 fans, alumni and local business owners rallied outside the football building Tuesday for Nittany Lion players.
”It was so cool. I couldn’t believe how loud it was,” Zordich said. ”This just goes to show why we’re still here and why we’re going to fight this thing through.”
Most of the team appeared to be in attendance for the offseason workouts, which aren’t mandatory. A player noticeably missing was star tailback Silas Redd, one of a handful of Nittany Lions considering an immediate transfer after the NCAA allowed current players – because of the penalties – to look at other schools immediately rather than sit out a year.
Among the sanctions were a significant decline in scholarships and a four-year postseason ban.
Now Penn State is trying to make the best of it.
A pep band played while backers wearing blue-and-white attire lined the sidewalks to slap high-fives and shake hands with Nittany Lions as they snaked their way to their workouts. The scene resembled the team entrance to home games at Beaver Stadium on fall Saturdays.
Inspirational quotes from Winston Churchill, Thomas Paine and Vince Lombardi were posted in the windows of the building. ”It isn’t whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get back up,” read one quote attributed to Lombardi, the Hall of Fame NFL coach.
Players have been stuck in the middle of the ugly scandal that has engulfed Penn state since November, when Sandusky was arrested.
The retired defensive coordinator is in jail awaiting sentencing after being convicted in June of 45 criminal counts of sexually abusing young boys. Some of the assaults took place in the football building.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh on July 12 released results of his investigation for Penn State and said that the late coach Joe Paterno and three school officials concealed allegations against Sandusky, conclusions that Paterno’s family and the officials have vehemently denied.
The coach’s widow, Sue Paterno, was seen inside the football building during the rally, but she did not speak to fans or media.
Penn State gave Freeh’s findings to the NCAA, which levied the landmark sanctions on July 23 that have some players at least considering a transfer.
The only NCAA restriction is that players considering a transfer cannot practice or play with Penn State this year and still play for another school this season, meaning the Penn State roster should finally be set once training camp starts in a week. But the process has set up a college version of NFL free agency, in which other schools have been busy trying to cherry-pick Nittany Lions.
Redd could be new coach Bill O’Brien’s most valuable player – if he stays. The tailback had seven rushing touchdowns last season, and averaged 95.5 yards per game on the ground as Penn State finished 9-4.
The junior with the dazzling open-field spin move visited Southern California over the weekend. Another good season could have Redd thinking about leaving for the NFL a year early.
A person familiar with Redd’s decision said the running back was returning from California on Monday and could make his decision as early as Tuesday. The person requested anonymity because no one was authorized to speak for Redd.
Most players in attendance said they hoped Redd and other teammates considering leaving would stay, but that they would honor their choices either way.
Redd’s ”a man and he’s going to make the right decision,” said Zordich, who opens up running lanes for the tailback.
Tight end Garry Gilliam acknowledged guys such as Redd and linebacker Khairi Fortt, another player considering a transfer, had tough decisions.
”Each player came here for different reasons and with different objectives,” Gilliam said. ”When it comes down to it, I’d like them to stay, but if they don’t I’ll respect their decisions.”
Two players have already departed.
On Monday, backup safety Tim Buckley, a former walk-on, became the first player to transfer, returning to his native North Carolina to play for North Carolina State. Penn State also confirmed Monday that former starting quarterback Rob Bolden had left the team, though the demoted signal-caller was given the OK to consider other schools before the NCAA meted out its punishments.
Still, the majority of O’Brien’s core players appear to be sticking with Penn State, determined to weather out what could be a stormy season for the program.
It’s the difficulty facing players that prompted former Nittany Lions Keith Conlin and Tim Sweeney to organize the rally.
”People are just happy to come up here and have something to cheer about finally,” said Conlin, who broadcasted the online radio show he hosts with Sweeney at the event. Both are local businessmen. ”How long has it been since they had something to cheer about around here?”
Local businesses provided coffee and doughnuts. After players arrived, fans streamed on to the practice field to watch workouts – something that rarely happened during Paterno’s tenure.
Most downtown businesses are displaying ”Proud to Support Penn State Football” signs on windows. Some stores have started selling shirts with the slogan ”Billieve,” playing off of O’Brien’s first name.
Sweeney also heads the Penn State Football Lettermen’s club, and at least 260 former players are expected to attend a team meeting later Tuesday night in another show of support for current Nittany Lions.
”These kids they’ve been fighting an uphill battle for eight months, and it’s nothing that they did,” Conlin said. ”We want to let them know that we have their backs. We’re not going to leave them and run away.”
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP