Their former coach? Fired in disgrace. Their university? Under attack for fostering a culture of secrecy and cover-ups as part of a devastating child sex abuse-scandal.
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But for some former Penn State football players, Saturday’s game is not time to turn their back on their school. It’s not a time to honor Joe Paterno.
It’s a day to stand together and show their support for this season’s Nittany Lions and the scores of students and graduates who have proudly represented the university.
Former Nittany Lions receiver and running back Rich Mauti organized what he hopes will be one of the largest gatherings of former players to stand on the sideline ever, in an effort to show support for their embattled program.
Mauti sent emails to more than 800 former Nittany Lions and asked them to attend Penn State’s home finale against Nebraska on Saturday. He wants players who took pride in wearing the school’s classic blue-and-white uniforms, and fondly represented their university years after they played their final down, to return their thanks to a program – not just a coach – that gave them so much.
”It’s for the kids that have to go out there on Saturday,” said Mauti, who played under Paterno from 1974-1976 and went on to play in the NFL. ”It’s a show of support for that. It’s not going to be banners and flags and bands. It’s going to be the Penn State Way. It’s going to be our presence. Hopefully, we get enough guys there that will mean something.”
Mauti emphasized he’s not forgetting or minimizing the scandal and possible cover-up centered on former assistant and one-time heir apparent Jerry Sandusky.
”I’m not condoning any activities that have been alleged. That’s not the purpose,” he said. ”I’m trying to get everyone that has been through that program, that has had a positive experience, to support the kids and the program and the school at this juncture.”
By midweek, Mauti said about 75 players had agreed to attend.
Former Penn State linebacker Buddy Tesner said he will be there to watch a game between two teams jostling for a Big Ten divisional title. Tesner played from 1971-75 and went on to found the Football Letterman’s Club. The mission of the club is to promote Penn State football, improve communication, expand merchandising, and increase membership among former Penn State players and managers.
He said the time is right to stand behind the program.
”I think it’s a great idea to rally the troops to support the team as much as anyone else,” he said. ”At the same time, we’re being very careful to make sure that we respect and understand the families that have been affected by all this. We’re not making a statement of innocence or guilt.”
No, but another former Nittany Lion said he hasn’t forgotten Sandusky, even as the former assistant coach stands accused of having sex with young boys.
Sam Stellatella, a three-position player in the 1950s, has donated money to Sandusky’s defense and urged other former players to do the same.
”I told him he’s going to need a million dollars to defend himself,” the 73-year-old Stellatella said. ”He called me back and said, `What am I going to do with this money?’ I said, `Use it for your lawyer because you’re going to need it.”’
Stellatella sent Sandusky $100. He wrote personal letters to other members of the 1959 Liberty Bowl team that defeated a Bear Bryant-coached Alabama team and asked they also donate. He does not know how much money was raised.
”I know some of the guys sent money,” he told The Associated Press. ”Here’s the thing, these are horrendous charges against him. But he’s still entitled to his day in court. Everybody’s prejudged him. He’s done horrendous damage to Paterno and (athletic director Tim) Curley and the football program. I don’t listen to the news and I don’t read the reports of what he did because I would get too upset.
”But he’s still entitled to his day in court.”
That’s a lone stance among a group of players who have been quick to distance themselves from Sandusky.
Brad Benson, a former Penn State offensive lineman who won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants, was not invited to attend the game. He said he wouldn’t go anyway – and had no problem with his fellow former Nittany Lions presenting a unified front – as long as they remembered the true victims of this case.
”I sure wouldn’t want it be a show of solidarity for Joe,” he said.
Benson spoke in anger about Paterno’s actions and, more troubling, the reaction of unruly students who toppled a television news van, rioted and attempted arson after a peaceful demonstration Wednesday night turned ugly.
”There are people right now that are supporting Joe. They are rioting and doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” he said. ”I equate these students that are rioting to the occupiers on New York City right now. They’re not mature enough to understand why they’re rioting. They weren’t there when this happened. What are they protesting? They’re protesting that someone with a tremendous responsibility failed to fulfill his moral responsibility and other people failed as well.”
Tim Sweeney, president of the Letterman’s Club, emphasized before Thursday’s practice this movement was for the players.
Mauti, who has a son, Michael, on this season’s team, wanted the Nittany Lions seniors to have at least one good feeling to take away one of the most horrific weeks in school history.
”They went there to get an education and play football. They didn’t go there for this,” he said. ”It goes back to the basic fundamental lessons Joe has taught all of us. It’s how you handle what happens to you that’s really important. These kids are trying to handle this. It’s not fun, it’s not what they want to be doing. They’re a tight, tight group. I think it’s going to pull them all together.
”It’s going to be a life lesson.”
Associated Press writer Patrick Mairs in Philadelphia contributed to this report.