Penn State falls in return to field
The Penn State players left the field with their heads bowed, the fans mostly silent.
A lifetime worth of emotions was crammed into the past week. Shock, rage, regret and, now, exhaustion. The child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky cost Joe Paterno his job and, no doubt, scarred Penn State’s soul.
A football game on a brilliant autumn afternoon won’t erase it.
It was, however, a start.
”We’ve had better weeks in our lives, obviously,” Paterno’s son Jay, the quarterbacks coach, said after No. 12 Penn State’s 17-14 loss to No. 19 Nebraska on Saturday. ”The world’s kind of turned upside down, but I think our kids were resilient.”
The game was a combination of pep rally, cleansing and tribute, a way to acknowledge the past and take a step into the future. Affection for Penn State and Paterno was abundantly visible from players, fans and, yes, coaches. So was support for abuse victims, the kind of empathy many felt was missing in the days after news of the scandal broke.
Beaver Stadium was awash in blue — the color associated with child-abuse prevention — and public-service announcements flashed on the scoreboard throughout the game. A fund-raising campaign for abuse-prevention charities at the stadium gates raised more than $22,000.
In one of the most poignant moments in a week filled with lurid allegations, Nebraska and Penn State players gathered at midfield and knelt for a moment while Cornhuskers running backs coach Ron Brown offered a prayer.
”It felt like we all banded together. And it wasn’t just about football,” said Melissa Basinger, a 2005 Penn State grad who made the trip from Charlotte, NC. ”It was about coming together as a school, and showing the country, world or whatever that this does not define who we are.”
Sandusky, once considered Paterno’s heir apparent, is charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span, with several of the alleged assaults occurring on Penn State property. Two university officials are charged with perjury, and Paterno and president Graham Spanier were fired for not doing enough after Sandusky was accused of molesting a young boy in the showers of the campus football complex in 2002.
The scandal would be damaging enough to anyone who prides himself on integrity. That it involved Paterno, major college football’s winningest coach and the man who’d come to symbolize all that was good at Penn State, made it that much worse.
Though he was not at Beaver Stadium for the game — Jay Paterno joked that maybe he was out mowing the lawn — it took a while to get used to not seeing JoePa on the sideline, pacing back and forth, hands jammed in the pockets of his trademark blue windbreaker, watching the game unfold through those Coke-bottle glasses.
Students seemed almost afraid to acknowledge his absence, unsure how to react to having someone else in charge of the team for the first time in 46 seasons. But when Paterno appeared on the scoreboard as part of a video montage for Nittany Lion seniors — it was Senior Day — they let loose with gusto.
”Joe Pa-ter-no!” they chanted, clapping in rhythm.
No one felt the absence of the 84-year-old more keenly than his son, Jay, who choked up during a postgame interview.
”Dad, I wish you were here,” he said, walking away from the cameras before the tears began to flow.
When the team arrived at the stadium, the normally low-key son pumped his fist and shouted, ”Let’s go!” as he followed the starting quarterback off the bus, just as his father always did. The younger Paterno high-fived passers-by on the way into the stadium, and several staffers gave him an encouraging embrace before he entered the locker room.
After the game, he shared a few details of a letter he’d dropped off at his parents’ house earlier in the day. In it, he told his larger-than-life father all the things he’d never found the words to say before.
”I said, ‘You and I, in my life, haven’t always seen eye to eye. But generally speaking, it’s (because) I had to grow up, to catch up to make eye contact with you,”’ Jay Paterno recalled. ”There were a lot of lessons that I learned from him.”
At Joe Paterno’s house nearby, a small clutch of TV cameras and reporters stood outside. Two people walked to the door, rang the bell and left when no one answered. On the lawn was a pair of homemade signs facing the house. One said, ”We Love You Joe, Thank You” and the other, ”Thanks Joe.”
A small American flag was planted nearby.
”There’s not going to be closure anytime soon,” said Brandon Hewitt, a senior from York, Pa. ”I feel horrible what happened to the kids. I feel bad for what happened about Joe. But today was about football, and it was heartwarming to see the university rally around a terrible time.”