Scandal-scarred Penn State tries to move forward, yet still embraces past
State College, Pa. - They came to Happy Valley, 90,000 strong, to chant and cheer and stand by their team in a new era of Penn State football.
By the end, as the Nittany Lions trudged off the field, a battered fan base would need at least another week to celebrate.
Hours after fans made their cathartic drive to Beaver Stadium, handmade signs and banners attached to their RVs, they quietly sang their alma mater.
You know, the song with the lyrics, "May no act of ours bring shame."
But in a clear display of coach Bill O'Brien's challenge ahead, the new, short-handed Nittany Lions wore down in the second half, and Ohio University, from the Mid-American Conference, upset Penn State, 24-14, on Saturday. It was a sad ending for a devoted fan base that came ready to rock the house, after scandal rocked the program.
"I thought it was a great atmosphere," O'Brien said, "in the stands at Beaver Stadium."
Indeed it was, despite the loss. O'Brien, in fact, led the charge in the first home opener without Joe Paterno since 1949, his players behind him, storming the field as more than 97,000 fans kicked off a new chapter in the program's tarnished history with a raucous and sustained ovation.
Then came the familiar refrain that has echoed through the stadium for decades:
"We are ... Penn State!"
The Nittany Lions want to make headlines for more than lurid tales of child abuse. As a result, this opener was about more than football. And it showed.
Penn State held a moment of reflection Saturday for all victims of sexual abuse. Penn State also asked fans to pause and know that all those affected by abuse are remembered in their hearts. Then, a university accused of placing football above all turned the page when it invited 600 athletes from all of its sports teams to participate in the pregame show as part of Penn State's "One Team" motto.
'The next chapter'
Yes, this would be a time to remember all those hurt. But the tagline in the scoreboard highlight video made it clear Penn State's program was ready for "the next chapter."
When the team arrived at the stadium, O'Brien, the former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, was the first person to get off bus No. 1, followed by his game captains Derek Day, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Matt McGloin.
Boisterous fans waited at the tunnel entrance for hours and lined the road like a parade route as they waited for team buses.
They showed love for the former coach with chants of "Joe Pa-ter-no!" before turning their shrieks toward O'Brien. There were thunderous roars for the players as they exited the bus. Clearly, the fans showed they will stand by the players that stuck with the program.
More than 90 percent of the roster stayed after the NCAA handed down its punishment July 23.
"Getting off the bus was a crazy feeling," Hill, a defensive tackle, said. "The support that we got was one of the best things I've ever felt, seeing all the fans out there outside when we got off the bus."
So much has changed on the field, but the lively atmosphere remained the same outside Beaver Stadium. Even in defeat, the overall mood around the program is that of pride, perseverance and support - for both O'Brien and Paterno.
The latter's widow, Sue Paterno, arrived with her daughter, Mary Kay, about 15 minutes before kickoff and came in through an employee entrance. When asked by the Associated Press what Saturday's game meant to her, she quietly said she "just wants us to win." Sue left the game before the fourth quarter, in order to watch a grandson's youth football game.
Former Penn State running back Franco Harris, outwardly vocal in his support of the Paternos through the scandal, watched the game in a suite - next to a life-sized cutout of "JoePa."
"I am excited about our new beginning with coach Bill O'Brien," Harris said. "But I will never forget our history and what we accomplished."
Paterno was fired in November following 46 seasons, days after former assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child molestation charges. Paterno's son, quarterback coach Jay Paterno, also left the staff.
Support for new coach
Tailgaters still backed Paterno in the parking lots, though many wore "We Bill-ieve" shirts, endorsing Penn State's new leader, who has been a steadying force within the program for nine months.
Though Paterno's statue was removed July 22, the day before the NCAA announced sanctions for the Sandusky scandal, many fans still journeyed over to its spot, while others illustrated their support. One tailgater, in fact, had a 16-foot, homemade banner that read "409 wins with honor," referring to Paterno's victory total. Other fans donned shirts that read "We Are ... Still Proud."
Where the statue used to stand, a fan placed a Paterno bobblehead between the trees. Others stopped to snap pictures with cellphones and cameras. Dressed in Penn State jerseys, Cindy and Mark Wascavage of Washington, N.J., paused to remember the man they say will always be the face of Penn State football.
"It makes you wanna cry," Cindy, 54, said as she saw the bobblehead.
The couple has held season tickets for nine years and has always admired the former coach, even through these difficult times.
"He was the whole football program," Cindy said, while Mark believes during this proud season, win or lose, all of Penn State will stand united.
At Paterno's gravesite, fresh flowers were added to the fading collection of notes and memorabilia by Rob Elchynski, 44, who stopped by with his wife and friends before the game.
"I think it's critical to the moving-on that they talk about, that they start playing football again," Elchynski said, walking back to his car after saying a short prayer at the grave.
The students, alumni and fans outside the stadium were nearly unanimous in their stance that Paterno received a raw deal and the university should have dug in and fought back against the NCAA sanctions. Indeed, they've united behind the program following strict NCAA sanctions including a four-year bowl ban.
"We're maybe more determined than ever to be supportive," Mike Bealla, of Harrisburg, Pa., said. "If you're a fan, you're a fan. The spirit will be there."
About 90 minutes before kickoff, a plane flew over Beaver Stadium with a banner reading "Oust Erickson/Trustees," referring to Penn State president Rodney Erickson. But through it all, good behavior ruled the day. In fact, State College police reported no incidents.
On the field, of course, the players donned their new jerseys, complete with names on the back. That was O'Brien's call, tinkering with the classic look in order to recognize the players who stuck with the program amid the scandal. It's always been about family at Penn State, and so it's no surprise that Karen Caldwell, the wife of equipment manager, Brad "Spider" Caldwell, stitched the names on the jerseys.
A blue ribbon was also placed on the back of helmets to show support for child abuse victims.
"Sweet Caroline," the Neil Diamond classic, was scrapped for rock music blasted at ear-ringing decibels that would have made Paterno cringe. In fact, as the Nittany Lions took the field for warm-ups, "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC was the song of choice.
Atmosphere and positivity aside, there were still scores of empty seats and rows deep into the game, which is unusual for an opener. The announced crowd was 97,186. Beaver Stadium seats 106,572, and last year, the Nittany Lions averaged 105,231.
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