How Penn State Broke My Heart
Success with honor.
These three words are so simple, yet they mean so much to everyone involved with Penn State. While most other collegiate athletic programs have faced the downfall of scandal over the years, Penn State has stood as a pillar of integrity, as the “shining program on a hill.” Every fan that has attended a game at Beaver Stadium during the last several years as seen the “Success with honor” flags proudly hanging from the light posts. It was more than a slogan; it was a culture, and one that every true Penn Stater held close to their heart.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that a large part of my decision to attend Penn State was because of its football program. Some of my greatest childhood memories come from the stands of Beaver Stadium, cheering on the men in the blue and white. But that’s just why it was so special; I knew I was supporting respectful young men, blessed to have been under the tutelage of Joe Paterno. While other teams oversigned scholarships, bent rules to make sure players passed classes, and recruited deviants, Penn State stood in a league of its own. The incredible pride that comes with witnessing something so pure is immeasurable. There is no better feeling than knowing your team is the standard of excellence both on and off the field. You have to experience something that special for yourself to truly grasp how much it means.
Rewind five years. My high school’s football team was playing Central Mountain High School in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania. On the opposite sideline, an old man paced back and forth with a distinguished limp, gray with age. That man was Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s former legendary defensive coordinator. When I attended my first Penn State game in 1998, Sandusky was the apparent heir to Joe Paterno. He created Linebacker U, and his defenses were mythical in my mind, in the minds of the 100,000 who packed into Beaver Stadium. And when Sandusky retired in 1999, it was so he could spend more time with his family and dedicate more effort towards his charity, The Second Mile, which gave underprivileged kids role models and guidance. Was there anything more quintessentially Penn State than that?
Not one to pass up an opportunity to meet a Penn State icon, I waited after the game to see if I might be able to talk to Sandusky. Sure enough, he emerged from the locker room, gave a firm handshake, and signed some autographs for me. When I told him that I planned on attending Penn State after I graduated and explained to him how much his contributions to this University meant to me, that signature Jerry Sandusky smile came out in perfect form. After we talked for about five minutes, I walked away thinking that there couldn’t possibly be a nicer man than Jerry Sandusky.
That’s why when I awoke late Saturday morning to a massive amount of texts and e-mails telling me to get to a television or a computer, I knew something had gone terribly wrong. I fought back tears as I read the gruesome 23-page Grand Jury indictment and saw this man’s face plastered on the front page of every national news outlet. Suddenly, the Penn State ideals that I cherish so much were all in doubt. Through the acts of one man, everything I believed in for most of my life came crashing down.
But as I read more, I realized that it was not just one individual who is culpable.
I was left with a hole in my stomach that may never be filled ever again. How could the man I trusted to run the athletic department I dedicate so much of my passion towards allow an alleged predator to roam free for nearly a decade? When Curley was interviewed by the Grand Jury, he claimed that he was told that Sandusky was just “horsing around” with the child. How can someone be so ignorant to the consequences of their actions? Wouldn’t “horsing around” with an underage boy unsupervised in the shower be enough for outrage?
I can’t say I was disappointed when I saw one of our rival schools go down earlier this year in scandal after it was revealed that Ohio State coach Jim Tressel covered up illegal benefits his players had been receiving. But the pain I feel today is exponentially worse than anyone in Columbus could ever comprehend. They covered up tattoos and cars, we allegedly covered up sexual abuse of minors. The immaculate Penn State record that I put on a pedestal, that we all put on a pedestal…it had all been a lie.
And then there’s Joe Paterno, a man who has shaped my character and moral compass. Most Penn State fans would take a bullet for Coach Paterno, and there is no man I’d rather have leading my football team. Other coaches may have swept the incident under the rug when the graduate assistant came to them and tried to hide the whole thing. Paterno did what he was obligated to do by telling a superior about the report. But I am left with many troubling questions.
How could our coach watch Sandusky continually work with children over the last decade and turn a blind eye? Does loyalty really go that far? When Paterno saw that the investigation was going nowhere, why wouldn’t he take it upon himself to make sure justice was served and call the police directly?
Suddenly this invincible man became mortal.
One of the most disgusting reactions to this saga was that of President Graham Spanier, who released a statement pledging his unconditional support to Curley and Schultz, stating that he operates at the “highest levels of honesty and integrity.” On top of that, the University is paying for all of Curley and Schultz’s legal fees. My money will be going to help represent individuals against allegations that they lied to protect a child predator.
Why did my beloved school do this to me? How could this great institution, this beacon of integrity, this place I have cherished for my entire life, go against everything I thought it stood for? What did we do to deserve this shame? These questions will haunt me for as long as I live.
As fall turns into winter, and the football team plays for another Big Ten Championship, it’s hard to focus on sports. We can only hope that the off-field affairs have no on-field implications. The Paterno “Grand Experiment” lives on, and we will still recruit fairly.
But there is no doubt that some of my passion will never return. I trusted Jerry Sandusky, I trusted Tim Curley, I trusted Graham Spanier, and I trusted Joe Paterno with every fiber of my existence. I “pledged my love and loyalty.” And that love and loyalty was betrayed. When you believe in something with all your heart, and that idea turns out to be a fraud, it is hard to ever trust anything the same way ever again.
Yet, the season will go on. This Saturday afternoon, I will join my fellow students in a sea of white while the Blue Band plays our Alma Mater. “May no act of ours bring shame,” we will all sing. And for the first time in my life, it will all feel fake.