by: Dennis Shea
Earlier in the month, Onward State, ran a “Penn State History Lesson” which claimed that the origin of the iconic “We Are Penn State” phrase and cheer was from the actions of the 1947-48 football team, who admirably stood up to racial prejudice. The story is beautiful and inspirational. The story has been repeated multiple times by Onward State, The Daily Collegian, Penn Stater alumni magazine, the Centre Daily times and more. I understand it’s become part of Penn State’s orientation for students.
It’s also not true.
The inspirational stand by the football team is fact. It’s a proud moment in Penn State history, one we should all embrace.
But it was not the source of the phrase and cheer.
The real source of the phrase and cheer was told first in 1999, by noted Penn State historian, Lou Prato in the publication Town and Gown. In that article, since reposted at statecollege.com, Prato details how the Penn State cheerleaders in the mid 1970s and early 1980s created the cheer. Now it has grown into an iconic statement for students, alumni and others, connecting everyone to our Penn State.
What is the evidence that Mr. Prato’s story is the correct one? For those who want to accept the claim that the 1947-48 football team events are the source of the phrase “We Are Penn State”, they have to address four major issues.
- Between 1947-48 and the late 1970s/early 1980s, there is no mention of the phrase “We Are Penn State” or its connection to the events surrounding the Cotton Bowl in The Collegian archives or any other university source. If the events of 1947-48 were the source, why was there no mention of the phrase in Penn State sources for 30 years?
- In Lou Prato’s 1999 Town and Gown article researching its source and discovering the connection to the cheerleaders of the late 1970s/early 1980s, none of the cheerleaders involved make any mention of a connection to the events of the Cotton Bowl and the 1947-48 football team. They describe a deep and detailed history of how they created the cheer over the course of several seasons, relying primarily on seeing effective cheers at other stadiums, including Ohio State and USC. Subsequent to the late 1970s/early 1980s, the phrase is mentioned in multiple Collegians and other University documents. In none of those documents is any connection made to the events of 1947-48
- The first appearance of the connection between the the 1947-48 football team events and “We Are Penn State” is the Penn State Football Story video created by Penn State athletics marketing in 2008-09: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Afot8ypldsg. This link was never before mentioned. This is the primary source for all subsequent stories about the link. This is the source Onward State and all of the other Penn State media sources cite
- In fact, 2 years before that video, Mr. Triplett did another video in 2006 for Penn State In Motion. In that video (really 2 videos), there is no mention whatsoever of the phrase “We Are Penn State.”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mz8INwkT218
So, to recap, to believe that the 1947-48 football team was the source of the phrase “We Are Penn State”, you have to assume that after the 1947-48 events, the phrase was buried for 30 years, hidden from every eye, until it was resurrected by the cheerleaders in the late 1970s/early 1980s. While resurrecting the phrase, the cheerleaders either forgot to mention the connection to the football team or deliberately hid their connection to the events of 1947-48. This connection remained hidden for another 30 years, until it was suddenly discovered and revealed by Penn State sports marketing.
Here’s a far more plausible history. The events of 1947-48 happened exactly as described, but never received the attention they rightly deserved. The cheerleaders created the phrase and the cheer exactly as they described to Penn State sports historian Lou Prato in 1999. In 2006, Mr Triplett tells his compelling story to Penn State, and then repeats the story in 2007-08 during the team’s 60th year reunion. Mr Triplett has remained consistent in telling the truth, often emphasizing that the important phrase to him was “We play all or none”, rather than the “We’re Penn State” phrase. Sometime during these tellings, someone notices the resemblance of the words of his teammate Suhey to the iconic cheer. It’s likely that Penn State sports marketing learns about this and decides to make their own video highlighting this connection, but never researching to investigate the real source of the phrase and cheer.
What the Penn State football team did in 1947-48 is a great and honorable part of Penn State history. It never received the attention it deserved until Penn State’s sports marketing shared Mr. Triplett’s story, and we should be grateful they did so. The team’s effort deserves a place of honor in Penn State history.
That effort is dishonored by an effort to make a mythical link to the phrase and cheer where none exists.
Furthermore, to make that link also steals the legacy of the cheerleaders who actually created the phrase and cheer.
Honor the team for its actions.
Honor the cheerleaders for creating the phrase and cheer.
Honor the truth by always seeking it, no matter what myths it destroys.