As members of the Penn State community repeatedly logged onto Facebook and Twitter these last two days, it was difficult to avoid all the beautiful dedication posts for our beloved coach, Joe Paterno. They are everywhere. And to us, each one is a new and beautiful way to celebrate the life of this amazing man. Constant tweets and re-tweets discussing our pain and admiration litter timelines. As I looked at them all, both tearing up and smiling at all the pride we as Penn State students share, I wondered what our friends at other schools must be struggling to grasp as we all grieve together. It then struck me that they couldn’t possibly understand. How could they?
I then immediately became aware that there is also no way to fully explain it to them. What does it really mean to be a Penn State student in a world without Joe Paterno? It is walking downtown, seeing the mural dedicated to this man and noticing a new, freshly painted halo glittering above his head. It is standing on about a foot of packed down snow, struggling to keep your candle lit while you listen to the mourning words of past and present football players who were closer to Joe than any of us were. It is looking up on that quiet walk home from the vigil and seeing a glowing white light in the corner of the sky and wondering what it could possibly be. A part of you believes it is Joe.
Logging onto Facebook that night makes everyone sure. The beautiful picture of the football stadium lights reflecting a brilliant bright glow into the night sky was the first thing I saw. For a Penn State student, seeing that picture solidified everything. It was seeing heaven, there in front of your eyes, above the house that this man built. Seeing all these posts could easily be seen as obnoxious to other college students. For us, each new picture or quote or heartfelt status is a new way to mourn. For us, it is a new perfect way to mourn together.
We are 40,000 strong but at times like this we are no longer perfect strangers. Last night I looked down at my candle and as the Almer Mater struck up, the boy next to me put his arm around me and we swayed and sang. I had no idea who he was. Looking down into the crowd I saw hundreds, thousands doing the same. Perfect strangers… Turned into friends purely by the love of this one man. Joe Paterno made us a family. And he did it with his bare hands. This is what other college students will never understand. We Are… Penn State.