Ten Years Later . . .
Ten years ago today, the Penn State Nittany Lions ran onto the Beaver Stadium turf led by a coach not named Joe Paterno for the first time since 1965. That day, it was by interim head coach Tom Bradley.
There was an eerie feeling in the stands on that overcast Saturday afternoon. Everyone knew why, but no one wanted to talk about it. Earlier in the week, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested amid a child sexual abuse scandal, while Paterno was fired days later.
I sat in the stands that November day as an 11-year-old who grew up idolizing the man who had just been fired by the university that I grew up down the street from — a place where I always dreamt of being a student. While I did not necessarily understand the severity of the situation at the time, I witnessed things that I would remember for the rest of my life.
I saw grown men cry in what I viewed as one of the happiest places in the world. I heard what’s normally the loudest, most electric atmosphere fall silent. I watched a team that was ranked in the top 15 play defeated, completely without life or purpose.
It seemed like there was something missing from the stadium that day, and at that moment, it seemed like it may never be found. Whether that absent thing was hope or what, the future of this program, this university, and this town was uncertain.
We didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know many details. We didn’t know what the punishment would be. We didn’t know if we would ever watch another Penn State football game again.
We wanted to have pride in our team. We wanted the players to know that we had their backs. But at that time, it felt so hard. We knew that no matter what happened, whether we won or lost, no matter how loudly we chanted “We Are!”, nothing was going to change what had happened. Nothing was going to change what those victims, those children endured. No firings, no sanctions, nothing could take away the pain and trauma that they experienced.
As fans, we understood that. We understood that there was a tragedy that happened in our town.
There is something to say about the aftermath of a tragedy. While you cannot forget what happened, the way people respond is paramount. While we could not take away the pain from this terrible situation, the way that this community came together is something that I think shaped me as I grew up.
The missing piece in the stadium that wasn’t actually missing. It was each other.
All we knew was that whatever happened, it was going to happen together, we were going to be there for each other.
Soon after, Penn State football was moving forward with a handful of sanctions, a new football coach, and a new slogan…One Team.
Bill O’Brien was hired in January 2012, and a new, albeit unclear, era of Penn State football was here. However, as that new page was being turned, the program was still getting rocked by sanctions as the investigation unfolded.
Leaders such as Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich helped serve as the faces of the program amid those times.
“This program was not built by one man, and this program sure as hell is not gonna get torn down by one man,” Mauti famously said outside of the Lasch Building on July 25, 2012.
He was right.
This meant more than just the football program, this encapsulated the whole State College community, the entire Penn State fanbase. We were closer than ever. It was truly One Team.
Moving forward, we were satisfied and content with where we were at. We were thankful for the players who stuck with our team, thankful for a coach who came to a broken program. We were happy to have a team. We were happy to have a season. We did not care if we won the national championship or even a game. We were just happy to spend our Saturdays cheering on the Nittany Lions, the only way we knew how.
Ten years later, it still seems like we are missing something. Only this time, I feel that it is gratitude. Ten years may seem like a long time ago, and this program seems to be back to a place where they were before, making trips to New Year’s Six Bowls and winning double-digit games — maybe even better.
Stars such as Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton, and Trace McSorley — among so many others — helped return this team to national prominence under James Franklin. Specifically, during that 2016 season, fans began to truly realize the power of this community and the ability of the program to rally back like never seen before.
But today, the pure joy of watching your team play as if you thought you never would again seems to be long gone.
Somewhere along the line, I feel like we strayed away from this feeling. Whether it’s from coaching changes, postseason success, or just time, people seem to complain a bit more. They seem to be less happy with Penn State, more willing to “boo” for the team they are supposed to root for, more hungry for coaches to be fired, and so on.
I think about it every time I walk through the gates and every time I step on the field. I think about how lucky I am to get to watch this team play and I have for my whole life. Something that 10 years later, win or lose, I will never take for granted.
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About the Author
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