I did not attend school at Penn State University. But Penn State has had a greater impact on my life than the school will ever realize. This university has alumni who have become some of my closest and greatest friends I could possibly have. These people have had such an impact on me, I have adopted the school as my 2nd favorite college team (obviously behind my Red Raiders). I happen to be up in NJ for some training for a little more than 3 weeks in November. Just a quick 4 hour drive away was Penn State. I always love to take advantage of the area when I am in new parts of the country; mainly to attend as many different sporting events at different venues as I possibly can. Without even having the ties to the university I had, going to a football stadium with a capacity of 106,000+ people was something I wanted to do. I bought tickets to the final home game of the season 10 days before the game. 7 days later, Joe Paterno was fired.
The same man who coached at Penn State for over 45 years, was let go from the only thing he knew. Watching ESPN all week, they showed the wide variety of emotions that State College and alumni felt with that firing. Outrage, grief, sadness, raw, uncontrollable emotions could be viewed all week. There was talk about cancelling the football game/rest of the season. But the game went on. I had heard from my Penn State friends all week before the scandal went public about the great scene on Saturdays in Happy Valley. I couldn’t have been more excited about it. But with the firing of the face of Penn State University, I had no idea what to expect. I was at the Alamo Bowl after Mike Leach was fired, and it was a giant angry mob mixed with a circus without a tent. So I could relate to an extent with how these fans felt. But JoePa meant so much more to these people than anyone could realize. He had established himself as a family member in so many lives, even without having direct contact with most of them. I attend the game with a friend of mine (newly engaged to one of my roommates from San Angelo, congrats again to you two, love you both) and she introduced me to a few more people while we were up there. We arrived to our tailgate at roughly 7 am.
In my 4 years at Texas Tech, we had a total of THREE games played before noon. I don’t do early games. But the first game of the day is common in Big Ten country. I was shocked to hear from my new friends asking, “Where is everyone?” Shit people its 35 degrees at 7 am, I know where they are. But listening to them, showing up at 7 was normally late for most home games. The atmosphere at the stadium was a typical tailgate atmosphere. Obviously, JoePa was still a big talking point amongst the crowd, but remember, at the time Penn State had only lost one game and was in control of its destiny to go to the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indy. So the talk was focused towards the game itself. After hours of beer, mimosas, and breakfast food, we made our way into the giant stadium.
The picture above shows the view we had from our seats. At this point, you can see the team coming out on to the field for the game. What is hard to see from the picture is that the entire team came out of the tunnel locked arm-in-arm with each other. There was no jumping around, getting hyped; it was just a football team slowly marching through the band. The crowd, as well, let out cheers that were unlike anything I had ever heard. It’s because the man who wore a tie and thick glasses and led the team onto the field for the past 45 years was not there. It was at that point, I realized that I was attending a funeral more than a football game. Don’t believe me?
This was before the coin flip. Both teams met in the center of the field for a pre-game prayer, something I had never seen at any sporting event. After a quick round of cheers from the stadium for the gesture from Nebraska, once both teams began to kneel, silence swept through the crowd instantaneously. 107,000 people shut the hell up in less than 2 seconds. The scene gave me goosebumps. You could hear the lone man, on the 50 yard line, praying. I heard every word, just as if I was out there with the team, with my hands joined with my temporary enemy. You think 100,000+ people loud is a sight? Trying standing there with not a single noise being made, it will shake you to your core. Once the prayer was over, the game kicked off and nothing strange really happened after that. The massive student section was loud all game. The overall game atmosphere was nothing short of spectacular and awesome. However, the first game in 45 years without JoePa, resulted in a 17-14 loss for the Nittany Lions. Once the game was over, that funeral feel was injected back into the stadium. After all, it was also Senior Day at Beaver Stadium. While filing down the stairs and out the stadium, I saw people crying. You could tell this game meant so much more than anyone could possibly grasp. Losing this game was throwing salt in the wound so many people had in their hearts. It was at that point, with such an overwhelming amount emotion surrounding me, I was able to at least attempt to grasp what the effect of losing their Grandfather was like.
Overall, the entire weekend was a great experience. Penn State reminded me a lot of all the great times I had at Texas Tech. Before I left, I was shown where JoePa lived and saw this outside…
An 85-year-old man, being hawked by news stations, like he was Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian about to make another mistake that for some reason we, as Americans, care about. Leave him alone. That just made me angry. Phil Knight said it best when Paterno finally departed this earth, “Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me: There is a villain in this tragedy that lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.” With hindsight now, it’s very easy to say Paterno could have done more. But, being in a job where the chain of command is a way of life, I know if I would have told my superiors about something THAT serious, I would not have followed up on it either because I have TRUST and FAITH in them do to the right thing. I firmly believe that was the thought process Paterno went through when his assistant approached him with what he had witnessed in the showers that day before. Did he need to be let go when the story broke? Unfortunately, yes. But he deserved so much more respect than he was given by the University when they let him go. There is a quote on the wall by his statue that reads:
“They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.” -Joe Paterno
Paterno made Penn State a better place. I saw it first hand, and see it in my friends from this great university. Paterno was not a good football coach; he was the greatest ever. He was also a great man. He was not driven by greed; he was driven by what was right. I have no doubt in my mind that the same university, which this man dedicated his money and life too, killed him back in November. They took his reason to live, and ripped it from him. I attended two pieces of history. I attended the very first game after a legend’s firing and, at the same time, attended his funeral. What better place to honor a man, who changed the landscape of college football forever, than at the stadium he practically built with his own hands and with 107,000 people? That’s exactly what those in attendance did that day, and it will always stand out as one of the more unique and powerful experiences I will ever have been fortunate to be apart of. So in honor of him, and my Penn State friends: