100,000 Football Fans at Penn State Cheer, but the Mood Is Numb
Published: Saturday, November 12, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 13, 2011 at 8:03 p.m.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The tone for a Saturday football game under a bright sun was born in the darkness of a Friday night vigil at the epicenter of the Penn State campus. Spread across a grassy plain yards from the streets where demonstrators clashed with the police days earlier, several thousand students gathered holding lighted candles, a quickly organized rally in support of sexual abuse victims that concluded when a university bell tower chimed 10 times to mark the hour.
About 12 hours later, more than 100,000 fans descended on Beaver Stadium for Penn State’s game with Nebraska, arriving in a mood that was less than celebratory and noticeably subdued. For decades, fall Saturdays at Penn State have provided a chance to see Joe Paterno lead one of the nation’s most successful football programs. On this day, however, it was an opportunity to witness the extended university community wrestling with its conscience. The ritualistic tailgating went on as usual — adults drank beer and children threw footballs back and forth — but the numbing effects of a wrenching week of shock, scandal, resignations and recrimination were evident at every turn.
John Matko, a Penn State graduate, stood near the players’ entrance holding a handmade sign that read, “It’s not about wins and losses, cancel this game!”
Matko, 34, had driven from his Pittsburgh home.
“I decided last night that I couldn’t just watch this game on TV like nothing happened,” he said. “I had to come here and take a stand for the children.”
Thousands of ticket-holders passed Matko in the pregame hours. A few stopped to take pictures of him and his sign. One or two shook his hand. Throughout the day, some offered dissent.
Not far from Matko, another sign was propped on the ground against a box: “Penn State is bigger than football.” Volunteers from a nearby sexual violence resource center were handing out pamphlets titled, “You Can Be a Hero; Step In, Stop Abuse.”
A week before Saturday’s game, when Penn State was still rejoicing over Paterno’s record-setting 409th coaching victory as the patriarchal symbol of the university, his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with 40 counts related to the sexual abuse of boys. Two top Penn State officials — Tim Curley, the athletic director, and Gary Schultz, the senior vice president for finance and business — were charged with perjury and failing to report to the authorities what they knew of the child abuse allegations against Sandusky.
Within days, Paterno was fired and Graham B. Spanier, the longtime university president, was removed from office. While neither was charged in the case, questions have been raised about whether they did as much as they could have done to stop Sandusky.
And so, Saturday’s 17-14 loss was the first game since 1965 in which Paterno was not the head coach of a football team that has acted as symbol and proud identity for this state. Paterno first came to Penn State in 1950 as an assistant.
Many students went to the game dressed as Paterno, with pants legs rolled up, white socks and thick-framed black eyeglasses on their noses. Hundreds wore T-shirts that read “Joe Knows Football,” and thousands greeted the team buses arriving at the stadium. Many of those fans went out of their way to salute Jay Paterno, Joe’s son, who is the quarterbacks coach. Jay Paterno took his father’s customary seat on the bus and emerged from it high-fiving fans and pumping his fist.
“I think Joe got a terrible deal,” Frank Lorah, who has been coming to Penn State games for 30 years, said as he walked toward the stadium Saturday morning. “He’s done more for this institution than anyone else and made a name for it. I hope Sandusky rots in jail, but I don’t think Joe deserves this.
“The only thing I can think of is Joe sitting at home for the first time in 62 years.”
Paterno announced Friday that he would not attend the game. At his small ranch house just off the campus, two sport utility vehicles were parked in the driveway Saturday. A few fans gathered nearby, as did three television cameramen. A homemade sign saying “We love you, Joe, thank you” had been placed on the lawn.
“It’s a somber mood,” Brad Kanarr, 31, of Perkiomenville, Pa., said as he stood near Paterno’s home. “Everyone is having a good time out tailgating, throwing footballs and stuff, but out here, as soon as you turn onto this road, the feel is so different.”
Near the track facility a few hundred yards from Beaver Stadium, about 200 former Penn State football players conducted an 8 a.m. meeting to discuss the week’s events. LaVar Arrington, an all-American linebacker at Penn State who played in the N.F.L., described the meeting as “a call to action.”
“We just have to come together and get through this,” he continued. “We have to have the resolve and the sensitivity and the heart to get through this.”
Inside the stadium, minutes before the game, rather than the usual bull rush sprint onto the field, the Penn State players walked from an end zone tunnel hand in hand through a corridor formed by members of the Penn State band and the Football Lettermen Club.
A moment of silence just before kickoff was dedicated to victims of child abuse. The band led the fans, most of them dressed in blue — a color linked with child abuse awareness — in the university’s alma mater.
Then both teams gathered at the center of the field, and the players dropped to one knee as the crowd fell silent. More than 100,000 hardly made a sound for 60 seconds. Then the fans began rhythmic clapping, cheering as the players rose and dispersed to their sidelines.
Within minutes, the opening kickoff was in the air and the crowd was in full throat. By game’s end, when a gritty Penn State comeback fell short in the final moments, the fans paused briefly as if absorbing the loss. Then they united in a sustained ovation as the teams left the field.
Earlier Saturday, at a bus stop in State College, students waited anxiously for transport to the game with a melancholy mix of school pride and concern.
“It’s going to be emotional,” said Shane Rupert, a 21-year-old senior attending his final home game as a student. “Of course, Joe and the kids — the victims — are going to be in our hearts and minds. We’re going to support our school and show the nation that we are a respectable institution.”
Another senior, Nicole Churchville, said she attended Friday’s candlelight vigil for the victims and was headed to the game infused with the same spirit she had the night before.
“I’m going there to support everyone,” she said. “I’m wearing my blue as a way to raise awareness of child sexual assault, and I’m going to support my school and the teammates who didn’t do anything wrong.
“It’s a way for everyone to cope.”
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