Monday, November 14, 2011

Sad Days and the Road to Recovery in Happy Valley

In my four years at Penn State, I attended every home game but one, which I missed to attend a cousin's wedding. I also traveled to away games at Pitt, Maryland, West Virginia and Syracuse (twice). In fact, the first game I ever witnessed was their first of the 1985 season, a road game at College Park, Maryland. In total, this adds up to somewhere around 30 games in just four seasons.

I haven't been to many games since I graduated, and now I kind of regret that.

This weekend marked the end of an era, and certainly wasn't the joyous, special occasion I always imagined it would be. Although, in reality, I didn't really think Joe Paterno would announce his retirement in advance. I honestly figured he would go out without fanfare, making the decision public only after his final game. Well, as it turns out, there was no official farewell game anyway.

I don't have a lot to say about the scandal at Penn State that hasn't already been said. I will admit to being upset that the majority of people stampeded to judgment of Paterno and the other secondary figures in this mess. I've since come to better accept the gravity of the situation brought out a lot of emotional responses, on both sides of the equation. And it's not wrong for either group to feel the way they do.

I did, however, appreciate this blog post written by Sports Illustrated writer and Paterno biographer Joe Posnanski, although he has since taken a lot of heat for it. Check out the 1500 or so comments. Or don't.

But, I'm not writing this as a defense or a condemnation of Joe Paterno or anyone else, although obviously there is at least one person who most likely deserves the latter.

The angle I want to discuss is that of the Penn State alumnus, which is not meant to discount the real victims in this tragedy, of course. I certainly realize I'm one of hundreds of thousands of people who are way down on the list of those who deserve sympathy here, but this is my blog and it's a place I choose to share my personal feelings from time to time.

This scandal is the most devastating heartbreak I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan, as it goes far beyond sports, and far beyond being a fan. It has to do with being a Penn Stater and being proud of what that means.

As I said to an old friend—who's also a fellow New York Giants fan—last week, "If we learned that Bill Belichick did this, it's not necessarily a black mark on the '86 Giants, but this incident is a black mark on an institution I'm otherwise proud to consider myself a part of."

Honestly, if you had asked me to rank my favorite teams across all sports, it would probably go like this:
  1. New York Yankees
  2. New York Giants
  3. Penn State Nittany Lions (Football)
  4. Penn State Nittany Lions (Basketball)
  5. New York Knicks
So, Penn State football is not the team I live and die for. Maybe I did while I was in school, but that was over 20 years ago.

Still, despite the fact sports fans love to use the word "we" when discussing their teams, I've always been against that practice, except when it comes to Penn State. I'm not a member of the Yankees. I'm not a member of the Giants. Although I'm not, and have never been, a member of the Penn State football or basketball teams—except that I used to joke I was going to try to walk on as the placekick holder—I am a Penn Stater.

So, I take some personal ownership in this one, even though I know in reality, it has nothing to do with me.

Let's go back to those four years I spent in Happy Valley for a few minutes, though. They included the 1985 to 1988 football seasons, which means I was there for the 1986 National Championship. That season, and the 1987 Fiesta Bowl that capped it, is one of the most important sports memories of my life. In fact, if you asked me to rate my favorite championship teams, that list would look something like this:
  1. 1986 Penn State Nittany Lions (Football)
  2. 2007 New York Giants
  3. 1996 New York Yankees
  4. 1978 New York Yankees
  5. 1986 New York Giants
The only championship parade I've ever attended was the January 1987 celebration of Penn State's 14-10 Fiesta Bowl victory over the University of Miami. I still pretty vividly remember taking a photo of Jerry Sandusky waving to the crowd, and considering him the real hero of that championship game. It was his defensive game plan that stifled the vaunted Miami Hurricanes offense, led by Vinny Testaverde, although it was also the players on that defensive squad who executed it.

I no longer know what to make of that memory. While my Penn State pride may eventually fully recover, I don't know that I'll ever look back on that tremendous year with the same level of reverence. I certainly won't ever look back on Sandusky as such.

I was going to end this post by sharing a Posnanski observation from Wednesday night, one that he tweeted shortly after the announcement that Joe Paterno was fired:

"I saw a girl crying tonight. When I asked why she said: 'Because everybody lost.'"

But, Saturday's game made me feel like ending this on a positive note instead. In their highly emotional return to the playing field, the team fell behind a good Nebraska squad 17-0 in the second half. It would have been easy to pack it in and write it off as a game they really had no chance of winning due to all the distractions. However, they persevered and launched an impressive comeback—for an offensively challenged team—that fell just a little short in a 17-14 loss.

Of course, there are many who felt the game never should have been played, and I can't fault them for that. But, they did play the game, and it was one that obviously meant a lot to 100 or so Penn State players who had absolutely nothing to do with this recent tragedy.

It was the fans who most impressed me, though. Following the embarrassing chaos of Wednesday night, Penn State fans—including tens of thousands of students—were well behaved throughout the game. And their post-game gesture, in which they gave the team a rousing ovation, followed by the patented "We Are...Penn State!" chant, made me feel once again that there are plenty of reasons to be proud to be a Penn Stater.

That fact won't be changed by the actions of one man and the inaction of several others, and I can say for damn sure it will not be affected by the folks out there who have decided to use this occasion to denigrate Penn State and all Penn Staters rather than take aim at those culpable in this ugly situation.

Those folks do not define Penn State. They are not Penn State. We are Penn State!


  1. Very well said. Although I grew up in the state to the west and have always rooted for the Buckeyes, I've always had a soft spot for the Nittany Lions. My dad, a Pennsylvania native, always rooted for them. And Joe Paterno looks an awful lot like my Uncle Steve.

    In any event, good for you for sticking by your alma mater.


  2. Terrifically written and emotionally truthful. I'm glad I have been wise enough through long life to have held my tongue throughout the events that unfolded.