Penn State fans show strength, support on game day
STATE COLLEGE — The Nittany Lions bounced and bumped off each other behind a closed gate, antsy to attach the focus for a battered fan base on football, not lurid tales of child abuse, for the first time in 10 months.
Penn State’s public address announcer needed no major introduction:
“Please welcome … the Nittany Lions!”
With that, coach Bill O’Brien led the charge in the first home opener without Joe Paterno since 1949, his players behind him, storming the Beaver Stadium field as more than 97,000 fans kicked off a new chapter in the program’s tarnished history with a raucous and sustained ovation.
Then came the familiar cheer that has echoed through the stadium for decades:
“We are … Penn State!”
But in a clear display of O’Brien’s challenge ahead, the new, short-handed Nittany Lions wore down in the second half, and Ohio, from the Mid-American Conference, upset Penn State, 24-14. It was a sad ending for a devoted fan base that came ready to rock the house, after scandal rocked the program.
Penn State held a moment of reflection Saturday for all victims of sexual abuse. Penn State also asked fans to pause and know that all those affected by abuse are remembered in their hearts.
A university accused of placing football first turned the page when it invited 600 athletes from all of its sports teams to participate in the pregame show as part of Penn State’s “One Team” motto.
Yes, this would be a time to remember all those hurt.
But the tagline in the scoreboard highlight video made it clear Penn State’s program was ready for “the next chapter.”
When the team arrived at the stadium, O’Brien, the former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, was the first person to deboard off bus No. 1, followed by his game captains Derek Day, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Matt McGloin.
Boisterous fans waited at the tunnel entrance for hours and lined the road like a parade route as they waited for team busses.
They showed their love for JoePa with chants of “Joe Pa-ter-no!” before turning their shrieks toward O’Brien. There were thunderous roars for the players as the exited the bus. The fans showed they will stand by the players that stuck with the program.
More than 90 percent of the roster stayed after the NCAA handed down its punishment July 23.
So much has changed on the field, but the lively atmosphere remained the same outside Beaver Stadium. The overall mood around the program is that of pride, perseverance and support – for both O’Brien and Paterno.
The latter’s widow, Sue Paterno, arrived with her daughter, Mary Kay, about 15 minutes before kickoff and came in through an employee entrance. When asked by the Associated Press what Saturday’s game meant to her, she quietly said she “just wants us to win.” Sue left the game before the fourth quarter, in order to watch a grandson’s youth football game.
Former Penn State running back Franco Harris watched the game in a suite – next to a life-sized cutout of Paterno.
Paterno was fired in November following 46 seasons, days after former assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child molestation charges. Paterno’s son, quarterback coach Jay Paterno, also left the staff.
Penn State, as promised in O’Brien’s New England philosophy, threw the ball around in the first half, and took a 14-3 lead into the locker room for halftime over Ohio.
O’Brien stopped by ESPN for a quick halftime interview and was asked – given the day’s events – if he was as calm as it appeared.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “I’m as calm as I sound.”
Hours before the official beginning of O’Brien’s tenure, tailgaters tossed footballs through the parking lots, set up their cooking stations and readied themselves for the new Nittany Lions’ debut. Many wore “We Bill-ieve” shirts, endorsing Penn State’s new leader, who has been a steadying force within the program for nine months.
Though Paterno’s statue was removed July 22, the day before the NCAA announced the sanctions for the Sandusky scandal, many fans still hold Paterno in high regard and are unafraid to show it. One tailgater, in fact, has a 16-foot, homemade banner that reads “409 wins with honor,” referring to Paterno’s victory total. Other fans are wearing shirts that read “We Are … Still Proud.”
Where the statue used to stand, a fan placed a Paterno bobblehead between the trees. Others stopped to snap pictures with cellphones and cameras. Dressed in Penn State jerseys, Cindy and Mark Wascavage of Washington, N.J., paused to remember the man they say will always be the face of Penn State football.
“It makes you wanna cry,” Cindy, 54, said as she saw the bobblehead.
The couple has held season tickets for nine years and has always admired the former coach, even through these difficult times.
“He was the whole football program,” Cindy said, while Mark believes during this proud season, all of Penn State will stand united.
Chris Bartnik, of Chantilly, Va., created a life-size cutout of the former coach to honor him, and carried it with him through the lots. He stopped by the former statue holding place, but did not keep the cutout there out of fear it would be removed by university personnel.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said, “to pretend Joe Paterno never existed.”
At Paterno’s gravesite, fresh flowers were added to the fading collection of notes and memorabilia by Rob Elchynski, 44, who stopped by with his wife and friends before the game.
“I think it’s critical to the moving-on that they talk about, that they start playing football again,” Elchynski said, walking back to his car after saying a short prayer at the graveside.
The students, alumni and fans outside the stadium were nearly unanimous in their stance that Paterno got a raw deal and the university should have dug in and fought back against the NCAA sanctions. They’ve united behind the program following strict NCAA sanctions including a four-year bowl ban.
“We’re maybe more determined than ever to be supportive,” said Mike Bealla, of Harrisburg. “If you’re a fan, you’re a fan. The spirit will be there.”
They threw their creative energy into homemade signs, T-shirts, and tailgate feasts. And Penn State stores sold T-shirts touting “Tradition” and “We Are.”
Sue Wilson, a Penn State graduate, set up camp in the same tailgate lot she’s celebrated for more than 20 years. Wearing a “House that Joe Built,” T-shirt, Wilson said the NCAA or former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s university-commissioned report did not diminish Paterno’s accomplishments.
“He was a man of honor and superior high, moral integrity,” he said. “I knew him and I was honored to know him. I miss him.”
About 90 minutes before kickoff, a plane flew over Beaver Stadium with a banner reading “Oust Erickson/Trustees,” referring to Penn State president Rodney Erickson.
But while much of the famed gameday atmosphere remained the same, there are still plenty of changes present.
Hours before kickoff, the Penn State football Twitter account posted a picture of the team uniforms hanging in the locker room – jerseys with names on the back. Karen Caldwell, the wife of trainer, Spider Caldwell, stitched the names on the jerseys.
A blue ribbon was also placed on the back of helmets to show support for child abuse victims.
“Sweet Caroline” was scrapped for rock music blasted at ear-ringing decibels that would have made Paterno cringe. In fact, as the Nittany Lions took the field for warmups, “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC was the song of choice.
Atmosphere and good feelings aside, there were still scores of empty seats and rows deep into the game, which is unusual for an opener. The announced crowd was 97,186. Beaver Stadium seats 106,572.
Some 15,000 fans gave a preview of what to expect on gameday at Penn State’s pep rally Friday. As the team sat on bleachers atop the field, and O’Brien gave a brief, but inspirational, speech, a familiar refrain echoed through the Beaver Stadium crowd.
“We Are … Penn State!”