The 1980's were the glory days of Penn State football. Joe Paterno played in three national championship games in a span of five years and won two of them. I was only 12 years old when Penn State won its second national championship so I can't say I was fully aware of how special it was at the time. The other day I pulled out my DVD of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl to remember what it was like back then. The thing that struck me about that 1986 team was their confidence and swagger. They played a Miami team with Vinnie Testaverde, Michael Irvin, Alonzo Highsmith, Jerome Brown and a coach that would go on to win three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. But there was John Shaffer, D.J. Dozier, Ray Isom, and Trey Bauer standing toe to toe with them. Those were the days that cemented Joe Paterno as a football genius and established him as a legend.
By the time 1994 rolled around I was a junior at Penn State so I was better equipped to fully appreciate that magical season. Penn State was in their third full season as a Big Ten member. There was a certain amount of resentment from several of the established Big Ten teams. They feared Penn State was going to dominate the conference with their fertile eastern recruiting ground all to themselves. It's safe to say our welcome to the conference was less than warm. Even today there is a certain element that wouldn't mind one bit if our Dear Ol' State packed their bags and left for the Big East.
When people ask me to recall my fondest memory of that season I don't hesitate. It was the win over Michigan. When Kerry Collins hit Bobby Engram late in the fourth quarter we knew the game was over. And as the seconds ticked down to zero we knew we were on the cusp of greater things. Penn State had dethroned the team with more Big Ten titles than you can count on your fingers and toes. We had arrived in the Big Ten and took the seat at the head of the table.
After the game I didn't know what to do, but like a migrating bird I knew I had to go to College Avenue. When I arrived I was amazed by what I saw. Students filled the streets in celebration. Cheers of "We Are! Penn State!" bounced off the buildings and dissolved into the trees. People hugged and high fived people they didn't know. Soon a set of goal posts from the practice field arrived and they were paraded up and down the avenue. Before the day was over they would be deposited in Joe Paterno's front yard.
It's hard to believe, but the last time Penn State beat Michigan I was a fifth year senior watching the game from my apartment on Beaver Avenue. There was no dancing in the streets or goal post parades that day. It was our third consecutive win over Michigan. It had become old hat by then. Nearly eleven years have passed since that day. The memories of triumph and jubilation have been replaced with disappointment and despair every time Michigan appears on the schedule. It's been too long. Players have come and graduated to be replaced with a new group of players, but the results never change. Michigan owns Penn State.
In the evolution of every champion there is a defining game. A game in which the players come together to achieve a goal previously thought to be unobtainable. It's the game in which a team takes the step from good to great in the perception of the national consciousness. It's a game in which players learn how to win. And once they learn they never forget. From that point on no matter how formidable the opponent, no matter how great the odds, they find a way to win.
On a chilly October night in 2005, the giant scoreboard in Beaver Stadium flashed the words "We're Back". I ask you, back to what? Back to 1986? Back to 1994? No. We've done nothing more than gone back to 1997 and 1999 when we had good teams that couldn't beat Michigan. In order for Penn State to truly be back, they must overcome this unachievable goal. They must beat Michigan.
The time has come. The time has come for this team rise up and fulfill their potential. The time has come for the streak to end. Eleven years...one third of my life...I've waited to see my Dear Ol' State defeat the Wolverines. Twenty-one years...nearly two thirds of my life...I've waited to see Joe Paterno carried off the field in triumph as Penn State stood atop the college football world as the only unbeaten team in America. We cannot achieve this until we beat the Wolverines. The time has come. The time is now. This is why you lift the weights all summer. This is why you practice even when it hurts. There is nothing left to be said. It's time to win.