In the falls of my childhood, I had something of a routine.
On Fridays, I would get up and go to school excited. Not because it was Friday, but because it meant that I was going to a Penn State football game. My grandfather would pull up in his wood-paneled minivan and my brothers and I would pile in the car and start the trek up to Happy Valley. We’d listen to Johnny Cash, play Gameboy, and just talk.
I learned a lot on those drives. I heard countless stories about Penn State and the kinds of legendary stories that every family has, of the time my dad accidentally ripped the car door off or the time my grandfather found himself across the line at open practice against legendary Penn State defensive end Rosie Grier.
I began going to Penn State football games when I was probably about eight, although there is a chance that I went to a couple random games before that. Regardless, I have seen many amazing victories and defeats in person. I was there for Joe Paterno’s 300th, 324th, and 400th wins. When I was on the field covering the game for number 407, I called my grandfather afterwards. I have never heard him more happy.
My grandfather passed away two weeks ago, and sometimes, it feels like Penn State football went with him.
It used to be different.
There was a time when I sat down in section NF with my grandfather and felt like I was at home. Over the years, I got to know the people around me in a way that you get to know characters in a book. The loud, bearded man in the tie-dye shirt who screamed "SNAP IT OVER HIS HEAD" any time an opposing punter would get ready to kick; the mustached man with blond hair and radio earmuffs on who seemed constantly frustrated; the bald man in back of me who I got to know because I argued with him over a call, and who would give out high fives anytime Penn State scored or stopped the opposing offense.
These book-like characters are the people I sat around during Penn State’s now-mislabeled "dark years," or the period of time between 2000 and 2004 when Penn State didn’t win as many games as people thought they should have. I went to almost every home game during those years and I was loud and optimistic. I can’t imagine feeling that amount of enthusiasm for a losing team today, but I imagine being eleven years old gives you some kind of insight that just isn’t present when you’re older.
I don’t remember ever complaining about the football team during those years. In fact, I almost think I loved them more. Watching Zack Mills leap over an Ohio State defender on a 64-yard run on the way to a comeback win for Joe Paterno’s 324th in 2001 is something I will always remember. Many of those teams, despite their records, had a lot of heart. The one I remember the most fondly is the 2004 team, which featured future legendary Penn Staters Paul Posluszny and Michael Robinson.
It may sound corny and it may sound cliched, but Penn State football in those years really did feel like it was about more than just wins and losses. To me, nothing represented that better than Joe Paterno. A woman behind me once said that Paterno should just go die during one of the many losses during the "dark years," and I turned around and screamed at her that she should be ashamed of herself. I imagine there’s nothing like being shamed into acting the proper way by an angry thirteen year old in front of thousands of fans, but it happened anyways.
Regardless, that woman has stuck with me, and I think I know why.
Many say that it’s hard to convince fans of sports teams to be rational, and in fact, is always a losing argument. I agree, but only on an extrapolated level: it’s hard to convince anyone to be rational. The immediacy of modern life dictates this. It does not reward things like patience; it only demands action, immediately. Unfortunately, most of the time, it’s impossible to frame an issue intelligently without time to think about it.
Keeping that in mind, I have been thinking about the following contradiction for the past couple of days: where is the disconnect between the Penn State I thought I knew and the Penn State that actually is? The Penn State that bronzed a statue of a great man outside of their stadium, and the Penn State that fired him through a phone call that he was forced to dial? The Penn State that hid behind a wall and thought about PR moves instead of doing the right thing, and the Penn State that ignored the victims and scapegoated the wrong man?
Just today, Jerry Sandusky was out in public shopping for a treadmill in full Penn State regalia, a free man. The media has largely ignored Sandusky; I watched a certain large network’s coverage of Penn State’s scandal for two hours and heard his name once. Despite Sandusky’s alleged crimes, the story has been about Joe Paterno.
It reminds me of the woman at the football game that shouted Paterno should die. I imagine that woman is probably a decent person; maybe she has grandchildren that love her and she goes to church every Sunday. But in that moment, she lashed out because of the limited knowledge she had in her mind and the enormous amount of emotion she had in her heart. This country and this world could use more rationality, and she is Exhibit A to me.
Think about the things you think and feel: are they based off of facts or off of assumptions? Right now, all Penn State fans have to go on about their program is the facts. I have limited knowledge of legal proceedings, but I do know that Grand Jury Reports only typically release the amount of information necessary to obtain initial charges and not much else. Factually, we should be upset about the alleged crimes of Jerry Sandusky. Factually, we should be upset about the alleged crimes of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz. Irrationally, the media has made many upset at Joe Paterno.
This is not a plea to give Paterno a free pass. If it comes out that he was complicit in any way, this will be one of the largest failures of his life. But I will also say this: Joe Paterno is one of my heroes, and he is also human. It is true that sometimes humans can be irrational, and maybe he was irrational at some point in this scandal. It’s hard to say. I do know that he has inspired me, and many other alumni and fans to be better people and to do for others as much as possible. For that, I thank him.
Let the inevitable trial play out, and draw your own conclusions. I imagine the conclusions we inevitably will come to is something that I have known all along: that Joe Paterno is a good man.
My grandfather used to tell me that good men often want to speak out because they have nothing to hide; bad men, on the other hand, have nothing to do but hide. I will let you all draw your own conclusions on that statement.
It is true that I feel that the heart of Penn State football has died, but I believe it can rise again. I believe those that sat around me all those Saturdays before will be there Saturday again to watch this team play. I believe that there will be a coach that comes along that will understand Penn State and be respectful to its traditions. I believe that, someday, we will be angry at all the right people.
But not today, and probably not anytime soon. For now, the heart of Penn State football has passed on.