They Stayed, They Played, They Saved the Program

He stayed. He led. He is now a legend. - Mike Pettigano / BSD

The 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions were no more than a good football team. But when all is said and done, they will be remembered among the Penn State greats. And deservedly so.

They were the team that was never supposed to play—the team that shouldn't have been allowed to play.

They were the symbol of a culture gone wrong, of a sport's unhealthy hold over a town and a university, of the devastating effects of society's out-of-scale adoration for intercollegiate football.

They were reviled and hated before they even started summer workouts, and they were punished as severely as any athletes in the history of college sport, even though they had nothing to do with what they were being punished for.

They were the 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions, the team that shouldn't have been.

And in the end, they proved everyone wrong.

***

Yes, there are still those out there who hate this team, who hate this university, who hate those of you who either went to school at Penn State or go to school at Penn State or simply care about the football program that plays there. There are those who continue to say that this team should have never taken the field in the first place. There are those who continue to be incapable of separating the actions of Jerry Sandusky from the thousands upon thousands of individuals who make up the Penn State community, and therefore have decided that anyone who still supports Penn State football is somehow evil incarnate.

No, these folks won’t change their minds, probably not ever, and I’ve come to the realization that, when it comes to these people, nothing short of collective self-immolation by anyone and everyone ever associated in any way with Penn State will ever suffice as a proper penance for this thing that 99.9 percent of us had absolutely nothing to do with. So my advice is simple: Don’t get too worked up about it.

Because the good news is that those folks have been relegated to the lunatic fringe, and over the past few months, the tide has very clearly turned. Most opposing fans and most lucid commentators and most folks with any sense in their heads have now come to the understanding that there is in fact nothing inherently evil about Penn State or Penn Staters, that most everyone associated with this university was as blindsided by this terrible thing as everybody else, that these football players and these football coaches had absolutely nothing to do with any of it, and that, as a result, the 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions do not deserve to be viewed through the lens of Jerry Sandusky.

Rather, this remarkable coach and this remarkable team deserve nothing less than to be seen as the 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions, a team that stuck together when the world seemed intent on tearing it apart, a team that endured through a crisis that it had no part in making, and a team that, by simply showing up and playing football each week, helped its wounded university do precisely what it needed to do: Take another step forward.

***

In terms of pure talent, of course, there have been greater Penn State teams than this, and in terms of on-the-field achievement, countless Nittany Lion teams have accomplished more.

But it's hardly a leap to say that, when all is said and done, and when the comprehensive history of Penn State football is finally written, the 2012 Nittany Lions will stand out as one of the greatest and most beloved teams to ever wear the blue and white.

And deservedly so.

Looking back now, it’s clear to see just how close this team came to falling apart. When those sanctions were announced last summer, they hit the fans and alumni and the students hard. But we can only assume they hit the players even harder. After all, this game and that team and this program is their life; they spend as much time with football as most folks spend with their full-time jobs, maybe even more. They had built their dreams around this team, and all at once, with one swing of Mark Emmert’s mighty and sanctimonious sword, all of those dreams—everything they hoped for in this season—were taken away. In a flash, their football world was eviscerated. It must have been crushing for them. Absolutely crushing.

So, no, I don’t blame the kids who left. I really don’t. Faced with an unprecedented situation, staring down a sort of football emptiness that they could not have ever imagined, they did what they thought they had to do to keep their football dreams alive. Their decisions were completely understandable, and I’ve never felt any ill will toward any of them. They didn’t ask for this. They didn’t sign up for this. But it happened anyway, and then they had to make a choice. They chose to move on, and I’m sure it was a difficult choice indeed.

What’s remarkable to me, however, is so how few others on this team made that choice.

Most of them, as we now know, decided to stay. They decided to play for Penn State, even though playing for Penn State this season would not be anything like what they expected, or hoped for, or dreamed of. They decided to wear the blue and white and take the field under a cloud of scandal, not knowing how they’d be received on the road, not even knowing how they’d be received at home. They chose to stay and play even though so many on the outside were saying that they should not play at all.

Mauti. McGloin. Hill. Morris. Zordich. Hodges. All the rest, too.

They were loyal. They were steadfast. They were unfazed by the unprecedented.

They stayed. They played.

They changed minds. They saved the program.

***

Now, it was never easy. None of it was easy. From the moment the sanctions came down, they had to answer the questions. The endless, endless questions—questions about anything and everything except football, the game they love to play.

Why are you staying?

What does the fact that you’re still playing football at Penn State tell the world about Penn State’s priorities?

Why shouldn’t the nation root against Penn State?

How do you expect to be treated on the road?

Were the sanctions fair?

What will be you playing for, since you’re playing for nothing at all?

Why didn’t you leave?

They were questions, I suppose, that needed to be asked. And to their credit, the players answered all of them. Calmly, respectfully, they answered, over and over and over again.

But you could tell—you could just tell—that more than anything else, all these guys wanted to do was take the field, to go play the game they love for the school they love. All they wanted to do was play football.

***

Then they got their chance to do precisely that, and it was all pretty much a disaster.

For a half, this new-look team looked like a new team indeed against the Ohio Bobcats. But a bad break here led to a bad break there, and an Ohio team that was so much better than they were given credit for made one great play after another, and in the end, the result was a fair one: Penn State didn’t lose to Ohio that day as much as the Bobcats came into Beaver Stadium and won.

Ohio was the better team that day, and no, Penn State had nothing to be ashamed of. But it was a bleak scene after that game nonetheless—deflated, empty, flat, worried. After all the buildup, and after that slow, methodical letdown against the Bobcats, it was probably just too much to ask that team to turn things around so quickly, to prepare themselves mentally for that road trip the following week, that fateful trip to Charlottesville.

Not much needs to be said about that one, of course. We know what happened and we know how it happened. Losses don't get much harder.

I will just say this, however: At the very moment that Sam Ficken’s last wayward kick sailed wide left, the entire Penn State football program stood at perhaps its final crossroads. In the haze of disbelief that followed that heartbreaking and almost impossible defeat, it would have been so easy, so very easy indeed, for our first-year coach to cave in, for everyone around this program to throw up their hands and concede defeat, for the players to consider what might have been if they had pursued those opportunities elsewhere.

On that day, on that field, the 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions had a choice.

They could quit. Or they could stay.

For the second time, they chose to stay.

For the second time, they saved the program.

***

The standings say that the 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions enter this, the last weekend of the season, with a record of 7-4. With a win over Wisconsin on Senior Day, the Nits could finish 8-4.

In a strictly football sense, 8-4 would be a great achievement indeed. This was never going to be a great football team even before the sanctions hit, and even before the departures began. So after that all went down, and after we could finally see what this roster actually looked like, well, most honest observers figured .500 was a reasonable goal. Perhaps even an ambitious one.

Besides, there were question marks at tailback, and question marks at wideout, and question marks defensive back. There were questions about team morale. And yes, there were questions—a lot of questions, actually—about the head coach, a guy who never had to call all the shots before, who never had to run a major college football program, who never had to deal with the players and the media and the fans and all of the stuff that has nothing to do with the stuff he knew so well, the Xs and Os and the intricacies of modern-day offensive football.

The reality is that any college head-coaching job was going to present a difficult adjustment for Bill O’Brien; this one, of course, would be especially difficult.

There was no blueprint for this—no model to follow. Nobody in the history of college football ever had to deal with what Bill O’Brien faced back in August, and it’s unlikely that anyone will face it ever again. It was truly, truly unprecedented.

Which is why, in a season of minor miracles—Matt McGloin storming the Penn State record books, Allen Robinson having a breakout year beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, Zack Zwinak anchoring the running game and bulldozing over defenses like a modern-day Mike Alstott, Sam Ficken evolving from sob story to Mr. Automatic—perhaps the greatest minor miracle of all is how incredibly well O’Brien handled this. And I mean, all of this.

The situation didn’t faze him. The sanctions didn’t faze him. The Virginia game didn’t faze him. Nothing fazed him.

At least, that’s how it seemed.

But the more I think about this amazing season, and the more I think about the amazing individuals who made it happen, the more I realize just how hard it must have been for them, just how many doubts they must have had, just how many questions they must have asked of themselves.

Maybe, in the haze of Ficken’s last miss down there in Virginia, O’Brien and his players wondered—like, really wondered—if they would ever win a game at all. Maybe they wondered if the world really was against them. Maybe they wondered why they stayed, and maybe they wondered if staying was a mistake.

Maybe there were moments, either last summer or last week, when each and every player on that team asked himself whether it really was all worth it. Maybe there were times when they didn’t really believe in what they were doing, when they didn’t really believe that they were making a difference, when they really didn’t believe that, by staying and by playing, they were actually helping to save a program—a program that really could have gone in the tank.

Maybe even now, some of those kids don’t understand the magnitude of what they’ve done, because maybe they think they’re just another football team, playing just another season, posting just another mediocre 8-4 record that history will quickly forget.

So maybe it’s our responsibility—as alumni and fans and family and friends—to make these guys understand that, yes, the effort really was worth it. That it was worth it for them, that it was worth it for us, that it was worth it for all of Penn State and anyone who ever cared about Penn State.

Maybe we need to let them know how important it was for them to keep on playing, when so many others said they should do anything but that.

Maybe we need to tell them, in the clearest language possible, “Thank you.”

I'll start.

Thank you, Nittany Lions. Sincerely. Thank you.

Thank you for never giving up, for playing your hearts out, for taking all the questions, for answering them so calmly, for representing us so well, for wearing the blue and white, for reminding us why we loved this game in the first place.

Thank you for giving us Saturdays back, for bringing the university together, for being a force for good in a year of mostly bad.

Thank you for not running away, for not giving into doubt.

Thank you for staying.

Thank you for playing.

Thank you for saving the program, and for helping this university move forward.

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