Out Like Lions: Penn State 24, Wisconsin 21

Mike Pettigano / Black Shoe Diaries

After two ugly losses to start the season, our only consolation was that at least we still had football. But as Kyle French's field goal attempt hooked wide left, and Penn State walked off the field for the last time this season, they did it as champions.

This Penn State football program has won national championships, and polished off undefeated seasons. It's claimed conference titles, and knocked off #1 teams. It's played, and won, on the biggest stages that college football has to offer, and it's always done it the right way, no matter what anyone says to the contrary. There are few schools that can match the tradition and history and pomp and circumstance that our forefathers built here, in a small town in Central Pennsylvania.

And next week, schools will be competing for conference titles of their own. Last night, Notre Dame played their way into the national championship game. In a few weeks, bowl season will start, and schools and their fans will disperse themselves amongst the South and the West Coast. Just over a month from now, the BCS bowls will pit the best teams in the country against one another. After the new year, two teams will play for a chance to etch their names into history.

Sure, maybe my perspective is a bit off. But hell, from where I'm sitting, the most important game played last weekend, all month, and this whole damn year matched up a pair of 7-win teams. There were no greater implications than pride. Wisconsin had already sewn up the Leaders Division and for our Nittany Lions--for 31 of them, at least--there will be no tomorrow. Technically, there's no today. And yet, ironically, every single student-athlete who stayed with this program, with this university, ensured that there would be a future, that this beautiful thing we've built will carry on, NCAA sanctions be damned.

Yes, life would still have gone on if Penn State had fallen to Wisconsin Saturday. The football program would have gone on all the same. It had long been already saved. In our quest to mythologise a group of student-athletes who deserve lionization, we must be careful to avoid remembering this game as more than a footnote--but god, what a footnote it was. Had Penn State lost, the "2012" on the facade wouldn't have come down. The tributes to a fallen hero wouldn't have been erased from our collective memories. The heart and soul and determination and courage and love and loyalty of this group of young men always cast a much longer shadow than its final record ever could.

But here's the thing: no matter what you believe in, whether we call it karma, or justice, or a sense of order in the universe, it essentially boils down to the same thing: the idea that good things will happen to people who deserve it. The best sorts of things that could possibly happen are those that validate our faith, and for the final time this year, our faith in Penn State was validated. It was the best of things. And it was all thanks to the most special group of players and coaches any university could ask for.

Don't worry, dear readers, I'm not adopting the viewpoint of a former BSD writer. There was no overarching plan that involved Penn State winning this game. I'm not particularly inclined to believe in any sort of cosmic consciousness, but even if I did, I'd be hardpressed to draw a connection between its existence and the outcome of a simple football game. No, it's the profane that fascinates me, and so it couldn't have been more fitting that, when asked how he could possibly sum up this Penn State football team, all Bill O'Brien could offer was that they're "a bunch of fuckers."

It was perfect. They were, are, and always will be a bunch of fuckers, and so are we, as we can only aspire to be reflected in their image. Maybe it's the last refuge of the ineloquent, but there's no better way to sum up everything this season meant to so many people, and the dignity with which a bunch of young men became the standard bearers for the hopes and dreams of a university and a community using just three words. There's no better way to encapsulate the resilience and toughness of a team that lost its first two games, then won eight of its next ten. There's no better way to recognize the unfathomably brilliant job done by a coach none of us wanted to see hired. There's no better way to commemorate a team that so many people, so loudly, opined never should have had the chance to do exactly what they did, which was no less than reclaiming the soul of Penn State.

Mike Mauti? He's a fucker. Matt McGloin? Fucker. Sam Ficken? Maybe the biggest fucker of them all. And for the rest of their lives, they can carry that title as a badge of honor. Because Saturday night, against Wisconsin, they won one last meaningless little game. They gave us one last reason to celebrate and for that, and for so much more, we will be eternally grateful. But more importantly, they gave themselves the knowledge that they, without any doubt, achieved the greatness they knew, deep down, that they were destined for.

So yeah, 1982 and 1986 and 1994 and 2005 will always hang on the facade at Beaver Stadium, but you could never convince me that any one of those years meant a lick more than this one.

There's something to be said, by the way, for writing these recaps the next day. A little distance from the emotion and fervor of the game, that bit of perspective gained from a night's sleep can do a writer some good. But the flip side of that is this: What more could be said about Saturday's game that hasn't already been churned out by someone else, consumed and regurgitated by all of you already?

Had I written this story yesterday, I might've written a lede like, "Today, we spell redemption S-A-M." Maybe it would've centered around Gerald Hodges' tribute to his teammate, his brother-in-arms, and how the whole team followed suit, commemorating their captain with a moving tribute you may never see matched. Or I could've focused on Jordan Hill's dominant, game-changing performance.

But as we gain more and more distance from Saturday's game, those things matter less and less. That's not to diminish any of those outstanding accomplishments: After almost singlehandedly losing the second game of the season for this Penn State team, and, apparently, the faith of his head coach, Sam Ficken paid Michael Mauti the ultimate tribute with his game winner, capping off the type of resurgent season of which he was, in a way, a microcosm. Gerald Hodges, who last week said he wished he could've given Mauti his ACL, did right by him, as the leader of a defense that stiffened up against a rusher who staked his claim as one of the greatest backs in NCAA history. And Jordan Hill dominated in a way defensive tackles rarely do, keying a second-half comeback that started with the defense.

There were so many angles I could've taken, but none of them matter half as much as the feeling--half ebullient joy, half unbridled love, all marred by that hint of bittersweet sadness that comes with every ending, but especially this one--that they came together to instill in each of our hearts.

Even the grades, now, seem superfluous, fatuous even. Every single student-athlete who represented Penn State, Saturday as they did all year, deserves nothing less than an A+. To grade these young men on anything but their character so emphatically misses the point that they taught us all year, the point that we will, generations from now, refer back to as the one that redefined this program and this university at a time when we so desperately needed it.

The way that Penn State won yesterday isn't important. Hell, that they won at all isn't important. What is important is that every single one of the sixty-something student-athletes in blue and white got to walk off the field like the champions they are. They deserved that win, not because they outplayed Wisconsin, or because Zach Zwinak outrushed Montee Ball, or because they played harder or executed better or wanted it more. They deserved that win because of how they comported themselves all year long, because they gave us the hope we thought we'd lost along with a hero, a sense of superiority, and a whole bunch of wins.

So to the Penn State team, the seniors most of all who ensured that there was a football team to serve as our beacon of all that remains good at Penn State: thank you so much. There's nothing more to say than to retell our unending gratitude. People, I promise, will tell their kids about you. You weren't normal. You were legends. You, more than anyone else, were Penn State.

And to all of you who've been there for the ride on this absolute roller coaster of a season, one that I wouldn't trade for anything else: I'm so glad I got to share it with all of you.

You bunch of fuckers.

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