A look back at the atmosphere surrounding the 2011 Penn State-Nebraska game. It was one of the most historic games in the history of college football, for all the wrong reasons.
Jon Sandusky waited patiently for his name to be called on Senior Day in 1999. One by one, the name of each senior on the Penn State football team was announced over the Beaver Stadium P.A. system. Players like future number-one overall NFL draft pick Courtney Brown and starting quarterback Kevin Thompson sprinted out of the tunnel. They all received monstrous applause as they soaked in the atmosphere that had become a second home to them in the past four years one final time before moving on to the next stage of life. Jon Sandusky was not nationally recognized like some of his teammates who would soon begin focusing on taking the next step towards the NFL. But he was well-known and respected by the Penn State faithful. Sandusky was not a star, but performed admirably in spot duty in the defensive backfield, and had a knack for making plays on special teams. Like so many Grand Experiment players, Sandusky was a high-character guy that strived to succeed off the field as well. Sandusky was a two time All-Academic Big Ten honoree thanks to the 3.8 GPA he earned as a kinseology major. He was also known as the son of longtime Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky.
Finally, the younger Sandusky's name was called and number 45 emerged on to the field to the cheers of more than 100,000 fans. Jon found his father and the two shared a long embrace near midfield. It was a poignant and memorable moment for anyone who witnessed it. A father-son combo made up of a scrappy student-athlete and a long-time defensive coordinator who was retiring after the season to focus on a higher calling to help mentor underprivileged children. This was surely a moment that trascended sports and gave people a reason to be proud to be part of the Penn State experience.
On Senior Day 2011, Jerry Sandusky once again played a major role in reminding the Penn State community that there is far more to life than football. Twelve years later, he did it in a way that was unimaginable of anyone that witnessed that seemingly touching moment way back in 1999.
The first time Penn State played Nebraska as a Big Ten foe was unlike any game in the history of Penn State, quite possibly unlike anything in the history of competitive sports. Just ten days earlier, which felt like an eternity by the time the game kicked off, there was a lot of build-up as Penn State somehow found a way to reach 8-1, its sole loss to #1 Alabama. The game against their new conference rival would be a huge stepping stone towards an improbable Big Ten championship that was easily within their grasp. It would be a major moment as Joe Paterno was likely set to coach the his final home game in a very meaningful contest between two of the great college football programs.
Then came the Grand Jury report on November 5, and things for Penn State were changed forever.
I read the report that afternoon and quickly forgot about whichever game I had been absorbed in before hearing the news. I remembered hearing about an investigation in the spring of 2011, but nothing could have prepared me for shocking charges against a man I had once held in such high regard. My dad and I had plans to attend the Nebraska game the following Saturday, but I suddenly did not want to go. This was something completely incomprehensible prior to that troubling day. I didn't want to put on my recycled Derrick Williams jersey and pretend I cared about the game. I didn't want to walk past the Lasch Building and be that close to the horrors that had occurred in that building. I didn't want to confront the notion that something I had cherished since childhood was about to be ripped away from me.
By the time I packed my bags on Thursday night, it felt like I was preparing for a funeral. It was an event I didn't want to attend, but knew I had to be there for it. Emotionally-spent and exhausted after staying up late into the night all week to follow the circumstances that became more troubling by the hour, I got into my car to begin the journey to the atmosphere no one was capable of imagining just 10 days before.
We pulled into Curtin Road and were struck by the sight of the Nittany Lion statue without anyone near it. There were no lines of visiting fans and families patiently waiting to get a photo with one of the most landmarks in Pennsylvania. It was a perfect reminder that anything can, and will, change in an instant.
We parked and continued to make our way down Curtin, surrounded by a sea of blue-clad fans. However, this time there was no shouts of "WE ARE," no footballs being tossed through the air, none of the elements of that perfect electric atmosphere that hangs in the air around Beaver Stadium each game day. Instead, it was replaced by silence. There were thousands of Penn State faithful in all directions, each one lost in their own thoughts.
There's a feeling that is unique to sitting in the stands as you continually check the scoreboard to see the exact time until kickoff. It's a mixture of pride in being part of the Penn State community, excitement for what you expect to unfold on the field, and anticipation for a game you have been thinking about for weeks to finally begin. On this day, this emotion was instead replaced by a feeling of complete emptiness. It was a feeling of not having any idea if the thing that you cherished for years really stood for all the things that made you hold it in such high regard in the first place.
I've attended about 30 games in Beaver Stadium dating back to 1997, and can go into great detail about the most minute details of each game. But I really don't remember much about what happened on the field that day. I know that Nebraska jumped out to an early lead, and Penn State tried valiantly to fight back late in the game just to come up short. I'm pretty sure Matt McGloin caught a touchdown pass on some sort of gadget play. I remember noticing Silas Redd's absence and wondering if he got hurt. I noticed the clock kept running after McGloin ran out of bounds in the fourth quarter. I just shrugged my shoulders at something that would normally would have had me extremely worked up in the stands.
The things that are forever etched in my mind did not have much to do with the game. I experienced every emotion imaginable emotion in the hour or so in the stands before the game started, to the point I developed a splitting headache by the end of the first quarter. These emotions were capped off by the tears shed during a moment of silence, and the tears that would later come when both teams met at midfield to share a hug and a prayer.
The behavior of the Nebraska community will forever stay with me. After a week of being scorned by a nation, labeled as cultists and enablers, the Cornhusker faithful treated us with their respect, understanding and kindness. Instead of piling on with name-calling and disgusted looks, many Nebraska fans shared their sorrows and extended their warmest wishes to a deeply hurt and confused Penn State community. In one of the classiest things I've ever witnessed, the Nebraska players managed to exit the field without the slightest hint of celebration. It spoke volumes about the character of a group of young men that were able to contain themselves after winning a hard-fought game that had major implications for their season. It was a valuable lesson that 17 years of resentment for a program on the other side of a controversial national championship race was completely ridiculous.
The walk to the car after the game was exactly like the one on the way in- surrounded by thousands who were silently dealing with a week of emotional turmoil. It was a sunny but chilly November day, which served as the perfect reminder that there would eventually be bright times to come, but not before first facing a seemingly eternity of cold and darkness that was on the way.