Penn State Football: The Joy Is Gone. Will It Be Allowed To Return?


"Also facing judgment in the Sandusky trial: Penn State"

- Headline, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 4, 2012

It's starting again.

Predictably, sadly, it’s starting again.

I sincerely hope that I don't have to spend the next six months writing about the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, because to be completely honest, I've spent roughly the last six months writing about the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal at Penn State, and as you might imagine, I've just about had my fill with the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal at Penn State--not so much the scandal itself, which of course needs to be and most surely will be fully investigated, but rather the attendant media-driven circus that demands that we, as Penn State football fans, walk some kind of unmanageable tightrope between defending ourselves (because, you know, we are not collectively Jerry Sandusky) and showing the proper sympathy and disgust for the ugly scandal that unfolded in our midst.

I’m tired of it. You’re tired of it. To be frank, I think most college football fans are tired of it.

But this week, Penn State braces for the opening of the Sandusky sex abuse trial, and as some commentators have already noted, the very moment this trial begins will also be the very moment that our friends in the otherwise occupied media (and the college football-hating intelligentsia, which seems to be growing by the day) will return to Happy Valley and commence condemning not just Jerry Sandusky, but also Penn State, and Penn State football, and college football, and anyone who counts themselves among the Penn State faithful.

They will do the latter not because they have to do it, or because by doing it they will contribute to the greater public good. Rather, they will do it because, for the most part, they are over-eager, shameless opportunists. And opportunists, you see, care not for substance, nor truth, nor accuracy; they care mostly for the sensationalism of the moment.

So they will pile on once more. They will intimate that we were "enablers." They will indict our university and our football program and the game of college football itself. They will do their best to somehow tie "the culture of college football" or "the culture of Penn State" to the horrifying actions of a monster.

Most of it will be unfair, of course. And it will be frustrating, too, because as they go their work, they will go a long way toward stunting (temporarily, I hope) our collective efforts to move forward as Penn Staters, our efforts to craft a better, more joyful future for our community, for our university, and yes, for our football program.

It’s a future we need badly. So very badly.

And if were to speak honestly, I think we can agree that it’s a future that we’ve needed very badly for many years now--a future we needed long before this scandal tore our program to shreds.

I just hope we are going to be allowed to pursue it.

***

I'd hate to state the obvious here, but I'll go ahead and do so anyway: These are awfully strange times to be a Penn State fan.

I began following this football program—half-heartedly, it should be noted—in the fall of 1993. That was the year that my older brother cast aside his scarlet-and-grey upbringing (we're from Ohio, all, and we're cool with that) to attend Penn State, a university I knew of only because of its mid-1980s football glory days (during the epic 1987 Fiesta Bowl, I recall, I was rooting for Miami; this will always stand as one of my great moral failings) and because of the fact that Cleveland high school superstar O.J. McDuffie had recently decided to play football there (interesting historical note: during McDuffie’s senior year at Hawken High School, he shared the local high school football spotlight with another promising young wideout; that other prospect played for St. Joseph's High School, his name was Desmond Howard, and he lined up behind a lightly regarded quarterback by the name of Elvis Gerbach).

We grew up in a college football family surrounded by college football-loving friends. Our Saturdays were spent watching the Ohio State Buckeyes or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a school followed so passionately in our neighborhood that, for a time as a young lad, I was utterly convinced it was located in Cleveland. We lived the game and loved the game and even as a kid I knew that this game was the game that would forever form the center of my sporting life. And yet Penn State, the alleged "Beast of the East" that sat only four hours east of our humble Cleveland home, remained something of a mystery.

Then my brother enrolled. Two years later, in the fall of 1994, I did, too. That season I witnessed perhaps the greatest offense in the history of college football tear through opponents with an ease that was almost incomprehensible. Games were over by the second quarter. We breezed past USC and Ohio State as if they were Indiana State and Coastal Carolina.

I remember thinking how goddamned wonderful it was going to be to spend the rest of my life as Penn State fan; after growing up with the unyielding and bruising depression of the Cleveland professional sports scene, in Penn State, I saw nothing short of deliverance. I envisioned years and years of utter domination in the Big Ten. I figured I would live to see the Nits win four or perhaps five national titles. I believed Penn State would routinely crush Ohio State, giving me bragging rights over my Buckeye-fan friends back home for all of eternity.

That season, my wonderful freshman season as a Penn State, was five months of pure and uninterrupted joy, and after that season of Collins and Ki-Jana and Engram and all the rest, not even the national title snub could sour me on the game of college football, a game I loved more deeply than ever before, and a game, I decided sometime around November of that year, was played at its most perfect up there in Happy Valley, a place I knew I would call "home" forever, even when it would not be my home at all.

***

The years that followed weren't quite as good, of course. But my descent into college football/Penn State football madness continued unabated, and with good reason: Being a Penn State fan was consistently fun as hell.

There was the 1997 game against Ohio State, which remains to this day the single greatest football game I've ever witnessed, and there was the 1999 stunner down in Miami, capped by Chafie Fields racing down the sideline and Fran Fisher yelling maniacally on the radio to point out, not so subtly, that there were, in fact, no flags on the play.

Then came the Dark Years, of course, and while they were dark, indeed, there were still fleeting moments of joy--moments kept us believing and offered us much-needed hope that the good times would return: The Zack Mills game against Ohio State in 2001; the Larry Johnson-defined season of 2002, when we briefly returned to relevancy and suffered two of the most heartbreaking defeats we have ever endured (the Iowa overtime thriller; the officiating disgrace in Ann Arbor); Alan Zemaitis' pick-six against the Buckeyes in 2003, which was probably the only good moment of an otherwise awful season; and of course, the goal-line stand against Indiana in 2004, which propelled us forward into the glorious season of 2005.

Yes, 2005. Wonderful, legendary, darn-near-perfect 2005.

That 2005 season saw the return of Penn State at its finest, in most every way. The team was spectacularly talented and exciting to watch and in a great many ways completely non-Paterno. They were young. They ran a new offense. They had swagger. They battered people.

Poz. Dan Connor. MRob. D-Will. Tony Hunt. AZ. Deon Butler. Tamba Hali. These guys were warriors. They lived and died for Penn State, and the fans responded like never before. Beaver Stadium truly roared that year; indeed, one can make a pretty good case that we as Penn Staters will never again experience a moment like the one we shared when Hali came crashing through Troy Smith to seal that win over the supposedly unbeatable Buckeyes. When Scott Paxson fell on that ball I experienced a wave of pure and unabashed joy that, even to me, a lifelong sports fan, seemed surprisingly deep, surprisingly honest; I was only watching a game, I knew, and yet it mattered so much more than a game.

I felt I was a part of something--truly part of something--at that moment.

It wasn't about football. It wasn't about "sports."

It was about identity and pride and all whole bunch of other stuff that I couldn't explain to a non-college football fan in a million years.

I knew at the moment that I cared, and cared deeply, about Penn State football, and I figured that would never change: With the losses, I would suffer. With the wins, I would have the joy. And my God, what a joy it could be.

***

Things stayed that way for a while. And then they didn't.

The 2008 season, I figure, is the last season that I truly lost myself in Penn State football—the last season that I allowed myself to be swept up in the agonies or ecstasies that inevitably come along with every college football season.

In 2009, and 2010, and 2011, I still cared. I still cared deeply. But it didn't feel the way it used to. Something about the experience—and, I think, something specifically about the Penn State program—had grown stagnant. The joy that was the hallmark of 2005, and 2008, and even the few bright moments of the Dark Years, was gone. Just gone. Gone for me. Perhaps gone for many others, too.

The teams weren't good enough—not good enough to compete with the real big boys, at least—and there settled over Happy Valley a sense of mild hopelessness. I saw it in my friends and I saw it in the fans in the stands: We weren’t getting desperate, maybe, but we were getting bored. And you know what? We had a right to be. 

We saw Ohio State racing ahead and taking complete control of the Big Ten. We saw the SEC powers redefining what it meant to be a truly "elite" program. We saw all of the exciting things that Chris Petersen was doing at Boise State and Garry Patterson was doing at TCU and we knew that our program simply wasn't built to compete. Not any more, at least.

2010 Penn State vs Youngstown State-85

By the time Evan Royster fumbled away our last chance against Iowa in 2009, I think it’s safe to say that Joe had finally reached the point where he truly was "too old"—too old to make one last charge, too old to muster up the energy to bring in another group of talent like he did back in 2004, too old to redefine himself once more, too old to get the program back into the Top 10. Even though it went mostly unspoken, we all recognized that the time for change had finally come. And yet at the same moment, we knew that change simply wasn’t going to happen.

Joe was staying. He couldn’t leave. And so the program couldn’t change.

So we accepted it: Penn State football under the latter-day Paterno regime was going to be good. But not great. It would win the games it was supposed to win and it would lose the games that really mattered. It wouldn’t promise much, and it wouldn’t deliver much. Penn State football settled. It settled for mediocrity.

By the time last season kicked off, the fervor of 2005 and the excitement 2008 disappeared almost completely. The student section grew complacent. The empty seats became more prominent. The gamedays became less electric, less important, less perfect. Because again, we knew Joe wasn't going anywhere, and so long as Joe wasn't going anywhere, Penn State football wasn't going anywhere.

It would never be awful, of course. But as for ambition? Well, there was none.

Perhaps, then, it only made sense that the real joy had gone out of it.

***

Then came November of last year, and everything basically went to hell, and I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that, for a while there, there was no joy, no joy at all, in being a Penn State football fan.

The emotions that I experienced over the last three months of last season are almost certainly the same emotions that you experienced: Anger, shame, bewilderment, disgust, apathy. I was furious at the university. I was disappointed in Joe. I couldn't fathom, quite honestly, that this was actually happening. For about two weeks there after the story first broke, I walked around in a haze, and when the national media started piling on—when they started insinuating that we, as Penn Staters, were somehow responsible for that tragedy—well, that's when I threw up my hands and decided, hell, maybe this whole thing—caring about Penn State football, following Penn State football, writing about Penn State football—just wasn't worth it.

There was a night I remember quite clearly, right around Thanksgiving, when I thought about just giving it all up. I had said all there was to say, I thought. I had written all there was to write.

I didn't have to follow college football so intently and I didn’t need to support Penn State so fervently. I didn't have to write about it. I didn’t have to clear my calendar of Saturday obligations in autumn. I didn’t have to drive four hours to see Penn State play Youngstown State. I could refocus. I could watch, I don't know, soccer (actually, I do watch a lot of soccer now, but that's another issue entirely). I could do anything and everything except worry about (and defend) Penn State football, because after all, by the time Houston put the finishing touches on their Dallas Football Classic beatdown of the Nittany Lions on New Year’s Day, it was clear: Penn State football no longer made me happy. I watched that game and, for the first time since 1993, I did not care. I didn't care about Penn State. I didn't care if they won. I didn't care if they lost. They meant nothing.

The stagnancy started it. The scandal finished it.

The joy was gone.

***

And now here we are at the dawn of a new era of Penn State football. It's hardly the new era that any of us expected. The circumstances of its arrival were, of course, completely unthinkable. Yet we're here nonetheless, and I have to say: These early days of this new era—the Bill O'Brien Era—have given me hope that the joy can, in fact, return.

Granted, O'Brien probably wouldn't have been our first choice as successor to Joe. In truth, he probably wouldn't have been in our collective top 20, or even our collective top 50. But he's here now, he seems to be doing a more than adequate job, he's saying all the right things, and he's pushing hard on the recruiting trail. In short, he's showing the one thing that Penn State football hadn't shown in the three years previous: Ambition.

The sense of limitless possibility is there now, back again for the first time in a long time. The sense that we're a program on the rise—or at the very least, a program that can move on to bigger and better things, that can be relevant and exciting perhaps even Avant-garde—is there, too.O'Brien, facing an impossible task, has offered us a hint that he can deliver a miracle: Saving Penn State football.

2012 Blue-White Game-98

Even in these dark moments for our beloved football program, in other words, and even as the media horde does its best to beat us back down, I can sense the return of optimism.

Optimism that better days are ahead.

Optimism that this entire sad, sordid episode will one day be put behind us.

Optimism that there can be Penn State football after the demise of Penn State football.

Optimism that we will soon be allowed to collectively enjoy this team, and love this sport, without the fear of being looked down upon.

Optimism that one day soon, Penn State will not be judged for the actions of one man, or the for the inaction of a few others.

Optimism that I will one day love Penn State football as much as I used to.

Optimism that the joy I've lost in this game I once loved will return. And stay.


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