As I was putting together my gameday preparations with my wife this past Saturday, I found myself suddenly jarred back into that familiar feeling that football was just around the corner again. You could feel it in the air. The rain this weekend carried with it that same chill, and that same smell. It even sounded like fall was in the air. And when I pulled out our white jerseys, #21 and #24, that represented so many names (past, present, and future) yet bore none, it hit me again. This is the start of a new season. A new year. A new era. A clean slate. But for the first time in my life, this time was different. Very different.
You see, since I was just a little boy, I’ve gone through this ritual. My family would spend this week, if not the previous 35 weeks, talking about the upcoming season. Sure, there would be some conversation about the various (MANY) teams we all pulled for in the NFL, but all of us would talk about those guys in Happy Valley. *Some of the family would talk about Notre Dame or Pitt. They were largely ignored for their predictable irrelevance.* We would talk about potential. We would talk about the schedule. We would make wagers for over/under and spreads for each game. We’d talk about the tailgates, and which games were must-see. I can still hear the banter of my neighbors and friends going back and forth: “Did you see 31? He’s an animal!”. “How about that 14! If only he could find the open guy. I heard 17 has a better arm.” “Ohio State sucks.” And so on. It was always the same, but it was always fresh.
Last season began as every other season has in my life. I was fortunate enough to attend the Penn State-Temple game in Philly, and began to see some real potential in these kids. The interception. The gutsy 4th down calls. The touchdown. The brawl in the stands. Ahh, Philly. My co-worker, an Illini alum and legacy linebacker, had desperately wanted to attend a game at Penn State—the only B1G stadium he hadn’t visited yet. That turned out to be a different kind of whiteout. I can still remember his look of awe when he saw how imposing the south endzone is. Even though the stadium wasn’t full, he was blown away at how LOUD it was. I pointed out JoePa in the box for him. Derek Moye impressed. The defense was tough. But when the fans converged behind the uprights to ice the kicker (as if he needed it), my friend was sold. For eleven fall Saturdays every year, Penn State had its newest fan. It didn’t even matter to him that the Illini kick didn’t go in. He was sold—it was one of the coolest things he’d ever seen in football. Little did we know, that was the last innocent play in the history of Penn State football. We later found out that my friend is a member of a very small group to have been in attendance for both Bear Bryant’s and Joe Paterno’s last game.
Now I don’t get overly emotional. But in 2005, I cried in the stands when Tamba Hali sacked Troy Smith. It was the defining moment when we could finally say with confidence: “WE ARE BACK”. The dark cloud over State College that had brought so much anguish over the past few years was gone. And in the rain and cold that night, I witnessed the power of a family, bigger than blood, which stood and cheered as ONE for the first time.
Fast-forward to November. I was fortunate enough to score tickets to the Nebraska game. I walked into that stadium early. We had to be there for the pregame. There was a chill in the air; not a November chill--something different. They say that silence is deafening. I’ve been in cold dark places by myself, and there’s something to that. Silence can shake you. It can move you. But it wasn’t dark, and I wasn’t alone. On that day, I stood in amazement as that same family from 2005 stood together again as ONE. But they didn’t cheer. There were no high-fives or songs or chants. They weren’t necessary. You could hear a pin drop, but the place was electric. For the second time, I had seen that dark cloud over State College when I entered the stadium. When I left, the cloud remained. But there were cracks. There was some light. But you had to look for it.
This offseason, I questioned myself a lot. Should I believe the stories? Was the Grand Experiment a fraud? Am I a bad person for supporting this institution? Is my degree still valid? Is there something I can do to make this horrible situation better? Who are my true friends? I wondered if the innocence I felt after the Illinois game was gone forever. I wondered if my family could talk about Penn State football without apologizing for IT. I wondered if I could still have my football culture as my weekend entertainment, and go back to the real word on Monday the same as I always have. I wondered how everyone would react to this new age. This new team. This new era. These new traditions.
New traditions. There are names on the jerseys! I had always said, “we don’t need names on the jerseys to know who the players are.” But now I realize that hasn’t changed. I still don’t need the names to know who they are. But everyone else does. These young men are going to be paraded out onto that field, in front of that family. In front of bright lights, a hyper-critical media, and a nation divided. I thought I would have a problem with names on their jerseys. I don’t.
They deserve to wear them so that all of those people watching, for whatever reason, can see: I chose to stay with this team. I chose to stay with this school. I chose to stay with this family. The names aren’t for the people that have supported this team through thick and thin. They’re for the others that are watching. Because when these men stand before us, with their pride, their courage, their dedication, their integrity, their drive, their ambition, and their example, it all becomes clear.
That familiar feeling is back. It didn’t go away. My family is still talking. “Did you see 6 and 9 and 42? Those guys are animals!” “How about that 11. If only he could find the open guy. I heard 7 has a better arm.” “Ohio State sucks.” That innocence is still there. It’s football. Life is hard enough. I was worried about everything that is new. I have better things to worry about. They say things get better, or they get worse, but they never stay the same. Things may have gotten better. Things may have gotten worse. One thing is sure, though: things are different. Very different.
I stared at that cloud over State College. I looked for some light. I found it. It’s been there the whole time. Look around you on Saturday, and you’ll see it, too. It’s not the record. Or the scoreboard. It’s the family. The world deserves to know: THIS IS WHO WE ARE.
For the glory.