In a little more than three months, barring a catastrophe, Penn State will be playing in a bowl game. This is, by now, terribly old news. But for all of us celebrating the NCAA's newfound benevolence, consider this: there are dozens of Nittany Lion student-athletes for whom this means so much more.
It's incredible to think that it was barely two years ago when the draconian punishments were handed down--a loss of scholarships, a ban on postseason play, a 60 million dollar fine, but, looming larger than any of those, was the fine print: Penn State's players were immediately free to transfer to any school, without penalty. We feared a mass exodus. We wondered whether that was the NCAA's goal all along. We worried that we might not be able to field a football team, much less one good enough to cobble together the requisite six wins and merit a bowl berth. It was, we were told, the death penalty in different packaging.
True, some left. Some chased a championship, others the opportunity to go to a school closer to home; for one it was a business decision and little more. They all wanted, surely, to play football that mattered. Many more realized that staying would accomplish the same thing.
As each day that summer passed, and more and more football players reaffirmed their commitment to our university--despite opposing coaches circling like vultures--our pride only continued to grow. What we had was something worth saving. What we had was special. And so many, some who'd been on campus for just a month or two, could recognize that, too.
And therein lies the true irony inherent within Monday's development: even though we all became immediately immersed in Penn State's playoff odds, and studied its path to the Big Ten Championship, and celebrated the fact that we'd have a chance--however slim--to accomplish both, the real value came in Penn State's moral vindication than in the actual relaxation of the sanctions.
Can anyone say that Saturdays in the fall the last two years would have been any different if Penn State had been eligible for a conference title? If the 2012 squad were surging not towards an 8-4 record, but a Capital One Bowl berth? If last year's up-and-down season had ended in Tampa, rather than Madison? If anything, the crass commercialization of the system would've detracted from what the last two years meant to us: as a team, as a school, as a fanbase. We weren't reduced to playing or watching football for its own sake, but to prove that we could persevere, to turn an unjust punishment into a source of strength and unity. And without building to anything in particular, each season, each game, could stand on its own merits.
And that fact made it more fun for each of us. When, two years ago, Bill O'Brien opted to pull out the video game tactics and go for it on every fourth down, it was because he could--what the hell was the worst that could happen? It was football in its purest form. And we could watch it with ironic detachment, and appreciate each football game for what it was. There was no greater context. There were no consequences. There were twelve games a year, and they were all events unto themselves.
Consider the last two season finales: Would you trade either of them for the world?
Instead of celebrating wins, we celebrated each other. Most of all, we celebrated those who stayed. We broke with 100 years of tradition, putting their names on the uniforms for all to see: these men stuck around when they had every reason not to. These men represented the best of Penn State when all anyone wanted to see was the worst. We put 2012 up on the scoreboard next to the undefeated years and championship seasons. It meant more than any of the other ones. It meant that much more than anyone could ever fathom a 8-4 season meaning.
Every last one of those men--boys, then--came to terms with the fact that they might never again play in a bowl game. They could never compete for a championship. And that was okay.
49 of them, by James Franklin's count, remain. Still others, then just high schoolers, reaffirmed their commitments, when they had every reason not to. Others willingly jumped on board. We remember Mike Zordich and Michael Mauti and Matt McGloin going before the cameras to give fiery speeches about what it meant to play for one another, but then, they were seniors. Their choices were easy.
For the sophomores and freshman--now, James Franklin's upperclassman leaders--it was a tougher choice. Mike Hull had a foot out the door, was a coin flip away from transferring to Pitt. He might have taken Jesse James with him. For a tenuous group still gelling behind a new head coach, even one ripple could have had disastrous consequences. And then there's the likes of Christian Hackenberg, who had already given his verbal pledge to Bill O'Brien, and never for a moment wavered from it. They are today's captains, standouts, heroes. They are the reason there is still a Penn State football team, much less one that has kept its head above water.
So don't tell them that now, they're playing for something. Don't tell them that the past two years mattered any less than the next two will. At yesterday's practice, James Franklin called up 49 players to receive the admiration of their teammates. By my count, there were about 38 who made the affirmative decision to stay--with still others committing later to join them, a recruiting class headlined by the likes of high schoolers like Hackenberg and Adam Breneman and Garrett Sickels that could have gone just about anywhere else. We are forever grateful to all of them, but this week, more than ever.
Adrian Amos. Deion Barnes. Brad Bars. Bill Belton. Kyle Carter. Da'Quan Davis. Jesse Della Valle. Miles Dieffenbach. Derek Dowrey. Sam Ficken. Brian Gaia. Malik Golden. Albert Hall. Mike Hull. Charles Idemudia. Jesse James. Austin Johnson. Ryan Keiser. Jake Kiley. Ben Kline. Wendy Laurent. Eugene Lewis. Jordan Lucas. Akeel Lynch. Angelo Mangiro. Carl Nassib. C.J. Olaniyan. Devin Pryor. T.J. Rhattigan. Evan Schwan. Tyrone Smith. Deron Thompson. Nyeem Wartman. Brent Wilkerson. Trevor Williams. Matt Zanellato. Anthony Zettel. Zach Zwinak.
Some will have their Senior Day this November. Others have another year in the Blue and White. Each one of them, immaculately innocent of whatever wrongdoing the NCAA thought it was punishing, deserve this incredible surprise. They deserve the opportunity to play for a title, too, on top of playing for each other and for all of us. And so, with nothing left to prove, perhaps there's only one thing left for them to do: