I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, so the only sport I paid any attention to growing up was baseball. Football, to me, was what Americans call soccer. American football wasn't even on my radar. It was one of those sports you put in the background at a bar that isn't distracting, but also not appealing. It wasn't until a few years after I'd been in the U.S. That I really started to understand the sport.
When it came down to picking a college*, my choices were Pitt, Temple, and Penn State, with some smaller private schools sprinkled in. I didn't know much about the college process, and had no connections to any of the schools, I didn't feel strongly about any of the choices. I went with the school that accepted me first.
I started school in the middle of the Dark Years. Not many people were talking enthusiastically about Penn State football at the time outside of the 2002 season. And even that season is considered a disappointment if you ask the right people. I went to a football game here and there (luckily I did not watch 6-4 in person), but it didn't do much for me. There wasn't a pull.
By 2005, I'd gotten a job at Citizens Bank that saw me distribute their popular buttons. I gave those out to students as they moved in, as well as to the people who'd order them in advance or came in to the branch to get them. That was the first time I actually experienced excitement for the football program. Something as inconsequential as blue football pins had fans so excited and hungry that it drove me to watch and go to more games. It was starting to get into this American Football thing, but still, it wasn't a passion.
And then it happened. Something called a Whiteout was going on against Ohio State, and apparently this new Paternoville tradition got started and was getting a ton of press. This sounded like fun, so I decided to go to the game. Only problem was that I'd agreed to dogsit that night, and had already sold my tickets. I did the next best thing, which was to walk around, tailgate a bit, and take the experience in. I watched the game at the house I was dog sitting, and once we won I decided to go downtown to celebrate.
The streets were buzzing. The atmosphere was electric. There were people everywhere. In fact, there were so many people on the streets that I couldn't find a place to park. Going from the Meridian to Atherton on College Avenue took me almost an hour. People were banging on my car, I was honking, there was yelling, there was happiness. I'd never seen something like this before. It was at that point that I really understood the hunger in the fanbase's eyes when I was passing those buttons around earlier in the year. It was at that point that I really understood what it was like to be a Penn State fan.
After that game, I decided to indoctrinate myself with everything Penn State football. I started reading up on their history to get a better sense of who they were as a team. I also started following football more closely so I could understand the game better. I was all in at that point. I joined a club that allowed me to sell concessions at the games so I'd be able to watch without paying for tickets. I was ready to do this Penn Sate fan thing, and I went full speed and didn't look back. Even without being at the game itself, the atmosphere that day had such an impact on my experience at the school to the point where now it's part of my identity. I'm Eli, a Penn State football fan.
*Going to college was not an expectation in Latino families at that time, let alone something that people encouraged. With the benefit of hindsight, man am I glad I chose Penn State and not the other two.