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Being a lifelong Ohio resident, it’s expected that you will be a Buckeyes fanatic from the cradle to the grave. So as someone who has always called Ohio home and did not attend Penn State, I am regularly faced with this question: “How did you become a Penn State fan?”
First off, I’ve always been a huge football fan, mostly thanks to my dad’s fondness for the game. But growing up, the NFL and the Cleveland Browns were the main event of the weekend, with college football somewhat of an afterthought. I am just old enough to remember a different version of the “original” Browns when they were actually a respectable NFL franchise, regularly battling with the Denver Broncos for supremacy of the AFC. When my bedroom was being remodeled in the first grade, I requested brown carpet with orange walls, which were then plastered with posters of Bernie Kosar, Webster Slaughter, Eric Metcalf and other Browns favorites and remained up long after they left the team.
College football was more of an occasional happening when there happened to be a free Saturday here and there. We liked Penn State of course, along with Notre Dame because of a family friend who played for the Irish during the late ‘80s, and caught the occasional Buckeyes game since they were the only regular team to appear on TV each Saturday.
Then something unimaginable happened that challenged my iron-clad Browns fandom. On Nov. 9, 1993, the Browns made a shocking move by releasing Bernie Kosar. Kosar was a hometown hero who every kid (and many adults) in my region idolized. He was the ultimate underdog- a slow-footed quarterback with awkward mechanics, Kosar was able to use his otherworldly understanding of the game to become one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks throughout the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s.
I was too heartbroken to cheer for the Browns for the remainder of the season. I followed Kosar to the Dallas Cowboys, and cheered with delight as he filled in to lead them to an NFC Championship Game victory by filling in for an injured Troy Aikman and took the field for the final play in Super Bowl XXVIII.
I was determined not to cheer for the Browns again until Art Modell had sold the team and Bill Belicheck was long gone from Cleveland, and decided to pay more attention to college football and my adopted team of Penn State as the fall of 1994 approached.
Well, let’s just say my timing couldn’t have been better. As you know, the Nittany Lions went undefeated behind one of the most electrifying offenses in the history of college football, led by the likes of Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, Kyle Brady and Bobby Engram. They were an absolute blast to watch, and quickly confirmed my decision to make the Nittany Lions appointment viewing each Saturday afternoon.
Each following year, I would become more of a die-hard Penn State and college football fan, and find myself less attached to the NFL. Aside from the Browns being out of the league temporarily, the implementation of the salary cap and free agency era completely changed the landscape of the league. While I spent my childhood idolizing players like Kosar and Clay Matthews, there was suddenly no loyalty between the teams and players. By the time the Browns would come back, it was just a bunch of guys filling in the jerseys who would come and go each season.
Shortly after Cleveland Municipal Stadium was torn to the ground, where I had developed some very fond memories of watching the Browns play on frigid Sunday afternoons next to Lake Erie, I would make it to my first Penn State game in Beaver Stadium- and boy, was it a doozy. Penn State would erase a late 10-point deficit for a thrilling 31-27 victory against Ohio State that would briefly propel them to #1 in the nation. With my face painted blue and sporting my #39 jersey, I nearly lost my voice watching Curtis Enis and Aaron Harris slice through the Ohio State defense.
If I hadn’t been already, I was officially a Penn State fan for life from that point on. Screaming at the TV with each play is one thing, but experiencing a game day in Happy Valley was a mesmerizing experience I will never forget. Watching the team run out of the tunnel, participating in the “We Are” chant, watching the pom-poms wave in unison, seeing the Nittany Lion weather vane flail sporadically with each wind gust, and hearing the deafening roar after each big play are all memories that have stuck with me to this day.
As an adult, my relationships with college football and the NFL have completely shifted with one another. Each Sunday, I may flip on the TV to see how the Browns are doing, but more than likely I’ll find something else to fulfill my time. But each fall Saturday you can count on me being in one of two places- in front of a TV set or hanging out with 107,000 of my best friends to cheer on the Nittany Lions.
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