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Monday, September 3, 2012

Jerry Sandusky, Penn State Coach, Guilty

Now what? 71 days after a Centre County Pennsylvania jury found former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky guilty on 45 of 48 criminal counts of molesting young boys, those two simple words gracing the cover of the September/October issue of The Penn Stater Magazine cover effectively sum up the slew of unanswered questions leading up to the Nittany Lion’s Saturday September 1st home football opener.

The late summer day was warm and the skies above were clear except for the occasional white puff of cloud, and the sun shone down on the freshly mowed grass. After the Penn State Blue Band, resplendent in their uniforms, marched out and formed up to play the Alma Mater song, ‘For the Glory of Old State’, the crowd stood to sing the words while swaying slowly in unison in an emotional-moment that tugged at the hearts of many long-time fans. Off in the distance the rolling green hills and lush valleys of Central Pennsylvania seemed to stretch on forever.

Jerry Sandusky, Penn State Coach, Guilty

Inside Beaver Stadium it wasn’t a capacity crowd, not by typical Penn State standards anyway. With a capacity of over 107,000 it’s the 2nd largest stadium in the Western Hemisphere and the 4th largest in the world and the 97,186 fans who showed up to witness the beginning of a new era for Penn State football were joined in spirit by thousands more like me who tuned in to watch the game on ESPN.

On the surface, the first game of the 2012 season seemed like so many other September home starts from past football seasons at Penn State. But there were also differences marked by noticeable absences and some new additions.

Outside the stadium the 7-foot tall 900-pound statue of former head coach and college football icon Joe Paterno was gone for the first time in ten years after workers removed it in the early morning hours of Sunday July 22nd, ten days after the Freeh report blasted “The most powerful men at Penn State (who) failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.” The blocks of stone that once surrounded the statue were gone as well and the area now blends seamlessly into the landscaping surrounding the stadium; as if it was never even there at all.

Not far from where the statue stood, ‘Paternoville’, the adopted name of the large encampment of University students/football fanatics who set up tents and small temporary structures outside Beaver Stadium and create a small community in the days before home football games, was renamed ‘Nittanyville’ on July 17th, just five days after the release of the Freeh report amid the outrage swirling in the media maelstrom.    
Inside the stadium, the changes were even more startling. For the first time since 1966, former head coach Joe Paterno was not patrolling the sidelines anxiously with the trademark cuffs of his pants rolled up and his distinctive tinted sunglasses masking the intensity of the gleam in his eye.

In a break with an almost-scared tradition that still has many of my ex-Penn State teammates (and not a few fans) quietly grumbling, the last names of the current team’s players were stitched onto the back of the familiar dark blue football jerseys. A few players even had long strands of hair peeking out from underneath the backs of their gleaming white helmets with the single blue stripe.    

A distinctive Irish touch was also evident on the field as new head coach Bill O’Brien, a 41-year old native of the decidedly Irish-American enclave of Dorchester, Massachusetts with more than 14 years of coaching experience, began his new tenure in Happy Valley with his wife Colleen and two sons Jack and Michael. Leading his revamped Penn State offense was a sturdy red-headed starting quarterback named Matt McGloin, a senior who displayed pride in his heritage modestly by sporting a custom-made mouthpiece emblazoned with the green, white and orange of the Irish flag. 

Bill O'Brian, New Penn State Coach

Penn State looked strong early on, the offense had some strong drives, moved the ball down the field well and McGloin was getting good protection in the pocket from his offensive line during the first quarter. But even though Penn State went up 14-3 the end result wasn’t so lucky for the Penn State faithful.

Critical turnovers, some missed plays and a defense that seemed unable to stop Ohio’s offensive passing game at critical moments added up to a shocking 24-14 upset and a rare home opening loss to an unranked Mid-American Conference (MAC) team who ended their 2011 season with a victory in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl; and don’t forget that coach O’Brien’s veteran opponent across the field on the Ohio sidelines was former University of Nebraska head coach Frank Solich; who last coached against Penn State in 2002.      

With the loss, Penn State fans got a glimpse into the harsh reality facing the Nittany Lion football team for the next few seasons. As an ex-player, I feel for the young men on this team. Each one of them was recruited to play football for a revered and beloved head coach who died back in January not long after being fired over the phone by the Board of Trustees in a controversial move that struck many as more knee-jerk reaction than a carefully thought-out and fair process worthy of a man who’d been coaching at the school since 1959.

While there’s no question of everyone’s desire for justice for the victims of Jerry Sandusky, all of the players on the 2012 squad out on that field on Saturday were just kids when Sandusky alone was committing his heinous acts against children; yet NCAA president Mark Emmert saw to it that the team would pay the price.

The NCAA sanctions were unprecedented; victories from 1998 to 2011 (when Sandusky wasn’t even coaching) were vacated; a four-year reduction in athletic scholarships from 25 to 15 annually; a 4-year ban on post-season bowl appearances and $60 million in penalties to be distributed to fund various programs that deter child sexual abuse and educate people about it. Those penalties led some top high school recruits to de-commit from Penn State and some of the Nittany Lions top players from 2011 to transfer to other schools; including Silas Redd, their top running back who transferred to #1-ranked USC and wide receiver Justin Brown who will play for the Oklahoma Sooners this fall.

Don’t think for a second my heart doesn’t go out to the victims of Sandusky, or that their welfare isn’t in my mind; or the minds of any other former Penn State players. But in the wake of the unprecedented scandal that rocked the foundations of NCAA Division I college football, it was difficult for me to come to grips with the fact that one of my former football coaches had been found guilty of 45 criminal counts of abusing, raping and terrorizing young boys.  

The knowledge that some of those poor victims had been abused inside the same showers of the locker room where I had spent five years of my life was almost incomprehensible. Like millions of other people who watched the story unfold in the media and were sickened by the details in the grand jury report the same question bounced around inside my head again and again - How could it happen?

Perhaps the upcoming January 2013 trial of former Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz for perjuring themselves on the stand under oath in front of a grand jury will offer more insight into how the university’s executives could fail to hold Sandusky accountable for his crimes. In the meantime Sandusky himself, 68, remains in jail awaiting sentencing; he’s expected to spend a minimum of 60 years in prison and face what is essentially a life sentence for destroying the lives of the boys he molested. But what does he get for taking down the good name of Joe Paterno with him?

Outside of those who really knew him, all the men who played for and worked with him as well as all the people who benefited from his wisdom, Joe Paterno’s reputation has been shattered in the media spotlight. The man who helped to transform Penn State University and the game of college football with his “grand experiment” now lies in a grave in a small cemetery just outside of State College.

The tens of millions of dollars he helped to raise for multiple charities and scholarships over the years, the massive on-campus library expansion he personally funded, the incalculable positive impact he had on the lives of thousands of people are, for the time being, sadly overshadowed by the scope of the scandal; and the actions of a man who was once a trusted assistant, but in the eyes of many turned out to be a monster.

Apparently the NCAA felt all that wasn’t enough. In their minds the players too had to bear a measure of responsibility; even if they had nothing to do with Sandusky’s sickness and obsession and were in elementary school when any of it happened. But as someone who proudly played at Penn State, I believe the positive at the heart of all this is that the actions of one man or organization can never strip away the character of Penn State football built over more than 100 years of tradition. No one can take away the reputation of the current and former coaches, players, managers, administrators, educators and other support personnel who represent what Penn State really stands for.

You can’t destroy the idea of Penn State football.

The same determination and commitment that built the program are the ingredients that will engineer its rise back to prominence and restore its reputation. The idea of self-sacrifice, discipline, character, hard work, relentless focus and drive taught by Joe Paterno are the foundation on which the program will be rebuilt; a bedrock that will whether any storm.

The outcome of the opening game on Saturday can’t simply be measured by the score alone; it’s just one of many steps that will need to happen as the program is repaired and restored. Brick by brick, step by step and yard by yard. If you’ve never sat in the stands at a Penn State home game and felt the thunderous roar of more than 100,000 people yelling “We Are…Penn State” – that’s what it means. We ARE Penn State and there are literally thousands of us all over the world, united behind that idea that Joe Paterno believed in and taught; even if he wasn’t perfect. What man walks among us who is?

The Penn State family is comprised of students, teachers, athletes, administrators, employees of every level, board members, scientists, scholars and engineers who’ve all faced challenges on and off the field over the years; and we’ll face this one down too; and come out all the stronger for it. The opening loss to Ohio, while hard to stomach for a school committed to excellence and winning, signals the start of a long, difficult and humbling journey; but the team on the field isn’t out there alone. And that was more than evident on Saturday.

While it may well get worse before it gets better in the coming years, no one is walking away from the challenges ahead, that’s not the way we do things at Penn State. I can speak for thousands of other former Penn Staters when I say we’re in this for the long run.
To paraphrase a well-known saying Joe Paterno was fond of using before the grueling weekday fall football practices that were a trademark of his teams, you can make the decision to go out there and get better, or get worse; but you can’t stay the same. The latter two choices are not an option.

So I go back to the cover of The Penn Stater with those two simple words; now what? To that I say, first have patience. Let justice take it’s course, allow time for the healing to take place, grant us time to address old wrongs and demonstrate by our actions that We Are Penn State; and prove just what that means. So stick around for the next hundred years; we’re just getting started.  



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