The Nebraska and Penn State players gathered at midfield before the game, kneeling together for a long moment in a quiet stadium.
Sometimes, the most powerful statements are the simplest.
A child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky has rocked Penn State to its core, cost Joe Paterno his job and prompted a week’s worth of soul-searching. Saturday’s game was a combination of pep rally, cleansing and tribute, fans and players balancing their wish to show love for Penn State and Paterno while also wanting to support victims of abuse.
“This has been one of the saddest weeks in the history of Penn State and my heart goes out to those who have been victimized. I share your anger and sorrow,” new school president Rod Erickson said in a video played in the first quarter. “Although we can’t go back to business as usual, our university must move forward. We are a community.”
Instead of sprinting onto the field, the Penn State team marched out arm-in-arm through a corridor formed by the band and the Football Lettermen Club. Beaver Stadium was awash in blue — the color associated with child-abuse prevention — right down to the flags accompanying the band.
And the normally raucous atmosphere before the game was replaced by a moment of silence for the victims. The somber mood was finally broken by a fan who shouted afteward, “We love you, P-State!”
“It’s therapy,” Dave Young, a lifelong Penn State fan, said before the game. “I love Penn State football, always will love Penn State football. Tough week, cried in my office a couple times when I had moments to myself.
“But now it’s time to release and watch the football game and enjoy it.”
It was the first time in 46 years that Paterno was not leading the Nittany Lions, but his presence was still very much there. The Nittany Lions’ first play was a fullback run up the middle — old school, just like JoePa. Jay Paterno took his father’s usual spot on the team bus, following the starting quarterback off when Penn State arrived at the stadium. The normally low-key Jay Paterno, a quarterbacks coach, pumped his fist and shouted, “Let’s go!”
He high-fived passers-by on the way into the stadium, and several staffers gave him an encouraging embrace before he entered the locker room. Several players appeared to have tears in their eyes, and three wore shirts that read “Joe Knows Football.”
But this Saturday is about more than football.
It’s about picking up the pieces.
Sandusky, once considered Paterno’s heir apparent, is accused of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span, with several of the alleged assaults occurring on Penn State property. Two university officials are accused of perjury, and Paterno and president Graham Spanier were fired for not doing enough to act on a 2002 report that Sandusky sodomized a young boy in the showers of the campus football complex.
“We are obviously in a very unprecedented situation,” interim coach Tom Bradley said Thursday. “I just have to find a way to restore the confidence and to start a healing process with everybody.”
The scandal would be damaging enough to a university that prides itself on its integrity. That it involved Paterno, major college football’s winningest coach and the man who’d come to symbolize all that was good at Penn State, made it that much worse.
Thousands of angry students paraded through the streets after Paterno was fired Wednesday night, some throwing rocks and bottles and tipping over a TV news van. While the anger has waned, the affection for Paterno has not.
Several students were dressed as Paterno — rolled-up khakis, white socks and thick, dark glasses — and an entire family wore shirts that read “We (Heart) JoePa.” Paul Diehm, a Penn State graduate who made the three-hour trip from Delaware, bought a blue T-shirt with the simple message, “Thanks Joe.”
“Sixty-one years of service,” he said, referring to Paterno’s years at Penn State as both an assistant and head coach. “You’ve got to say thank you. He deserves it.”
At Joe Paterno’s house nearby, a small clutch of TV cameras and reporters stood outside. A pair of people walked to the door, rang the doorbell and left after no one answered. On the lawn were a pair of homemade signs — one read “We Love You Joe, Thank You” the other “Thanks Joe” — facing his house. Nearby a small American flag had been planted in the yard of the house.
Whether that affection will remain with Penn State after such an ugly week remains to be seen. So far, however, it appears the love and loyalty for their university is as great as any they have for Paterno.
A larger-than-normal crowd of at least a couple thousand fans was waiting at the tunnel when the team arrived. All fans heeded the request to wear blue — the color associated with child-abuse prevention — making the few red-clad Nebraska fans stand out even more.
Donations for two child-abuse prevention organizations were being accepted at the stadium gates, and a sign on the scoreboard let fans know how they could continue to help. As the game began, several students were selling blue bracelets outside the stadium for $1, the proceeds going to RAINN, or the Rape Abuse Incest National Network.
Someone else had a message that also was supportive of abuse victims, but not school administrators. A plane overhead pulled a sign that read “Cry for the Kids Not the Cowards & Liars.”
Though police promised a heavy presence to prevent a recurrence of the violence that occurred Wednesday night, it wasn’t needed. The parking lots were filled with fans grilling out, tossing footballs and soaking up the beauty of the warm, late fall morning.
“It’s heartbreaking and sad and almost surreal. You can’t get it out of your head for more than a minute. I’m sure just about everyone here feels the same way,” Emmie Fay said as she glanced at the fellow tailgaters.
“But we’re here because we love the school and believe in it.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.