STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — One hour after Penn State’s final pass fell incomplete, a crowd surrounded the Joe Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium.
Some snapped pictures. Some sang. Some read quietly the Paterno quote on the wall:
“... When I’m gone, I hope they write (that) I made Penn State a better place ...”
As the sun set on the distant mountains, a Nebraskan began describing a day when fans red and blue rallied around tragedy and celebrated what he called the “process of life.”
One man does not define a university, Ken Cheloha said. Penn State represents class. And its good name should never have been tarnished.
Nearby stood a gray-haired woman in a blue coat, a woman whose license plate says “PSU MOM.” When she heard the stranger saying these things, she interrupted. She hugged Cheloha and told him thank you.
She started crying. Then he started crying.
Nebraska beat Penn State on Saturday, 17-14. To most of the 107,903 fans inside Beaver Stadium, the score didn’t make much difference.
The game represented a chance to come together. A chance to grieve. A chance to heal.
On Nov. 4, a grand jury report detailed longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuses of boys. It rocked Penn State to the core.
Within five days, the scandal had taken down the school president, athletic director and a senior vice president. But none of those moves crushed the community like the board of trustees’ decision to fire Paterno, the beloved legend who had been on Penn State’s coaching staff since 1950.
What did college football’s all-time leader in coaching victories know and when did he know it? Could he have stopped the alleged abuse? If so, why didn’t he? Penn Staters have been asking those questions for a week.
The facts are still murky. Paterno, 84, isn’t talking. But on this point, Penn Staters agree: The scandal will scar their university for years.
The best way to meander through it? Together.
That’s why, two hours before game time, hundreds of fans cheered Penn State players as they got off blue school buses and entered the stadium.
That’s why Penn State students threw arms around each other as they sang the alma mater: “May no act of ours bring shame to one heart that loves thy name.”
That’s why the two teams met at midfield for an unprecedented pregame prayer, delivered by Husker assistant Ron Brown.
Penn State fan Greg Bomgardner watched the scene silently in the stadium’s west bleachers.
To his right stood his wife and two sons. Colby is 11, Trenton is 9. They watched TV last week. They saw the reports. They started asking dad questions.
Greg explained in vague terms what had gone wrong at Penn State. And what they needed to learn from it. Nobody, Greg told his sons, should be touching you like that. If anyone does, let us know.
The thought of a nationally known scandal at Penn State had been preposterous. This was an idyllic little college town tucked in the mountains. Squeaky clean.
The innocence is lost. And it proves that something like this can happen anywhere, including Nebraska, Bomgardner said.
He spent five years in the heartland in the 1990s, working for a custom harvester, cutting wheat in places like Paxton and Hemingford. Now he’s a beef farmer near Hershey, Pa. On Tuesday, in the midst of turmoil, he purchased tickets to Saturday’s game.
He believed Nittany Lions would unite. He wanted his kids to see a day Penn Staters would always remember.
Others weren’t sure what to expect. Like the police who showed up in riot gear. Like the Husker fans who watched Wednesday’s demonstrations on TV and worried about their safety.
Turned out, Penn State fans had no appetite for violence, especially after a poignant candlelight vigil Friday night on campus.
But the wounds are still fresh here. The homemade signs outside Beaver Stadium represented the gamut of emotions:
“Keep calm and fight on.”
“Fire the board of trustees.”
“To the victims: I apologize for Penn State.”
Scott Laemmle, an ’88 Penn State grad, worries that strangers will hear “Penn State” and think of sexual abuse the same way they associate Virginia Tech with a campus shooting.
The chief victims are the kids, Laemmle said. And anyone who knew of Sandusky’s alleged actions should be brought to justice.
“But I hope society will let those people that are innocent remain innocent.”
Laemmle drove up from Virginia on a bright, brisk and breezy Saturday morning. He expected the atmosphere to resemble a “funeral.” He was pleasantly surprised.
His fellow fans were ready for a diversion. They were ready for football.
They just wish it was still Paterno’s team.
“I can’t imagine what it’s gonna be like without him on campus,” student Ashley Quimby said. “He’s the face of Penn State. He’s the face of college football.”
Paterno won two national titles. Had five undefeated seasons.
The last time Penn State won it all, the beef farmer was 10 years old. He remembers watching at home as Paterno, Sandusky and the Nittany Lions upset mighty Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl.
The championship days are gone. And who knows when they’ll be back.
But at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, Bomgardner got his two boys out of bed. They put on their blue Nittany Lions jerseys. Dad wears No. 91, the boys are 25 and 22.
When Penn State fell behind 17-0, Bomgardner didn’t give up. Last year the Lions rallied from 21 down to beat Northwestern. It was the 400th win for Paterno. It was the first Penn State game for Bomgardner’s wife.
Saturday’s game meant even more.
“It’s more personal,” Bomgardner said. “It’s showing who we are.”
After Penn State’s final pass fell incomplete, Nebraska celebrated. As the Nittany Lions walked off the field, Bomgardner raised his arms and applauded. He joined in one last chant.
At the bottom of the steps, the boys posed against a railing bordering the field. Mom snapped the picture. Then they turned toward home. The cows. A good night’s sleep. Winter.
As they meandered through the crowd, matching blue jerseys on their backs, Dad lowered his left hand.
His 9-year-old reached up and squeezed it.
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