In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on November 13, 2011 at 7:20 pm

There were many poignant moments in Saturday’s Penn State-Nebraska game… quite simply, a game like no other that I have ever attended.

Played in the shadow of the shocking revelations of alleged criminal acts on children by a former Penn State assistant coach.

Played in the shadow of investigation, implication, indictment, innuendo, internal conflict, impropriety, involuntary separation from employment, and institutional failure at the highest of levels.

Played without the man who had placed Penn State among the elite during a tenure that spanned six decades and generations of students and athletes alike.

Played without the man who preached integrity… Success with Honor.

Played without Joe Paterno, who was unceremoniously fired for either what he did do, or didn’t do, depending on how you view the situation.

And believe me, there are differences of opinion that have divided the university community and, it seems, the entire country.

So, at the end of a week of gut-wrenching criminal accusations, a national media frenzy, uncivil behavior by students, unprofessional behavior by administrators in the guise of “acting in the best interests” of the university, and the outright rudeness of people in general in what seemed like a blind rage to assign blame as widely as possible, fell a football game. A game that had to be played.

Into that game walked the Penn State players, a group of blameless student-athletes caught in the crossfire. In a show of solidarity for their former coach, they entered the stadium arm-in-arm. Marching, not running, through the usual gauntlet that featured members of the university’s Blue Band, cheerleaders, and what seemed like several hundred former players. (One of the former lettermen, who happened to be seated in front of me, later told me that he had never seen that many of his fellow former players at a single game before. I was not surprised.)

This was the beginning of a pre-game like no other.

There was a midfield prayer gathering of both teams. A simple, but powerful moment where players and coaches in blue and red huddled as one to remember the victims of the child abuse scandal that had engulfed an entire university. Led not by a Penn Stater, but by a Nebraska assistant coach in a gesture of unity and a show of support that was meant to be first step in a healing process for a community shaken to its very core.

There was a moment of silence. A time to reflect on the children, some now grown, who were the true victims of the most shocking criminal act in the history collegiate athletics. Nearly 108-thousand fell silent. It was as if the stadium was empty. (I hadn’t felt such silence at a sporting event since Pimlico went eerily quiet as Barbaro broke down on the front stretch of the 2006 Preakness.)

But, the most poignant moment had to come during the singing of the Penn State Alma Mater when the one hundred thousand-plus in attendance looked to the giant video screens for help in recalling the words from the later verses that, no doubt, often escape them, and saw the words, “May no act of ours bring shame….” I personally had forgotten that phrase was in our song, and I fumbled those words as I suspect others did as the meaning hit home.

A member of our college’s family, in a way so heinous and disgusting, had violated the meaning of those words, and in doing so, left us embarrassed, shocked, shamed for our school’s alleged role in failing to identify a serious problem and act properly to protect children who were in need of our help.

Despite being an alum and a fan, I hadn’t been on the Penn State campus for a football game in a couple of years. Work schedules, family issues, etc. sometimes conspire against seeing the alma mater play in person. This fall was to be different.  I had purchased tickets to the Nebraska game with the thought in mind that this could very well be 84-year-old Joe Paterno’s last home game as Penn State head coach. I expected to see the end of an era that spanned decades, brought us hundreds of victories, national titles, and memories that rivaled those of any college.

The trip to the game took me over familiar, traffic-packed roads back to State College. It was a normal football Saturday. Thousands were tailgating on the grassy parking areas that surround Beaver Stadium. But, it seemed more subdued somehow.

The walk to the stadium through the crisp late autumn air took me past the usual cars and RV’s bedecked in Penn State colors. But at the stadium itself was evidence of the week gone by. In addition to the throngs of people, there was a greater media presence and more police than normal. I could not specifically recall ever seeing mounted police with both the rider and horse wearing riot visors. It seemed unneeded, but then again, there had been violence and threats of violence in the wake of Paterno’s firing and the allegations that swirled around former administrators and coaches.

An airplane circled overhead trailing a banner with an anti-Paterno sentiment. The red letters were difficult to read against the sunny sky. And, I wondered if the person behind the flying protest got his money’s worth since the plane was forced to maintain a fairly high altitude and to keep its distance from the stadium by the State Police helicopter that hovered nearby.

Talk of protesters was just talk. I didn’t see any until after the game – a small religious group with a bullhorn. Sure, there were students carrying signs in support of Paterno and many that read, “We are STILL Penn State!”

There was a good-sized gathering at the Paterno statue on the east side of the stadium. I felt it had a funereal quality to it, as though someone had died.

I was among the first to arrive in the section where the seats were located. The stadium seemed too empty for a game that was roughly an hour away. But, it did fill to capacity, and beyond.

Nebraska fans who had been warned by their administration to maintain a low profile for safety reasons wore red proudly anyway. An announcement over the loudspeaker reminded Penn Staters to display good sportsmanship and respect their guests from the Big Ten’s newest member, who were sprinkled across several sections of the stadium. It seemed condescending and unnecessary. Of course, I hadn’t been among the students who had triggered a small riot three days earlier. I knew we would be good hosts and we were. I hope Penn State fans will be treated as kindly at Ohio State and Wisconsin in the coming weeks.

The pre-game that I described earlier was appropriately subdued, but as the game began I wondered if the players would lose the homefield advantage due to the clear lack of energy in stands. The Penn State fans seemed afraid to cheer or even make noise. Fight songs were sung half-heartedly, and the words of the alma mater seemed to sting not stir.

“We are Penn State!!!,” was heard throughout the game, but it too, lacked gusto. To many, I suspect, its meaning had changed.

The “Blue-out” intended to honor the victims of child and sex abuse was well received, but it really lacks the impact of a “White-out.” And, the effort by the student “S-Zone” to create a blue ribbon alongside the “S” was… well… you know what they say about the best laid plans.

As for the students, they remained fiercely loyal to Paterno, and they periodically chanted his name. Although, at one point, it seemed that some fans purposely tried to drown out the rhythmic “JoePa-Terno” with a round of “We are Penn State!”  I’m not sure it had it intended effect on the student section or their fellow fans as the number of people joining in the JoePa chorus seemed to increase with each repetition.

The players themselves had to be emotionally drained. They were caught in a situation over which they had no control. At once, playing for their current coach and their deposed coach, and for two distinct groups of fans – the ones who still support Joe and the way he handled the initial allegations of the crime and the ones who don’t. It was a tough week for them, to be sure.

To their credit, the Penn State players rallied from 17-down and made a game of it. They lost by 3 when an offense that had been anemic all season could not muster one final drive; sputtering for no gain on a fourth and one.

At the end, the players were obviously disappointed and they hung their heads as they exited the field. But, they did not depart to boos. Instead they received a rousing ovation from fans and students who initially seemed reluctant to leave the stadium themselves.

It was a strange feeling. This technically was a devastating home loss that could derail our chances of winning the Big Ten title with our remaining games on the road. But, I felt more of a relief at the end. The loss didn’t seem to matter in the midst of everything else that was going around Penn State. The game had to be played, and it was. And, it seemed to do what I think I hoped it would do. It began the process from which the new Penn State will emerge.

As I drove out of town Saturday night, I happened past the building where the Second Mile is located. This is the foundation at the heart of the child abuse scandal. Founded by a Penn Stater with sadly the worst of intentions, I wondered if it would survive.

But I also wondered if Penn Staters with the best of intentions could now remake Second Mile into the children’s foundation we all believed it was.

A new Second Mile to go with the new Penn State.

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at:

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