Posted Jan. 8, 2015

Oct 7, 2011

Back to Happy Valley. On a Mission.


It may surprise you to learn that I have not actually set foot in Happy Valley, my spiritual autumnal homeland, in about two years.

That's right, my dear friends: Though I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about college football both here and elsewhere, and though I oft find myself proselytizing to anyone and everyone who will listen about the utter beauty of Our Great Game—its history, its passion, its traditions, its beauty, and why it is so clearly superior to every other American sport—I have not actually been able to return to Penn State, the place that sold me on this game more than any other, in 24 long months.

In part, this is because of the general complications of life itself—kids, work, events, the demands of the day.

But it is in part, too, because I have allowed myself to fall into ... The Trap.

The Trap of modern American reality, that is.

And what an awful trap it is.

It is a trap that can compel you focus far too much on the very things that you should not be focusing far too much on. It is a trap that can steer you away from your true passions, from doing the things you love, from living your life as you would prefer to live it. It is a trap that can weigh you down with the drudgery of the day to day, that can burden you with the false construct that is the matrix of our everyday—work, bills, chores, worries. It is trap that can make it all too easy to accept the status quo—all too easy, that is, to accept A Life Of Boredom.

It is a trap, too, that can prevent you from appreciating the many gifts you’ve been given, that can prevent you from living in the moment, that can prevent you from even realizing what you have, and how far you’ve come.

Yes, I will admit: The Trap has snared me, and indeed, The Trap has done this so sneakily that, at times, I have not even realized that I was trapped at all.

But that's how The Trap works: It grabs you. You accept it. And life goes on. It's just that it doesn’t go on the way you’d prefer it go on.

Until, that is, you break away.

And this weekend? Well, this weekend, I break away.

Because this weekend, I return to Happy Valley, and my goal is two-fold: To live the life I want to live, even if only for two short days, and also to appreciate—I mean, really appreciate—the life I've been given.

Beacuse it's a good one.


Fourteen years ago I met a beautiful brunette from the Philadelphia suburbs.

She was cute, and she was funny, and she carried herself with a certain swagger that I found downright captivating. She worked, as did I, at the college newspaper, the grand old Daily Collegian, and, thanks be to God, it eventually came to pass that this cute brunette and I were thrown together into the realm of the Collegian's Night Desk, charged with the generally thankless task of getting the paper out the next day—proofing pages, making edits, dotting the proverbial I’s and crossing the proverbial T’s.

There were long nights, and gobs of work, and more than a little bit of stress.

But there was also the cute brunette on the other side of the copy desk, and she made it all worth it. She really did.

We talked.

We complained about the job. We chatted about life. We made fun of people.

Eventually, we hit it off.

Eventually, we became friends.

Eventually, we started dating, kinda-sorta. We had some good times. We had some bad times. We had some ups, we had some downs.

But in the end, it all worked out.

By October (but of course October) of our senior year, the cute brunette and I—her name was Erin—were together. Like, together together. And though she may not have known it at the time, I knew that we were together for good.

I knew she was the one. I knew I would marry her. I  knew that we would one day have a family. And though I didn’t know much beyond that (certainly, I could not have envisioned the various twists and turns of life; besides, who can?) I also knew that, yes, we would one day bring that family of ours back to where met—back to Happy Valley, back to the happiest place on Earth, back to where the autumns are perfect, even when the football team isn't.

I knew, in other words, even way back in the autumn of 1997—back in the era of Curtis Enis and Mike McQueary and Judgment Day and The Single Greatest Game I Ever Saw—that there would be weekends like the weekend to come: A weekend family trip to Happy Valley.

A weekend away from it all.

A weekend free from The Trap.

A weekend to reunite with old friends, to talk football and life, to sip fine scotch In The Shadow of Mount Nittany (thanks in advance, Ted, and 'Mon The Hoops).

A weekend to reminisce with Erin about the life we had and to appreciate the life we have.

A weekend to share with the kids all of the things that Penn State parents always share with their kids, because that’s what we do: A trip to the Creamery. Dinner at the Corner Room. A walk up to Old Main. A photo shoot at the Nittany Lion Shrine. A tailgate on Saturday morning, a football game on Saturday afternoon, a post game dinner downtown.

A weekend, in other words, to relive old memories—and a weekend to make new ones.

It may not go entirely according to plan, and if I know anything about Younger Joey, it certainly won't.

But it will still be a Penn State football weekend.

It will still be autumn in the Appalachians.

Erin is still by my side, and we’ve got few little ones tagging along, too.

So how could it be anything but wonderful?

[Looking at you, Joey]


Over the years I've written quite a bit about the Penn State Saturday experience.

I've written about rented RVs and the lost weekends of lads in their early 20s (we’re getting old, boys) and legendary trips up Route 322—Willie Nelson blaring on the stereo, Nittany Ale being consumed in the back, the future limitless and hopeful and overly optimistic.

I've written about the wonder of the 8 a.m. tailgate and the panache of the vodka martini with blue cheese stuffed olives (reminder: drink well, or don’t drink at all). I've written about the dew on the grass in those tailgating fields, the unique odor of a Penn State football morning (cow manure), the excitement of the cars pulling in—hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands—and the atmospheric perfection of that crisp, clear October Happy Valley air.

I’ve written about 8 p.m. showdowns of legendary proportions.

I’ve written about post game celebrations that have lasted deep into the morning.

I’ve written about the unmatched thrill of watching My Beloved Nittany Lions win A Game That Really Matters.

I’ve written about all of this, and more, because The Penn State Saturday Experience really does matter to me. I mean, I love it up there. I really do.

Which is why, this weekend, I will be so damn happy to go back. So damn happy to do it all again. So damn happy that I’ll have made the effort to break away, to be free of The Trap, to take the time to realize just what I’ve got.

I’ve got Penn State football.

I’ve got the beautiful wife I always wanted.

I’ve got the beautiful family I could never have imagined.

This weekend, I’ve got all three.

Which is to say: I’ve got it all.

[Editor's Note: Happy Birthday, Erin.]

miscellany: notes from the college football fringes

♦ The conference realignment madness continued this week, as the University of Missouri Board of Curators authorized Chancellor Brady Deaton (great name) to pursue membership outside the Big 12. Clearly, Mizzou is aiming for the SEC here, because there's really no other option, but as it turns out, the SEC is not actually their first choice. Given their druthers, you see, the powers-that-be in Columbia would instead join Jim Delany's Big Ten. In fact, when asked why, exactly, they were targeting the SEC rather than the Big Ten, given the fact that they don't reallywant to be in the SEC, an anonymous Mizzou official told the Birmingham News (and I quote): "That's what's left."

♦ I am sure Mike Slive just loved that, by the way.

♦ Oh, and if and when Mizzou does join the SEC (and let me state emphatically here: THIS IS HARDLY A DONE DEAL), they might as well abandon any hope of winning anything of significance ever again. The ceiling will drop to 6-6. Enjoy, Tigers fans.

♦ Oh, and all of those 6-6 seasons will do wonders for television ratings in St. Louis and Kansas City.

♦ Just one last thing on conference realignment: TCU is leaving the Big East before actually joining the Big East. Seems they will join the Big 12 instead. TCU in the Big East, in other words, is officially the George O'Leary at Notre Dame of conference realignment.

♦ BusinessWeek did a story this week about (interestingly enough) The Somewhat Involved (When He Feels Like It) Joe Paterno, and the impact he had on his players, especially those who have decided to pursue careers on Wall Street. See, as it turns out, several high profile players from Penn State's great 1980s squad currently work on the Street, including John Schaefer, quarterback of the 1986 national title team that showed the world that good can, indeed, defeat evil. Anyhoo, there was one quote in the story that jumped out at me. It came from Tim Freeman, an offensive tackle on that '86 squad, who currently serves as a principal at a private equity firm. Said Freeman: “The thing that Joe really stressed with everybody was having an unbelievably high level of intensity and tenacity, and pushing yourself to perform at a high level every play, every practice, every game, day in and day out." Obvious question: Does anyone think Joe is capable of living up to this particular standard himself these days?

♦ UCLA sucks now, just like they sucked before TCFA Favorite Rick Neuheisel aka The Squirrel arrived a couple years back. The Bruins are 2-3 on the season, and they just got absolutely blitzed by Stanford, 45-19. But The Squirrel is not concerned. Said the Squirrel: "We're going to continue to go forward. We're going to come out of this much better for having had the experience. As I told [the players] yesterday, we want for nothing. We don't need anything else outside. We just need everybody to just get a little bit incrementally better each week and we are going to turn the corner and get ourselves to be the program everybody wants us to be." NO YOU WON'T.

♦ In yet the latest sign that the Notre Dame athletics department is manned by complete and utter morons, the Irish this week decided to accept an invitation to play in the Hockey East conference, home to such schools as Boston University and Vermont. Notre Dame made this decision despite the fact that, with the addition of Penn State as a Division 1 program, the Big Ten will soon be launching a hockey league of its own, and despite the fact that Big Ten Hockey is going to be Otherworldly Awesome. Anyway, the move to the Hockey East essentially means that Notre Dame will not be joining the Big Ten. Not now. Not ever. They continue to believe they can hack it as an independent. Someday, that reality will come crashing down. If it hasn't already.

♦ I have no particular affinity for Wisconsin, but I enjoyed the heck out of watching their performance last week against Nebraska. I think I enjoyed it because it reminded me what it was like to have a real football team.

♦ As you all know by now, Apple founder Steve Jobs died on Wednesday. I don't pretend to know anything about technology, but it's quite clear that we've lost nothing less than a true visionary; I mean, remember if you will what life was like before the iPhone. That invention was nearly as revolutionary as the Internet itself. It really was. Oh, and then there's this: If not for Steve Jobs, there would be no TCFA Podcast, because without Apple iTunes, there would essentially be no podcasts at all. Viva Apple. I have no idea why anyone would own a PC.

♦ Driving to work on Thursday morning, my iPhone (thanks again, Steve) cued up Willie Nelson's "Darkness on the Face of the Earth." And I was reminded once more that Willie Nelson is One Of The Great Americans.

♦ Looking for picks, in which I predict yet another loss for Penn State at the hands of yet another (mediocre) Iowa team? Well, click here.

♦ Looking for this week's TCFA Podcast, in which Mike and I discuss everything from the misery that was Penn State-Indiana to a guy who goes by the name "Honey Badger?" Well, click here.

♦ Love the column? Hate the column? Love the podcast? Hate the podcast? Well for God's sake let us know. You can pen your love letters to or


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