Posted Jan. 8, 2015

Nov 14, 2011

Thoughts From the Valley: The First Nervous Step Toward Redemption


The hangover

HOW AM I FEELING: Hopeful. Hopeful, that is, that normalcy will someday return. I understand, of course, that this normalcy may not return soon. Indeed, it probably won’t, and we in Penn State nation must accept that we are likely years away from reclaiming even an ounce of what we once had. But I am hopeful nonetheless, because if nothing else, that football game they played up in Happy Valley on Saturday—that 17-14 Nebraska win, on a day when results hardly mattered—offered Penn State the opportunity to make a statement about not only what we reject, but also what we can and will and expect to be in the future. The entire community—players, coaches, fans—seized that opportunity. Yes, we are years from where we’d like to be. But as I write these words, I am at least more confident that we can get there, and that we will get there.

WHAT I AM DRINKING: A vodka martini with jalapeno-stuffed olives. Why not?

WHAT I AM LISTENING TO: The lingering echoes of that wonderful round of applause, and that louder-than-ever-before "We Are Penn State" cheer, that the Beaver Stadium crowd offered their team (and, by extension, Nebraska) at the conclusion of the game. It was something, I am quite certain, that has never happened in Happy Valley: A rousing roar, in the wake of a loss.

WHAT’S NEXT (FOR THE NITANY LIONS SPECIFICALLY, AND FOR THE GAME IN GENERAL): For the Nits, it's a trip to Columbus to take on the once-hated Ohio State Buckeyes, in one of the least appreciated rivalries in the nation. I say “once-hated” because, in the context of current events, I find it difficult to hate anybody simply because of the color jersey they wear. For the game itself, well, it's nothing short of an all-out public relations assault from SEC country—an assault that will be launched with the aim of ensuring that we get Alabama-LSU 2.0. Even though we don’t really want Alabama-LSU 2.0.


I write these words knowing full well that I’m probably reading far too much into what happened on the field at Beaver Stadium.

I write these words knowing that I am far too close to Penn State to be objective about anything Penn State.

And I write these words knowing that the game I saw yesterday in Happy Valley, and the game that other Penn State partisans saw in Happy Valley, is very likely not the same game that the rest of College Football Nation saw in Happy Valley.

What the wider world saw up there in Beaver Stadium was a somewhat solemn, mostly dignified, mildly entertaining game between two teams gunning for the Big Ten title—a battle that took place in a time and place that none of those kids, either those lined up on the Nebraska sideline or those lined up on the Penn State sideline, were really prepared to handle.  What the wider world saw was Nebraska 17, Penn State 14, and a few acts of kindness, and a few acts of class, and an overall job well done by all involved.

But what did I see? What all of my fellow alumni see?

Well, we saw this: The first nervous step toward redemption.

There were so many chances yesterday for Penn State, and for Penn Staters, to screw this up.

There were so many opportunities for us to prove ourselves to be boorish, and callous, and completely out of touch with the enormous gravity of this titanic tragedy.

There were so many moments at which the wrong action, the wrong word, the wrong thought leading to the wrong decision, could have made a truly awful situation so much worse.

But, amazingly, Penn State actually came out of this thing looking a great deal better than they did going into it. And no, that is no small achievement.

All week, I had been telling anyone who would listen that the absolute worst thing that could have happened would have been for this game to be canceled. I truly believed this, because I truly believed the game, while certainly not "important" compared to the wider events of the day, would at the very least provide an opportunity for Penn State to not only begin to heal, but also an opportunity for Penn State to tell the world, “We are not bad people. We are not a corrupt culture. And we reject the sins of who failed us.”

I truly believed, in other words, that if we were simply given a chance to play this game, and simply given a chance to live this moment, that we would do more good than harm.

It’s safe to say, I think, that everyone up there in Happy Valley proved me right. From the inspiringly humble conduct of interim coach Tom Bradley to the subdued touchdown celebrations of Stephfon Green, from that remarkable pregame moment of silence to the that even more remarkable post-game round of applause, most every person wearing blue and white on Saturday managed to do pretty much everything right. And Nebraska, to their enduring credit, did pretty much everything right, too.

As a result, Penn State today is a better, more dignified place.

There is still a long road to travel, still much pain to be endured, still questions to be asked, still difficult days ahead.

But a day that could have been the most difficult at all is now behind us. And, as it turned out, it was not nearly as difficult as many had expected it to be.

So, let me say to you all: Thank you, Penn Staters. Thank you, Nebraskans.

In a dark moment, you delivered a small sliver of light.

Let us carry that light forward.


♦ Now, back to footballl. Up yonder, I mentioned that we about to be subjected to an absolute SEC public relation onslaught. And no, I do not exaggerate. The losses by Boise State to TCU (in what might have been the most thrilling game of the season) and Stanford to Oregon (in an affair that offered even further proof that Pac-12 teams suffer from a chronic case of Cannotplaydefenseunderanycircumstanceitis) mean that there is just one team standing between you, me, and the dreaded rematch of LSU and Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Make no mistake: If Oklahoma State loses to Oklahoma in the Bedlam game (and yes, this is a very distinct possibility), then Alabama-LSU 2.0 will happen. To which I can only say this: Ugh.

♦ Luke Fickell’s Prolonged Job Interview In Columbus took a decidedly southward turn with that astounding/inexplicable loss to Purdue in West Lafayette. The 26-23 overtime defeat dropped Ohio State to 6-4 on the year, placed their season squarely within The Realm Of Complete And Utter Disappointment, and probably officially ended any chances that Fickell may have had at holding on to the job that he only got in the first place because Jim Tressel lied to his bosses. In fact, I would be stunned if the Ohio State powers-that-be were not making, or have not already made, alternative plans. Perhaps it’s fair, perhaps it’s not, but Fickell simply won’t be able to hold on to this job, because he probably wasn't ready for hte job in the first. I’m guessing he knows that. I’m guessing his team does, too. [Hint, hint: 6-6]

♦ Say what you will about Boise State, and say what you will about Boise State's schedule, but there is no denying this: No team in the country plays (and lives) under more crushingly consistent pressure than the Broncos. This is a team that knows it must win, every single week, or else see all of its hopes and ambitions absolutely eviscerated. For Boise, no loss is forgiven. For Boise, no leeway is offered. For Boise, each defeat is essentially the final whistle of the season itself. It’s a horrific situation in which to exist—not only for the team, not only for those coaches, but also for the fans as well. I mean, think about it: In the wake of that crushing loss to TCU, everyone who cares about Boise State now knows that they are basically playing for nothing. Said coach Chris Petersen: “We’ll see what these guys are made of.” Yep.

♦ You may have noticed a man standing at the center of that Penn State-Nebraska pregame prayer huddle. He was gesturing wildly. Leading the prayer. Offering inspiration. Screaming his lungs out. Helping those players seek solace. And if you noticed that man, well, perhaps you figured he was a Penn State coach, or a Penn State pastor, or a Penn State spiritual leader. You would have been wrong, though. Because that man was actually Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown. And this is what Brown told Penn Stater magazine senior editor Lori Shontz, after the game, about that remarkable moment: “We knew we were going to go to a battle against each other. It was a big game for both teams, but there was something bigger. We know that there are jobs being lost, and who knows what’s going to happen at Penn State, particularly in the upcoming months. And yet there was a humility and sincerity, and kind of a vulnerability of all these players. But then the other thing that hit me was the fans. It was loud and cheering when the players were coming together, but then it got really quiet, and I almost felt everyone in the stadium could hear it. And for a hundred thousand people to instantly hush, I say that’s the favor of God.”

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