July 23 — The day Penn State football’s future suffered an attempted assassination.
I can remember the first thoughts that went through my head: “This is the end. None of our players are going to stay. These sanctions are worse than a one-year death penalty.”
Having lived in Africa since 2005, I eagerly anticipated being stateside for fall 2012. I had a trip to Nebraska planned (with my best friend who is a Nebraska native) for the Penn State game, and I wanted to make up for missed birthdays and Christmases with my dad by treating him to the Wisconsin/Penn State game.
On July 23, I wondered if there would even be a football season for Penn State. The violent and unwarranted penalties from the NCAA called into question whether these family trips would be worth taking.
Then, the seniors came out and announced they were staying. As did Coach O’Brien. As did almost the entire incoming freshman class. A few players left, but as I said before, my initial expectation was that nearly everyone would leave.
Pre-season camp started, and I bought the tickets. The season wasn’t cancelled. I had no idea what kind of shape the team would be in by November, but I wasn’t going to miss the narrow window I had for visiting with loved ones in America around a college football event. Our next term of service begins on December 28th, so every opportunity has to be seized.
The season started off as expected. Two humbling losses. Key deficiencies at certain positions. The NCAA got their wish. I didn’t foresee anything positive about late-season showdowns against strong Big Ten foes.
But then the team started coming together. Five straight wins behind an old school Penn State defense and a spectacularly efficient offense. Penn State football, despite severe handicaps, was gloriously alive and well.
Sitting at 6-3 last week before the Nebraska game, I can’t tell you how grateful I was to the Penn State coaching staff and players.
I attended the Nebraska game adorned with a navy blue t-shirt and (in the second half) navy blue sweatshirt, the only such colors within six rows of my upper deck vantage point. I appreciated the pageantry of a proud and polite Nebraska fan base which boasted of 50 straight years of sell-out crowds.
The game was great. I encouraged sullen Husker fans at halftime (“You’re a second half team, and we’re not,” I said to their hopeless hearts.), and they offered condolences at the end of the game (not for the blown calls, which we had no idea were wrong while in the stadium). I felt blessed to be part of a game that will live on in lore (infamy?) between two of college football’s greatest teams.
Because on July 23, I couldn’t have imagined taking anything positive away from the 2012 Penn State season. Even in defeat, the Nittany Lions have shown courage and have paved a way forward for a team, its fans, and the entire State College community.
Thank you Penn State. You know who you are.
This is likely the last installment of “Midweek Serenity,” unless the Wisconsin game causes me to meltdown. Maybe my book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Victories of Our Lives (ebook and paperback) will keep us warm inside through the long winter?