For the first time in 22,638 days — Nov. 19, 1949 — the Penn State Nittany Lions played a football game in which Joe Paterno was neither the head coach nor an assistant.
Instead of the legendary JoePa, it was his long-time assistant Tom Bradley leading Penn State against Nebraska, becoming the first man not named Paterno to coach the Nittany Lions since Rip Engle in 1965. It was certainly an overriding thought heading into the game that the mystique of Coach Paterno would be an all-encompassing presence in Happy Valley Saturday.
Sure, there were low-key pregame nods inside and outside of Beaver Stadium to the now-fallen coaching legend, and signs of support were seen throughout the stadium. And, of course, the postgame locker room and press conferences were littered with the memories of a 46-year head-coaching career that ended under a cloud of scandal earlier this week. But worshipping at the altar of St. Joe, as he’s sometimes called, was not what Saturday turned into, at least not in its entirety.
Rather, it was about the victims of the heinous acts allegedly perpetrated by a former Paterno assistant. With the emotions of a heartwrenching candlelight vigil the night before the game still fresh, a moment of silence prior to the game by the blue-out crowd, with the color blue symbolizing child abuse awareness, showed what the whole of the Penn State family is truly about, and that they are all too aware of what’s at the heart of this scandal even if their administration wasn’t for far too long.
It was about one of the most poignant scenes ever witnessed on a football field: members of both teams — players, coaching staffs and seemingly every other person not actually in the stands — gathering and kneeling at a very crowded midfield, led in a very impassioned and fiery word of prayer by Cornhuskers assistant Ron Brown.
It was about the 17 seniors on Senior Day, walking out of the tunnel and onto the field for their final game, greeted by a 100,000-plus throng that included dozens of former players who came to town in a show of support for the under-siege football program and its current players.
And, perhaps most of all, it was about a community, a family taking its first tangible steps in what will no doubt be a lengthy healing process. Television cameras captured numerous shots of the Nittany Lions faithful — men and women, young and old — shedding tears as the events around them transpired and the enormity of the moment seemed to hit them. The decibel level rose noticeably when, during the singing of the school’s alma mater, the line “let no act of ours bring shame” was reached, as if those in attendance were sending a very loud, very powerful message to those in positions of power that what’s happened in the past decade is not the beloved university they know and that something must be done.
As for the game? The Nittany Lions lost 17-14 to the Cornhuskers, suffering their first conference defeat of the season and allowing Wisconsin — provided they beat Minnesota this afternoon — to pull to within a game in the Big Ten Leaders race. That outcome was mostly inconsequential and seemingly secondary, though, to the healing that began and the giving through their actions a voice to the victims, who suffered a loss far, far greater than a meaningless football game.