College football is not king in North Carolina. Or queen or even prince. Down here, college football is what you follow to kill time until it is college basketball season. I have been a Duke basketball and football fan since the age of seven. The football team was never on television when I was a kid back in the late 1970s. Following a mediocre team through newspaper reports is not exactly thrilling for a kid. Saturday afternoons were spent watching a lot of teams, but not Duke.
One day my grandad and I went next door to his neighbor's house to watch a game. I don't recall the year or the game, but this was the "old days". There was no cable. This was an old Curtis-Mathes floor model television with rabbit ears that delivered a signal that today would be considered pre-historic. I do know that my grandad and his neighbor thought pretty highly of the team in the white uniforms with black numbers (that's what they looked like on those TVs) and their coach. At that moment I decided to follow that football team. I didn't know a thing Penn State or the coach, but I had to pick some team that actually had games you could watch. That turned out to be a match made in heaven.
My interest in football grew as I began to understand the complexities of the game. It also helped that Penn State was a very good program, so that meant I got to see plenty of games and they won a lot. My love for the Nittany Lions grew quickly. I seemed to have some special bond with the team. I sensed early on that hating Pitt was important and that came naturally. Dan Marino was Pitt's star quarterback and I hated him with a passion. Still do to this day. Sure, he had good passing stats and was worshiped, but Todd Blackledge was more of a winner and had a cool mustache. Advantage, Blackledge.
I lived and died with Penn State in those days. I was lucky enough to cheer for the team when they won the 1983 Sugar Bowl and national title. The Sports Illustrated with Greg Garrity on the cover is one of my favorite things in the world. Those were good days. The team made it back to the title game a few years later, but lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The score was 25-10. I don't even have to look it up. That score is burned into my soul forever. Damn Sooners.
The next year Penn State again played for the national title, this time against Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. The Nittany Lions pulled off a great upset and won 14-10. That was a classic game that featured a brilliant gameplan by defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
A couple of weeks after the game I was flipping around the channels on a Saturday afternoon. I saw there was a show coming on about Penn State and the Fiesta Bowl win. Remember, I lived in North Carolina. This show had no business being on some small cable channel in my area, but it was. This wasn't ESPN or one of the big networks. I took this as simply another sign that I was meant to be a Penn State fan.
The show was Sandusky standing in front of a chalk board and drawing up the various defenses that Penn State used in the game. They showed clips and he told some great stories. I learned a ton about how zone defense was played by watching that show. I taped it and watched the show over and over. I can't explain the importance of that tape. It was like a coach's clinic that the football gods had sent to me. I had Sandusky explaining the Penn State defense and how it worked. I liked him every bit as much as Joe Paterno because of my infatuation with defensive coaches (Buddy Ryan is the guy who made me an Eagles fan). That tape has been one of my prize possessions for almost 25 years.
Can I ever watch it again? There is a tremendous amount of football knowledge being shared. There are great Penn State stories. And there is Sandusky, the man transformed from defensive guru to monster. Seeing and hearing him will never be the same. I considered throwing the tape away after hearing and reading stories for the last two weeks.
I am still a Penn State football fan. That isn't going to change. I tuned in last weekend and watched the Nittany Lions take on Nebraska. It felt weird. I've never been so emotionally confused while watching a football game. It was Senior Day, which is a celebration of the careers of the senior players on the squad. It partly felt like a memorial to Joe Paterno. Seeing the coaching staff embrace the atmosphere was sad and moving. I think they knew that was the last time they'd be coaching in that stadium, at least as members of the Penn State staff. I get the feeling that there will be a complete changing of the guard in the offseason. Guys like Tom Bradley, Ron Vanderlinden, Larry Johnson, and Dick Anderson haven't been implicated in any way, but will pay the price for being guilty by association.
I feel especially bad for Bradley. He spent his whole adult life dreaming of being the Penn State coach. He didn't look for other jobs. He climbed the ladder at Penn State and patiently waited his turn. It seemed like this might be Paterno's last year due to health reasons. Bradley was oh so close to getting his dream job. Because of his friendship with Sandusky, I think it is a major longshot that Bradley stays. I would love to see it happen. Bradley knows the Penn State way (still a good thing for the most part), but he's also open minded and could make some changes where they are needed.
I know some people have questioned why Penn State played last week. Bill Maher brought up the point on his show. I fail to see how cancelling a game accomplishes anything. Paterno is done. Administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz are done and facing prosecution. The game was a reward for the players and fans. Neither group did anything wrong in this horrible situation. How would cancelling the game punish those who are truly in the wrong? It wouldn't.
I don't think Sandusky's actions were known by large groups of people. I heard former player LaVar Arrington on the radio this week ranting about Sandusky. Arrington feels betrayed. Sandusky coached him and was an important figure in his life. Arrington is sickened by the whole situation. Sandusky's primary victims were the boys he raped and molested. There were other victims...those who trusted and loved him. This is like finding out your dad or uncle is a killer or rapist. People just aren't emotionally equipped to deal with that.
I cannot believe that Joe Paterno intentionally covered up anything. He spent his whole life trying to do the right thing. Covering up a situation like this would be the opposite of everything he stood for. Paterno didn't sit on the story Mike McQueary told him. Paterno went to Curley, the athletic director. To me, that kills the very thought of a cover up. You don't go tell other people if you are trying to limit information and cover a situation up.
Was Paterno negligent? This is a whole other story. He absolutely could be guilty of this. The one thing we don't know is if Paterno heard back from Curley that the situation had been looked into and nothing came of it. Even then, I don't know how Paterno didn't do more. Paterno had been friends with Sandusky for thirty plus years. An allegation that serious against someone that important to you should warrant more concern, even if just on a personal level.
There has been a lot of talk about Paterno's legacy. That's a dumb subject for discussion. We don't yet know all the facts of the case. We need more information and a lot of time before we can assess his legacy. Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne is never spoken poorly of, despite the fact his title teams had some absolutely disgusting players on them that Osborne failed to let go of or truly punish. Somehow the name Lawrence Phillips gets left out of Osborne discussions. Saint Osborne is roundly worshiped in the college football world. I'm not sure the victims of his players feel the same way.
What about Sandusky's victims? I cannot imagine what those kids went through and continue to deal with, in terms of emotional scars. If I thought that no longer cheering for Penn State would help those young men, I'd do that in a heartbeat. I don't think that is the case. If there is anything that can be done for them, obviously I'm all for it.
I think this is a situation where the good that can come from this is in the future. We can't undo Sandusky's horrific actions, but we can prevent and/or stop people in the future. I hope the shame of Joe Paterno and Penn State is something that all big time coaches pay attention to. Do not hide or protect the players and coaches who commit crimes and abuse other people. Show some moral courage. Show some human decency. We're not talking about shades of gray. We're talking about right and wrong.
I look forward to Saturday's game against Ohio State. I can't wait for Devon Still to fire into the backfield and make a big play that will make me stand up and cheer. I can't wait for Matt McGloin to throw into triple coverage, causing me to scream at the TV for a good two minutes. I'm a Penn State fan and I'll continue to cheer for the team wearing those distinctively plain uniforms.
I'm also a human being and I'll continue to think about all of the awful things done by Sandusky, and covered up by some people at Penn State. The shame and pain of that situation isn't going away any time soon. Last week I went to Arby's to pick up some food for lunch. While walking out some stranger stopped and stared at me as if I was Osama Bin Hitler. I had no idea what I'd done to offend the guy. I hadn't looked at him, let alone said anything. I got home and went to wipe some curly fry crumbs off my shirt. I was wearing a Penn State shirt.