At Penn State, hope rises out of the blue

Fans cheer during the Penn State-Nebraska game in Fans cheer during the Penn State-Nebraska game in State College, Pa. Penn State is playing for the first time in decades without former head coach Joe Paterno, who was fired in the wake of a child sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. (Nov. 12, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It was a blue day for Penn State yesterday at Beaver Stadium, but not because the Nittany Lions lost to Nebraska, 17-14, in the first game without Joe Paterno on the coaching staff since 1949, the year before he arrived as an assistant coach on Rip Engle's staff.

Obeying a request by university officials to wear blue in honor of the victims in the child-sex abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry San- dusky, approximately 99 percent of a crowd of 107,903 -- minus some red-clad Cornhusker fans -- showed up wearing blue as opposed to the usual white-out color scheme.

After a week of emotional turmoil since Sandusky's arrest and the firings of Paterno and university president Graham Spanier, which ignited a student protest downtown, Penn State did everything possible to honor the true victims in this tragic situation without punishing innocent players, students and fans. Outside the stadium, students even sold blue ribbons and wristbands for child abuse charities and raised more than $22,000.

Paterno's absence after 409 wins and 62 seasons, including 46 as head coach, was minimized. There was no formal recognition of his service, although a video with his image in the fourth quarter elicited cheers of "Joe Pa!'' Of course, there also were supportive signs in the parking lot and the presence of dozens of former players on the sidelines.

In a video shown on the message board during the first quarter, new school president Rod Erickson said, "This has been one of the saddest weeks in the history of Penn State and my heart goes out to those who have been victimized. I share your anger and sorrow. Although we can't go back to business as usual, our university must move forward. We are a community.''

Prior to the game, the crowd stood for a moment of silence in honor of all victims of child-sex abuse. In keeping with the sober nature of the occasion, the Nittany Lions, who traditionally have run out of the tunnel behind Paterno, linked arms and marched slowly onto the field in a military parade formation. Tom Bradley, the interim coach, in a symbolic gesture, did not enter with the team, leaving Paterno's place open just as he left open the first seat on the team bus that delivered the players to the stadium.

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The day's most moving moment came when both teams and Penn State's alumni players knelt in prayer in the middle of the field for approximately two solemn minutes. The idea came from Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown, who led the prayer.

"It was a week unprecedented in college football history," Bradley said. "The whole thing was very emotional. I thought the prayer, the idea of Nebraska to get together at midfield, was a very special moment for a lot of people. I asked our fans on Thursday night to show class and dignity, and they did all day today. There was solidarity for the children, for the victims.''

The silence in packed Beaver Stadium was eerie, especially because it lasted for an extended period. "We have real respectful fans,'' senior offensive tackle Chima Okoli said. "It's hard to quiet 100,000 fans who are ready to see a football game. That shows the tact of our fans. They stay behind us 100 percent.''

With the town overrun by national and local media and extensive coverage on ESPN's repeating news cycle, senior offensive tackle Quinn Barham acknowledged it was hard for the football team to escape the distractions and focus on Nebraska in such a meaningful Big Ten game.

"It's tough to block it out,'' Barham said. "I knew the world was watching today. There was so much coverage on the team and the university all week. It was a matter of stepping up to the challenge. Just show people what we're all about. There's been a lot of negative coverage this week, but we have to bounce back and move on.''

Paterno's last day with the team was on Wednesday when he revealed his plans to resign at the end of the season. After the Board of Trustees fired him Wednesday night, he sent a letter that was read to the team on Thursday by one of the lettermen in town for the game.

"When the letterman read that letter, it was touching,'' Barham said. "They were teary-eyed, and some of us were crying just to hear it from [Paterno] and knowing he wasn't there at the podium. Not having him there really hurt us that day.

"He said to stay strong and that it killed him that he couldn't be here today. He said he felt like he taught us well enough to be strong throughout all of this, and he would be watching from his home.''

Despite the loss, the Nittany Lions (8-2) still hold a one-game lead in the Legends Division of the Big Ten, and with two games to play, they have a shot to make the conference championship game to earn a Rose Bowl bid. Erickson said there has been no thought of turning down any bowl bid.

"If our student-athletes have earned the right to play, they certainly should be allowed to do so,'' Erickson said.

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Penn State showed plenty of resolve coming back from a 17-0 deficit against Nebraska, but when their last shot fell short at the final whistle, they walked off to thunderous cheers, especially from the students sitting above the end zone exit.

"I told them after the game that I was proud of them and it was a privilege to coach them,'' Bradley said, "the way they stood up to the test of a lot of different emotions and outside influences that happened to them.''

Reflecting on a game that very well might come to mark his last time on the sidelines at Beaver Stadium if the administration cleans house, Bradley was pleased by what he had experienced, saying, "I felt today that just maybe the healing process started to begin.''

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