Penn State game mix of cleansing, tribute

Penn State's Malcolm Willis, left, and Silas Redd

Penn State's Malcolm Willis, left, and Silas Redd kneel in prayer before a game against Nebraska in State College, Pa. (Nov. 12, 2011) (Credit: AP)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - As is customary before Penn State football games, hundreds of fans assembled Saturday at Beaver Stadium's south end to greet the players' buses.

The front seat, occupied for decades by the legendary head coach, was empty.

A large banner declared "Joe Paterno, Lion King Forever" -- a reference to the team's Nittany Lions nickname. T-shirts proclaimed "I Support Joe and the Team."

But around campus, there were other signs -- and fundraising groups -- focused on the victims in the university's widening child sex-abuse scandal.

"Pray for the victims and their families, for all Penn State students and athletes, for some good to come from this," read one sign at a pregame chili cookout.

Before kickoff in the conference showdown against Nebraska, the incongruity of stark silence settled suddenly into the stadium's conventional high-decibel cauldron, as 107,903 spectators swallowed their cheers. Players from both teams met at midfield for a moment of quiet prayer.

Big-time college football, by definition, is a passionate enterprise. But what Penn State experienced Saturday, after a week of gruesome revelations, included abnormal layers of emotion -- anger, sadness, confusion -- of a proud university under attack.

Grant Crawford, a Penn State grad from Bedford, Pa., circled the stadium before the game with a sign supporting "Jo Pa." He drew an angry rebuke from William Greene, another alum.

Greene made it clear afterward that he wasn't holding Paterno responsible for the abuse allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and that "we don't know yet" whether Paterno failed in a moral obligation to follow up on reports of Sandusky's alleged crimes.

But the dustup -- though virtually unnoticed in the sea of blue-clad fans -- summarized the open sore that has devastated the Penn State community.

In contrast to those arguing that Paterno should not have been fired on Wednesday, 10,000 students, alumni and faculty attended a Friday night candlelight vigil in support of the victimized children.

"This is what Penn State is about," student body president T.J. Bard told the crowd. "This is who we are. We cannot let the actions of a few define us."

The vigil replaced the normal pep rally on the eve of the season's final home game and, in freezing cold, the crowd concluded an hour of speeches and school songs, voices rising when they got to the hauntingly appropriate words, "May no act of ours bring shame."

Saturday afternoon, ritual traffic jams enveloped the campus while the customary ticket scalpers roamed. The band and cheerleaders and mascot all were in place.

Even the stickers students wore on blue T-shirts allowed football exigencies to mix with concern for the victims. "Stop child abuse; Blue out Nebraska."

As always, many fans made the pregame pilgrimage to take photos in front of Paterno's statue on the stadium's east side.

Yet there was the unmistakable sense that Paterno, such an overwhelming presence for so long and CEO of a football operation that made $53 million last year, had come to fulfill F. Scott Fitzgerald's sorrowful observation: "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."

To outsiders, Penn State is Paterno, "and it's really hard," said Virginia Pommerening, a junior from Arlington, Va., "to see how the world is looking at us and thinking the students are upset just because of Joe Pa.

"It's more than that," she said, and the game, which Nebraska won 17-14, was "one of those things to bring the community together, to be cathartic, to show that we're still here and still love and support Penn State, and we'll keep doing that."

For 20 years, Nehemiah Ichiloz, a 42-year-old school headmaster in West Palm Beach, Fla., has been coming to Penn State games with his father-in-law, 1967 Penn State grad Jules Cwanger, of Cherry Hill, N.J.

To him, this game was unlike any other.

"There clearly are the victims," Ichiloz said, "and it's hard for any of us to know what it's like for them. But when you look at the people at this game, and think of all the alumni and students, they're all victims of something different.

"This game," he said, "is a sign to all of them that we're not going to give up; that we're committed to the ideals Penn State stands for."

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