For Penn State's seniors, Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl game against Boston College at Yankee Stadium will be a day most thought never would come. They are the survivors, the players recruited by Joe Paterno who lived through his firing during the 2011 season in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal and who ultimately bore the brunt of sanctions imposed by the NCAA with the agreement of school officials.
The seniors chose to stay, knowing the sanctions included a four-season bowl ban along with harsh scholarship restrictions. But the NCAA commuted Penn State's sentence during the past season, and the 6-6 Nittany Lions did just enough to become bowl eligible and earn a reward for their perseverance.
"It's been an incredible ride," All-American middle linebacker Mike Hull said during a very quiet media day on Christmas Eve at the Stadium. "It wasn't always easy. It was some of the toughest things I ever had to go through. But we learned a lot of things from every head coach, and I got to build a lot of relationships with a lot of good people.
"It's great to be able to go out on a high note. I never thought we'd be able to play in a bowl game again. It's kind of a bittersweet ending."
Penn State's seniors are survivors in the most literal sense of the word. Not only did they endure the trauma that divided the Penn State community with regard to the way Paterno's dismissal was handled, but they also saw the passing of the iconic coach within months of his firing, leaving them as the immediate heirs to his football legacy.
All were given the opportunity to transfer without penalty after the sanctions were imposed, but most stayed to play two seasons under Bill O'Brien and then the past season under James Franklin, who took over when O'Brien was hired by the NFL's Houston Texans. Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said 2012 captains Mike Zordich and Michael Mauti made an impassioned plea for their loyalty.
"When you get to Penn State, you realize what a special place it is, the educational opportunity you have and the type of football players it produces," said Zettel, who was a redshirt in Paterno's last year and still has one more year of eligibility remaining. "When the sanctions came, we realized it could fall even farther to the bad side or to where we took it. We knew if we stayed, it would be special later in life.
"Ninety percent of the guys stayed. I came for the bond these guys had. They are high-character guys."
Neither Hull nor Zettel holds O'Brien's departure against him. It was well-known that his lifelong dream was to become an NFL head coach.
"Everyone loved him," Hull said of O'Brien. "He was a great coach. I appreciated his honesty."
Making a transition to a third coach and new systems was difficult, but the players appreciate the passion Franklin brings to the job. They also believe in his ability to recruit and restore the program. Of the 24 players who verbally committed or signed with Penn State before O'Brien announced he was leaving, 23 kept their commitment to Franklin's staff.
Hull praised the commitment of the Penn State community through the upheaval of the past three years and said it helped the players endure. But he said it's also time for folks to let go of the past and embrace the future.
"There's always going to be a few that are pro-Paterno and that love everything he did," Hull said. "But I think there's got to be a point where you move on. Coach O'Brien got us moving in the right direction, and coach Franklin is doing a really good job. I think he's going to take this program where it should be."
Zettel said the Nittany Lions have no plans to use the first bowl game since the sanctions were lifted as a source of motivation. "We're playing BC," Zettel said, "and BC doesn't care."
But Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy said the Eagles are well aware of the circumstances and how they might play into the game. "Their group of kids has been through a lot, and they're going to come out fired up," Murphy said. "For the group of guys that decided to be a Nittany Lion, it's a way to put an exclamation point on their career at Penn State."
Hull said it's hard to believe he's about to play his last game for Penn State, and even though Zettel will get one more season, he hopes to send the senior survivors out in winning fashion.
"They made a difference in the history of Penn State," Zettel said, "by staying and fighting through adversity."