Penn State’s “Apollo 13”-Our Best Moment to Shine! We ARE!!

from Harrisburg Patriot News

It’s been a Nittany Lion nightmare like no other. And more than a few national media types have opined that Penn State might never recover.

There still will be a university in State College, but it won’t be your father’s Penn State. There still will be football, but it won’t be expect-success Penn State football. And there still will be fans in the cavernous Beaver Stadium stands, but they won’t be the legions of Lions loyalists whose zeal saw the Erector Set more than double in capacity over 45 years.

So why not turn out the lights, write the epitaph and bury the dead?

Turns out, someone forgot to send the coroner’s report to a muted but recovering Happy Valley. No one handed a death certificate to the chin-out, give-me-your-best-shot new coach.

Sifting through the ashes of the NCAA sanctions that have all but hamstrung his team, Bill O’Brien and his surprisingly stalwart players see not punishment, but opportunity.

And on the streets of State College and the corridors of campus, something is stirring. Anger, yes. Wounded pride, to be sure. But also resolve.

Standing together

Fines of $60 million, sharply reduced football scholarships and a blistering four-year bowl ban. But as the week has worn on, fans, residents and students have been busy picking up the pieces.

They’ve liked what the new coach and most of his players have had to say — and more importantly, what they’re doing: standing together. They’ve bristled at the national media, who have made the coming season not about football, but rather, Penn State against the world.  More than anything, they’ve circled a date on the calendar: Saturday, Sept. 1. Penn State’s first home game. A chance to make a statement and begin anew.

Then, Nittany Nation rises.

State College residents who normally don’t attend games — yes, there are some — are vowing to be there. It’s personal now.  But in coming in their team’s colors to watch football, they aren’t forgetting Sandusky’s victims or diminishing the life-altering horrors they suffered at such young ages. Far from it.  They insist that supporting the victims and cheering a football team far removed from the scandal aren’t mutually exclusive.  And this town, this campus, needs — craves — a catharsis.  “It’s going to be electric,” gushes Andrew Hanselman, a Class of ’12 grad who plans to be there for his team’s new beginning.  He likens what’s happening in State College to a scene in the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”  “You’ve given your all,” someone tells the cowled hero, who has been sidelined by scandal of his own.  “No. Not all,” Batman replies, before getting back into the game.  “It’s rising up,” the 23-year-old Hanselman says of the community and its team. “I want us to raise hell.”

“It’s not over,” season-ticket holder Gary Patterson scoffs at the Sports Illustrated cover.  “I’m third-generation Penn State,” says the Class of ’58 alum who kept his vow to return to State College after he retired. “It’s more than a school. It’s my family.”

But will it feel the same with so much of Penn State’s tradition now viewed through the dark filter of scandal and cover-up, a full 14 years of wins having been wiped away?

“It’s tainted,” Patterson cedes, his school’s proud past looking as faded as his Rose Bowl cap from the 1995 victory over Oregon. “It’s going to take a while for that to be removed.”  But he likes the new coach and his determined players. O’Brien is saying every home date can be a bowl game before Beaver Stadium’s 108,000 fans.  If they turn out. After all, this is something completely new. A new coach. A new tradition. And, perhaps, new uniforms that complete the break with the past.

“I expect a full house,” Patterson says. “We are Penn State. We will survive.”  If only State College businesses could be so sure.

Businesses remain anxious

For some businesspeople, their Happy Valley brand has become a sad punchline, and their smiles have been replaced with tight lips of worry.  There’s an undercurrent of fear that their gridiron gravy train is over. The golden goose of Penn State football, rendered infertile by the searing scandal and crippling sanctions.  “Gloom and doom” says Rebecca Durst, owner of Rinaldo’s Barber Shop, a State College crossroads of conversation since 1925.  And this is what she’s been hearing from worried business people in for a trim:  “They say, ‘Our sales are going to be down,'” Durst recounts. “At least there’s going to be a football season.”  Instead of breathing a sigh of relief that Penn State dodged what could have been a business-busting, four-year death penalty, the state of State College commerce remains on pins and needles over whether the new Nittany Lions can make the cash registers ring like teams past.  “Wait and see how it goes,” Durst advises her neurotic Nittany Nation business owners. “And if revenues are down a little bit?”  She shrugs. “People are still going to come to the games.”  Yet many will do so attempting to cling to the past, and a deceased — some say, disgraced — coach named Paterno.  “A lot of people in the community can’t let go of the Joe Paterno legacy,” says Durst, who has heard these confessions directly from her football-crazed customers.  “Let’s be realistic. I think it’s not healthy to idolize a person to this degree,” adds the 26-year resident, who never bought into the town’s Paterno-centered cult of personality.  “We need to get past that,” Durst implores. “We need to move forward. It should be a new mind-set.”

Fresh from a chamber of commerce-style meeting where the frayed nerves of 200-plus State College-area businesspeople moved from concern to conviction, Mike Desmond insists both town and gown are turning the corner — and the page.  “Business owners are concerned about making their numbers and staying in business,” acknowledges Desmond, the co-owner of the Hotel State College & Co. “But that attitude is turning around.”

‘Fans will back this team’

The last thing State College can afford is pessimistic business people. It would undercut the Happy Valley brand.  That’s why Desmond and another businessman commissioned a new sign that has been popping up in shop windows all over town.  The blue-and-white placard reads simply: “Proud To Support Penn State Football.”  For many, it says it all.  Desmond commissioned an initial 3,000 printing, but his secretary, Vicky Lumpkin, has been cranking out many more.  “What’s left?” she asks rhetorically of Penn State’s proud past. “We’re left. You can just feel the spirits of the community starting to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps.”

Larry Jacobson drove 17 miles from his suburban home just to pick up a handful of the signs at The Corner Room, downstairs from the hotel. He’s a State College transplant, but has developed strong ties over his 17 years there.

He’ll post the signs all around his property, where they’ll be visible on Route 45. And this year, instead of watching the football games at home, the 55-year-old and his family will set foot in Beaver Stadium.  “Life stops for Penn State football,” he laughs.

But there’s so much more to Penn State. Many of Jacobson’s Spring Mills neighbors work for the university, and he’s constantly amazed at the myriad advances in a variety of fields spawned right here.  “When you talk to people and find out what’s going on, it’s fantastic,” he says.

“We are Penn State, no question about it,” Jacobson adds when shown the dark Sports Illustrated cover. “It’s no different.”  Then he considers this and changes his mind. Yes, it is different. It’s better.  “Stronger than ever,” Jacobson says. “More aware.”

Terry Padden is an alumni director for Bethel University in Tennessee, but lately the State College resident has been spreading the message of Penn State on his seven-state travels. He stops by the hotel for some signs to take to Scranton, hometown of Lions’ quarterback Matt McGloin. Padden plans to give them to McGloin’s dad.

“I’ve never seen such a response by the community,” he says, shaking his head and including himself in this.  “I’ve never gone to football games,” Padden confides. “I’m going now. Wins and losses — no one can tell. But I believe it will be a strong season for attendance.”  Byron Forsythe’s fortunes couldn’t be tied any more obviously to a football team. Penn State paraphernalia surrounds the assistant manager of Rapid Transit Sports on Allen Street. But instead of panicking over Penn State’s post-scandal drawing power, he’s laughing.

Notre Dame coach-turned-ESPN commentator Lou Holtz recently predicted a veritable Beaver Stadium ghost town of 55,000 fans for this season.  “He’s crazy,” scoffs Forsythe, a season-ticket holder. “There’s no way. The fans will back this team without question. People are going to be surprised.”  After months of talk by outsiders, Penn State and State College will make their statement come Sept. 1. But before this, there are about 40,000 close friends to welcome — the university’s small army of returning students.  They will start pouring in next month. And State College is planning to fling open its arms and roll out the red carpet to make the kids feel good about their college choice following months of negativity and oceans of unrelenting criticism.  Desmond sees it as a homecoming for the ages. Then, the full Penn State family will be back together. And ready to take on the world.

As for Sports Illustrated, or anyone else attempting to write off Penn State, he has a simple message endorsed by nearly everyone in the State College Zip code:

“Stay tuned.”

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