Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Penn State and Happy Valley

I grew up in State College, aka Happy Valley, home to Pennsylvania State University. Most of my life has been spent there, in that beautiful, mountainous region, living a life of Town and Gown, student and Townie, learning how to navigate the chaos of football weekends, when Penn State fans come roaring into town.

I grew up in the heyday of Penn State football -when Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky brought the football team to two National Championships in the 1980s. I lived my life in the shadow of these awesome figures. I rode the school bus and attended school with the children of these men - Paterno, Sandusky, Curley. I remember the controversies around hiring Spanier in the mid-90s.

My entire life has been formed in some measure by Penn State, and by football. My high school team was the Little Lions, of course. The boys were expected to dress in dress pants, shirt and tie for away games. We always knew we'd be seeing some team off on the bus when we saw the boys show up, spiffy and clean. We lived in the shadow of the expectation of Joe Paterno.

I remember the days when JoePa would not tolerate any kind of misbehavior (at least any that made the Centre Daily Times) from his football players. They also wore dress slacks and ties, and at least in public, put on a show of high standards of conduct. My generation grew up exceedingly proud to be Penn State, to know the football royal families. I lived up the street from the high school football coach - and I bet his life was even more affected by the omnipresent Penn State. In those days, we packed the high school football stadium. Maybe they still do.

As an adult, I learned to grocery shop on Saturdays during the football game, and didn't miss a play, as it was broadcast in Weis Market, and then Wegman's when they came to town. I learned to drive, knowing that University Park and Park Ave. became one way streams on football Saturdays, and it was best to avoid the area altogether. I enjoyed the raucous energy of Saturdays after a win - the packed bars - Zeno's, the Phyrst, the Shandygaff - filled with young people painted blue and white. Because God must be a Penn State fan, right? Else why would the sky be blue and white?

Even after eight years away from home, I still read the Centre Daily Times every day, and check the football scores. After all, I worked there too, first as an obit writer, and then as an editor of the Weekender. The sports guys were untouchable - they had so much to do, so much to cover. Penn State football covered the front page - even during off-season, to the exclusion of much I thought might be more important. But I didn't push too hard. Football made the world go around in my life there. It brought in the fans, the money, the traffic, the grants for better roads. It brought in students and families and kept the bars hopping.

I remember the roar of the stadium crowds when Paterno beat Bear Bryant's win record I could hear it from 3 miles way in my Lemont driveway. The ground was actually vibrating with the noise and the hundred thousand feet stomping on the bleacher treads. I actually wept that day, in my driveway, on a warm, fall day, much like today.

So you might have an inkling as to how, even though I know that these men charged are innocent until proven guilty, reading the alleged cover-ups, the sickening abuse that Sandusky is accused of, the pointing fingers of Spanier and the administration toward Joe Paterno to take the heat off their own culpability (not that Paterno doesn't have his own in this mess), I feel physically sick.

I am horrified that these idols of my youth, who represented moral conduct, ethics, and good sportsmanship that informed my entire public school and college experience at State High and Penn State, could have such obvious clay feet. I can't imagine how Paterno, as a father of his boys, could know anything and not report it to the police. I can't imagine how Curley and Schultz can live with themselves. and Spanier, well, he should be ashamed for whole-heartedly supporting Curley and Schultz, and for canceling Paterno's press conference today. He should not be allowed to resign, as Curley did - he should be fired, for his own role in covering this up, and for trying to divert attention from himself onto Paterno, an 84 year old man, born the same year as my dad, who probably wonders how his whole world got turned up side down after a lifetime of being the King of Football.

My heart goes out to my former classmates, and I grieve for the loss of their innocence, if they still retained it. It is awful that their lives should be overshadowed by the sins of their fathers. It is heartbreaking that my peers and I have our youthful hopes and memories of great sportsmanship and high standards of conduct, be betrayed in this way.

I will always love Penn State, but it will require a good housecleaning before I begin to trust it again. I send prayers out to the families of the victims, and of those families victimized by their husbands and fathers by lies and sexual abuse. May you find solace in your faith, your heart, your spirt, however you may.

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