Ryan O’Hanlon’s weekend in State College was a strange trip to the strangest land.
It sucks when sports can’t just be sports. At least, that’s how it is for me. And we all have our reasons, but I’d like to think, at their reduced cores, all of our reasons come back to this: we watch sports because they’re fun as hell. You support the Chiefs because your dad did, or you take your anger out on Papelbon and his blown save because you had a bad week, or you root against Kobe Bryant because … well … he’s Kobe Bryant. You do all of these things because you can—and no one should stop you—but you keep watching because you’ve found a way to enjoy the game.
Everything else—the projections we make, the connections we draw, the wars the games stop—is just that … something else. It’s not sports, but it comes with it, tacked on to the full-court alley oops and what-the-fuck punt returns. It all supplements the game. It shouldn’t surpass it, but it does. And when it does, bad things happen.
The Penn State football team played Nebraska on Saturday. They played Nebraska because that’s what football teams in the same conference do. Penn State lost 17-14.
It was an exciting game in the way that most Big Ten games are exciting: neither team scored enough points to ever make a lead feel safe. And with points at such a premium, the touchdowns and field goals seem bigger and more important. Both teams played great defense, while Penn State’s offense was generally terrible and Nebraska’s quarterback-cum-running back Taylor Martinez and running back-cum-quarterback Rex Burkhead occasionally combined to do something exciting.
The Martinez-Burkhead combo was enough, but never enough to make the lead big enough and never enough to take the 90,000-plus crowd out of the game. That maintained the tension, gave the Penn Staters a reason to keep rooting, and made it a fun game, despite some not-so-good football.
Nebraska’s record is now 8-2. Penn State is 8-2-also, still with the inside track to the Big Ten championship game, with two games left.
Penn State’s football season isn’t over.
It took about two hours to get off of I-99 and onto campus. Cars lined up, single-file, into the two exits off of the highway toward Beaver Stadium. A GMC pickup with a “The Bone Reaper” decal on the back window led our way into State College. We were in a white SUV with New York plates. The navy blue paw print on the back bumper would never be enough for us fit in.
People drank a lot of beer. People wore a lot of blue—and some wore red. There were jerseys with numbers and no last names, morphing the shirts’ identities from one season to the next. Processed and pressed meats were cooked, footballs were thrown, and the lines to the port-o-potties were long. We did these things, too, but we watched everyone else while we did. The weather bit, but the sun was out. The game kicked off at noon, so everyone tailgated as best they could for a few short hours.
In other words, it was the same as every other mid-November noon tailgate at every other successful football school in the United States.
Beaver Stadium holds so many people because it’s only mostly made of concrete and metal bleachers. You sit on a number with the PSU grandpa-behind-you’s knees jutting into your back and your legs crossed so you don’t do the same to the 50-year-old mother alum in headphones sitting in front of you, while you try to look between the heads of the 30-something buddies back for the weekend so you can actually watch the game.
After all, that’s why you’re there.
We were in the midst of everything that happened, but we weren’t a part of it, just passengers on whatever this wave was and wherever it was taking us. We were foreigners, visiting my brother, who was sitting across the field with the student section.
Some people had seats with padded blue cushioning and back support; they’re the lifers. You’ll never know who these people are until you leave because you can’t move during the game, just like you can’t move within your seat. Also: everyone in Beaver Stadium looks like a lifer.
When we sat down, we didn’t know any of this. There had to be more room, so as the four of us, four adults, sat down on a strip of metal bench big enough for three small children, we asked the woman next to us if these were her seats.
“Yep, and they have been for 43 years.”
Joe Paterno used to be a great football coach.
Joe Paterno is now an 84-year-old man without a job. In other words, he’s just like every other moderately healthy 84-year-old in the United States.
He’s different in that his life inspired things like a GQ profile titled “Icon,” that there’s an a cappella group of young boys who dress like him, that his life’s work has been (somewhat arrogantly, right?) called “The Grand Experiment.”
He’s also different in that he lost his job because he didn’t immediately put an end to over a decade of child rape when he had the opportunity to.
Joe Paterno may have led a good and honorable life, but all of these things are true.
Nebraska and Penn State and the media and everyone else on the field joined together at midfield for a silent prayer before the game began.
The friends in front of me cried. The mother and grandmother to my right hugged, and their eyes watered, too. A lot of people cried before this football game. And I wish I knew exactly why.
When the interim-president Rodney Erickson gave an announcement over the jumbotron in the first quarter, the grandmas and grandpas and all the generations of Penn State inside the stadium ignored him, breaking out into the famous “We Are …” chant. Another man near me tried pleading with the pixilated taping, “Please, give Joe his job back!” I don’t think he was the only one—and I wished I knew why.
In the fourth quarter, a “JoePa, JoePa” chant took over the stadium for a few seconds. The team was playing in a very important game, losing, but still with a chance to win. And the fans were chanting for an 84-year-old man who was probably watching this game from his living room.
These are things I will never understand.
The night before the game, at a diner in Hazelton, PA—an hour-and-a-half outside of State College, but still very State College—the waitress, whose name was either Peg, or Flo, or Barb, came back over to our table after giving us our drinks.
“Where are y’all from? I’ve never seen you before. You’re not from around here.”
We nodded, “Yep, just visiting.”
She didn’t ask from where, and she started to walk away, but then circled back, spider bangs bobbing up and down, black up-do never, ever moving.
We spoke all at once, Long Island—Brooklyn—New York.
“Oh wow, different world.”