Adam Schirling Dispatch #3:
Fear, Hope, and Redemption in America: Penn State Homecoming Game 2012
Last month, former Penn State assistant football coach and convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to no less than 30 years in prison, meaning he will spend the rest of his miserable human life rotting behind bars. The phenomenal damage he left behind will surely echo throughout the ages of American criminal justice, college football, and most importantly the suffering of his victims. 5 weeks ago, I set out to examine another one of his many groups of victims: the rabid fans of the once glorious Penn State football program. I drunkenly embedded myself, in true gonzo fashion, with such a group of fans to attend the 2012 Penn State Homecoming football game, the first homecoming game since the sex abuse scandal broke, the controversial firing (and subsequent death) of beloved head coach Joe Paterno, the scandalous trial, and the final conviction of Jerry Sandusky. This is my story of that game, a tale of heartbreak, anger, and eventual hope.
Trying to cover a story of this magnitude is no easy task. I am an outsider. An interloper. I am not from Pennsylvania, and until I met my wife I had zero connection with it whatsoever other than ESPN highlights. My wife’s family, however, are a fanatical group of Penn State fans, and when my brother in law Pat (who writes and edits sports for a local daily in their hometown in rural PA) called me two weeks ago to invite me to attend the homecoming game with him and his friends, I leapt at the opportunity. The idea of writing about the scandal had been mulling in my mind for months, but until I truly experienced what it meant to be a fan, I didn’t feel it my place. That I didn’t rate to speak out from the perspective of a fan. But this tale insisted on being told, so off I set.
America is currently in a time of great economic, political, and social turmoil. We are in the midst of an economic recession almost as bad as the Great Depression. We are quagmire into the longest war in our history. Our two major political parties have almost ceased to govern, and have become bogged down into the horrors of Super PACs and all efforts seem to be spent on mudslinging rather than the governance of our great nation. The country has been divided by social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, and the fighting over these issues has become greater and uglier each year. But if one thing has always been safe from the horrors of our ills, it is college football. Baseball steroid use and outrageous salaries have made the average American lose their taste for the national pastime. The NFL remains strong, but again is a sport full of corrupt millionaires and marred by scandals such as the Michael Vick fiasco. College football, for the most part, has remained a pure sport.
But now, the very soul of this support has been gutted for one school. The sanctions levied against the football program will reverberate for decades in the NCAA. No bowl games for 4 years presents a whole myriad of problems for a former football powerhouse like Penn State. And on that cold, dreary morning that I accompanied my brother in law and his friend on the 2 hour drive from Athens to Happy Valley, the sanctions seemed to be the most concerning factor overall. There is a great sense of injustice by Penn State fans, that the NCAA has punished the hardworking student-athletes, and rabid fan base, for the actions of one sick criminal, and a senior citizen who made the wrong choice about reporting those actions. The sad anger of hearing fans discuss the sanctions matched the bleakness of the world rushing past the car, cold and grey. One must wonder why more players did not abandoned Penn State when they had chance. To fight, and bleed, and cry for a team that will never gain you national attention, at least in the remainder of this decade? For what purpose? For love of school? Hardly seems logical in a day and age where loyalty is seldom rewarded. These questions were on my mind as I started taking pulls from the bottle of Jack under the seat. My brother in law in the back cracks a beer, and the discussions intensify. Was there a conspiracy against Sandusky? Did Paterno know more than he let on? I can imagine the frustrations of these fans in seeing a grandfather figure like Joe Paterno have his honor called into question so abruptly.
The stadium rose up from flat farmland with small rolling hills set against an ominous sky. It was almost an uneasy feeling, to see firsthand a place that had become so vilified in the national mindset. We waited in the appropriate lines, by this point the whiskey and beer flowing through our veins like our very lifeblood, and parked the truck about a mile away from the stadium among a vast crowd of tailgaters. Getting out of the car, what first shocked me was the silence of the area. Was this not supposed to be a Homecoming game? I expected revelry and joyful drunkenness. Instead, it appeared almost like the reception after a funeral. Everyone was there because they loved the deceased, but all the drinks and good food doesn’t negate the fact you are there because someone you love had died. So sad faces held beers in their cold hands and cooked hot dogs with forlorn looks, the occasional awkward laugh barking through the sharp air. We met with other friends of my brother in law, who pulled at cans of beer and shuffled their feet while quietly discussing why others were not there with them. I am seeing double by the point, but I struggle through the haze to hear the conversations of other groups just like ours throughout the field. Overall, the tone was ominous. Putting the booze down, we began to move towards the stadium itself, entrenching ourselves in the vast crowds now surging in. We passed the site where Paterno’s statue once stood, now an in descript piece of grass covered with support posters for the Paterno legacy and abused children alike.
By the time I sat in my chair, 4 rows behind the end zone, my mind was fuzzy with bourbon, information, and the sound of the 90,000 plus fans filling the stadium. Being a college game, no beer was available, so I downed hot cheesy nachos, the gooey fats filling my drunken belly and sending me into a stupor. My mind soared at the pure assault on the senses that are live major sporting events. The cheers, the boos, the band. The announcer, it all melded together into a swirl of light and noise. A cacophony of energy and human spirit bound together under a fall sky in a little piece of America. The collective spiritual breaths of so many fans being held slowly transformed into a tumultuous outpouring of love and emotion at the spectacle on the field. Penn State put on a great show of a game, emerging victorious by the final whistle. The overwhelming out roar of pleasure and relief erupted from the crowd. Their hopes and wishes had been validated. The a hope of redemption, a hope for renewal and an escape from shame. The crowd leaving the stadium was a different one that had shuffled in earlier. They laughed and shouted and jumped over each other. Even the weather had transformed, and golden, cold, autumn sunlight now beamed down, and what was grey before was now sun washed and vibrant with fall colors.
America has always been a country of second chances. We were founded on the principles of redemption and that no man should suffer for the injustices caused by another. And though Penn State’s legacy has been tarnished and bruised, their nose bloodied with horrible truths and legs crippled with harsh sanctions; there still emerges a football team, and a community built around them that will ride forward towards whatever glory their sinner’s sentence will allow them. You can take a lot away from a human being; his dignity and his happiness; but you cannot destroy hope. And the evil actions of one man will not destroy the hope of a world that I had no idea existed until recently: The world of Penn State Football.