Searching For Truth, Penn State Moves Past Paterno

Jay Paterno took his father's usual spot on the team bus, following the starting quarterback off when Penn State arrived at the stadium.

The scene Saturday looked comfortably familiar, even if everything has changed.

Athletes often talk of the playing field being their sanctuary, the one place they can go to shut out the distractions - good and bad - of real life.

If ever a team and its fans needed an escape, it is Penn State.

Still reeling from the child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky that has rocked Penn State to its very core and cost coach Joe Paterno his job, the Nittany Lions' game against Nebraska was set up to be part pep rally, part cleansing.

"It's therapy," Dave Young, a lifelong Penn State fan, said before the game. "I love Penn State football, always will love Penn State football. Tough week, cried in my office a couple times when I had moments to myself.

"But now it's time to release and watch the football game and enjoy it."

Emotions, so raw throughout the week, were on full display again. The normally low-key Jay Paterno, Joe's son and a quarterbacks coach, pumped his fist and shouted, "Let's go!"

He high-fived passers-by on the way into the stadium, and several staffers gave him an encouraging embrace before he entered the locker room. Several players appeared to have tears in their eyes, and three wore shirts that read "Joe Knows Football."

But this Saturday is about more than football.

It's about picking up the pieces.

Sandusky, once considered Paterno's heir apparent, is accused of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span, with several of the alleged assaults occurring on Penn State property. Two university officials are accused of perjury, and Paterno and president Graham Spanier were fired for not doing enough to prevent the alleged abuse.

"We are obviously in a very unprecedented situation," interim coach Tom Bradley said Thursday. "I just have to find a way to restore the confidence and to start a healing process with everybody."


The scandal would be damaging enough to a university that prides itself on its integrity. That it involved Paterno, major college football's winningest coach and the man who'd come to symbolize all that was good at Penn State, made it that much worse.

Thousands of angry students paraded through the streets after Paterno was fired Wednesday night, some throwing rocks and bottles and tipping over a TV news van. While the anger has waned, the affection for Paterno has not.

Several students were dressed as Paterno - rolled-up khakis, white socks and thick, dark glasses - and an entire family wore shorts that read "We (Heart) JoePa." Paul Diehm, a Penn State graduate who made the three-hour trip from Delaware, bought a blue T-shirt with the simple message, "Thanks Joe."

"Sixty-one years of service," he said, referring to Paterno's years at Penn State as both an assistant and head coach. "You've got to say thank you. He deserves it."

Whether that affection will remain with Penn State after such an ugly week remains to be seen. So far, however, it appears the love and loyalty for their university is as great as any they have for Paterno.

A larger-than-normal crowd of at least a couple thousand fans was waiting at the tunnel when the team arrived. All fans heeded the request to wear blue - the color associated with child-abuse prevention - making the few red-clad Nebraska fans stand out even more.

Donations for two child-abuse prevention organizations were being accepted at the stadium gates, and a sign on the scoreboard let fans know how they could continue to help.

Someone else had a message that also was supportive of abuse victims, but not school administrators. A plane overhead pulled a sign overhead in red "Cry for the Kids Not the Cowards & Liars."

Though police promised a heavy presence to prevent a recurrence of the violence that occurred Wednesday night, it wasn't needed. The parking lots were filled with fans grilling out, tossing footballs and soaking up the beauty of the warm, late fall morning.

The sadness is still there - will be for months, maybe years to come. But for a few hours, at least, there was a semblance of normalcy at Penn State.

"It's heartbreaking and sad and almost surreal. You can't get it out of your head for more than a minute. I'm sure just about everyone here feels the same way," Emmie Fay said as she glanced at the fellow tailgaters.

"But we're here because we love the school and believe in it."

This article was originally published on November 12, 2011.

This program aired on November 12, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


More from WBUR

Listen Live