Penn State fans cheered their football team Saturday as it walked into Beaver Stadium for the first time in 46 years without Joe Paterno as its coach. The normally low-key Jay Paterno, Joe's son and a quarterbacks coach, pumped his fist and shouted, "Let's go!"
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 the elder Paterno his job, the Nittany Lions' game against Nebraska was set up to be part pep rally, part cleansing.
Jay Paterno high-fived passers-by on the way into the stadium while other players and staff members seemed to be tearing up. Three players wore shirts that read "Joe Knows Football."
Longtime assistant turned interim coach Tom Bradley promised in an on-field interview with ESPN that the Nittany Lions would play hard and represent Penn State well.
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," 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.
"Having (Paterno) taken away from us made us feel lost," Leah Blasko, a junior from Pittsburgh, said at the candle light vigil held Friday night as a show of support for the alleged victims. "Tonight really gave us a place to put ourselves back together."
Saturday's game will be another step.
Instead of the usual "whiteout," Beaver Stadium was expected to be awash in blue in a sign of support for the alleged victims. Donations for two child-abuse prevention organizations are being accepted at the stadium gates. Other fundraisers taking place have already raised more than $200,000.
"We are supporting the victims," said Kristie Winiarski, a senior from Doylestown, Pa., who was selling homemade baked goods Friday to raise money for Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania. "We want to show the world we can do more than riot."
Others had a message that also was supportive of abuse victims, but not school adminstrators. A plane overhead pulled a sign overhead in red "Cry for the Kids Not the Cowards & Liars."
State College police Capt. John Gardner promised a heavy police presence to deter a recurrence of the violence that occurred Wednesday night. There were already signs of it Friday night, with police officers walking up and down Beaver Avenue, a street popular with students because of its bars and restaurants.
On Saturday, mounted police patrolled outside a stadium gate — a rare if not unprecedented sight at Beaver Stadium.
Gardner said he does not anticipate any problems.
"I've got a lot of faith in the vast majority of Penn State and I think they're going to do the right thing," he said. "Come out, show support for the victims of this terrible scandal and enjoy themselves at a football game."
One person not expected to be there is Paterno, who has stayed out of sight since Wednesday night.
"That's Joe Paterno's decision," new Penn State president Rod Erickson said Friday when asked if he expected Paterno at the game. "Clearly he's welcome to come, as any other member of the public would be."
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