Sometimes, a game can become more than a game.
It can transcend the playing field, becoming a shared experience that is able to stand for something greater than it is, to lift up an entire community.
And sometimes, a game is just that — a game. A few hours of welcome relief from the pressures and worries of the world.
For three hours on Saturday, more than 100,000 Penn Staters were able to put aside a week of shock and emotional distress to cheer on their Nittany Lions as they fought against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The events of the past week — allegations of sexual abuse filed against Penn State legend Jerry Sandusky and the subsequent removal not only of coach Joe Paterno but also key members of the university’s administration — were never far from the minds of fans.
The Penn State campus and town of State College were eerily silent in the hours before kickoff. There was none of the usual raucous cheering or impromptu outbursts as fans filed into Beaver Stadium.
Outside, students and alumni collected donations for Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania. As one woman said, they cannot change what has happened, but they can try to raise awareness to prevent it from happening again.
And in a moment of powerful emotion, both teams walked onto the field at Beaver Stadium, Penn State, arm in arm, leaving some fans crying and others on the verge of tears.
In a few moments they would be rivals, but together, they met at midfield, took a knee and prayed.
Rather than define a game between two Big Ten rivals, the allegations and their subsequent effects became the backdrop against which the final home game of the 2011 season was played.
Paterno’s absence couldn’t be ignored, particularly when the longtime coach appeared in halftime videos saluting the team’s seniors during the final home game. Students chanted his name, “Joe Pa-ter-no!” Before the game, a number of fans made a point of visiting the statue of Paterno outside the stadium.
The heartbreaking week was also addressed in a video that played in the stadium featuring Rodney Erickson, Penn State’s new president. “Although we can’t go back to business as usual, our university must move forward,” he said. The message drew robust applause.
But for the most part, once the game began, it could have been any football Saturday in Happy Valley.
The crowd — announced at 107,903 — was the largest at Beaver Stadium this year. For the fans, it was a chance to put aside the emotional baggage and return to tradition, to sing the familiar songs and chant the game’s customary cheers as an 8-1 team continued to vie for a championship.
It wasn’t about the school, a former coach, or the controversy that has engulfed the campus. It was about a group of seniors who were playing their final home game at Penn State.
In the end, the team and its fans didn’t get the win they wanted.
In the trailing moments of the game, with fans on their feet and screaming, the Lions fell short and the game was lost.
But, as more than one person remarked as they filed out of the stadium following the 17-14 loss, the team played a good, tough football game.
They didn’t give up — and in the final moments of a beautiful fall afternoon in central Pennsylvania, they had a chance to win.
In other words, they said, it was game to be proud of.
And as the players walked off the field for the last time this year, the stadium showed its appreciation, with the salute: “We are! Penn State!”
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