Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Penn State Pride: It’s About the People

-This is a column that I wrote last fall for the Centre daily Times--I wanted to be sure that I shared it again--as the summer approaches and the season nears. The Football season is about so much more than just what we do and what happens on game days.

On an early September day in 1973 a life of Penn State football memories began at my first game at Beaver Stadium. From the south end zone bleachers I saw the band, watched the players and smelled the cigars and pipes men smoked in the stands. To this day, the smell of cigar or pipe smoke ships my mind back to my early days at a Penn State game. I’m a boy bundled up and seated in the south end zone on one of our trademark cold grey November days.

In the 35 years that have passed since then, I have witnessed — and have been a part of — Penn State football.

When asked about a favorite memory or memories, how could any Penn Stater list just one or two or even 20?

All of us have our own set of memories on the field that mark our ages: Mike Guman scoring on fourth and 1 against Pitt in 1978 to seal an 11-0 regular season. In 1981, Kenny Jackson making an unbelievable spin move on the sidelines against Pitt to spark a 48-14 rout over the country’s No. 1 team. Ten months later Kirk Bowman making the game-winning touchdown catch against Nebraska in the first Penn State home game under the lights. Gregg Garrity’s catch against Georgia…the Fiesta Bowl showdown against Miami...both national Titles.

The memories go on and on and on…..

Being a part of Penn State football has meant so much more than what happens on game day. It is being a part of something so big, it’s being part of The Pride of Lions that encompasses all who love this place and this team. Fans, students and alumni, as well as everyone who works with or plays for our team — are all part of the Pride.

This Pride is about people. I turned five years old in the fall of 1973, when I watched John Cappelletti run into the hearts of America and win the Heisman Trophy. I’d draw pictures for him and send them to work with my father.

I can still see Sports Information Director John Morris handing me an envelope with a signed picture of John Cappelletti inside. Thirty-five years later, that picture is in my Lasch Building office, near drawings my kids make for me.

On Sunday mornings, Ridge Riley — who wrote The Football Letter for the Penn State Alumni Association — would come over to talk with Joe about the previous day’s game. He’d also work on the book he was writing, “The Road To Number One,” a book that is also in my office.

Home games meant excitement and house guests. Friday nights of home games, we’d wait up until my grandparents Alma and August Pohland would arrive from Latrobe. For homecoming, they’d meet us for the parade after they ate at The Tavern. Once a year, Bill Shearer and his wife Bobbi would stay with us—bringing candy for all of us.

Another member of the Pride was my late Uncle George Paterno, who is still talked about fondly by the older writers on the Penn State beat. I can still see him in our house arguing about strategy with my father after every game.

There were plenty of others. Jack Brannigan, a great friend of my parents, used to tell me stories that took place before I was born; watching future NFL Hall of Famers Lenny Moore (Penn State) and Jim Brown (Syracuse) play on the same field.

Tom Runyan,a Delta Chi from the 1940s, was my neighbor when I first moved back to coach here in 1995. He talked about the great players he had seen over the years, but also about taking kegs into the stadium.

There was a great coaching staff, Frank Patrick, J.T. White, Sever Toretti, Jim O’Hara, Dan Radokovich, George Welsh, John Chuckran, Booker Brooks, Bob Phillips, all people who would make a little 5 year-old kid feel like a member of the team when I was around.

Many of these people are gone, but I often think about those who’ve died looking down on us and hoping that we make them proud.

Coaching brought me back to Penn State, and it has been the people and places I’ve come in contact with as a coach that have made the greatest memories.

I’ll never forget standing in a Philadelphia hospital with Kenny Jackson, Bill Kenney and Tim Curley just days after Adam Taliaferro’s injury. When the doctor told Adam’s father that he had a 1 in 10,000 chance to walk again, Andre simply said, “Don’t worry doc, my son’s one in a million.” He was right, but in those earliest, darkest days after the injury who could find that strength?

Anthony Adams’ mother had that strength. Anthony came to us from Detroit, but it was his mother who really got him here. A single mother, Connie raised Anthony to be strong and proud. When Joe and I visited him she took us to their church and told me she was entrusting her son’s future to us.

“I have always been very careful about the men I allow him to be influenced by.” She said.

That meant a lot to Joe and to me. Anthony, now a Chicago Bear, is a loving husband and father. Every time I see him he puts a big smile on my face. Connie, I hope we paid back your trust.

There are great people in some of the toughest places in this country. I’ve stood in inner-city high schools for weapons search lockdowns. At a Youngstown high school game the athletic director’s secretary warned us that they expected some “gun play” after the game and that if we just stood against the wall behind us that we’d be okay.

Seeing so many places and meeting so many people, I realized that Penn State football stands for so much more. It stands for opportunity. It stands for unity, of team, of school, of community. It stands for a place where young men can come get a meaningful education, and play on a great football team. It stands as a place where young men will be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

My “circle of life” moment in Penn State football really came in 2005. Thirty-two years after I began going to games, my oldest son was about the same age I was in 1973. That season I gained a passion for Penn State football; in 2005 I could see my son gaining that same passion.

In 2005 Michael Robinson passed, ran and bulled his way into the lore of Penn State football. From the fourth and 15 pass against Northwestern through the Orange Bowl, one of Penn State’s all-time gutsiest performances, he would not be denied.

As that magical season started to take shape, I saw my son and how the games were impacting him. I also saw myself. I saw that I was handing down to him the same passion, the same fire and most importantly membership into a bigger family, a Pride of Lions that is Penn State football. All of us — players, coaches, students, alumni and fans — are in the Pride and once in, you never get out.

I’ll be a Nittany Lion until the day I die and that continues to give meaning to the memories I have and will forever create.