What Happened in Happy Valley
On Point with Chris Papst
As someone who grew up in Pennsylvania idolizing Joe Paterno and Penn State Football, I find the recent allegation coming out of Happy Valley devastating. Not only is the grand jury report disturbing, but the apparent cover-up is hurtful. To be honest, I feel betrayed. Penn State football was something of a fairytale. And it wasn't because the Nittany Lions were perennial contenders. They had their share of mediocre seasons. It was because no matter what happened on the field, we as fans could always fall back on the fact that - we just had this guy. A guy who was more than wins or losses. A guy who was more than touchdowns and goal line stands. A guy who put honor and morals ahead of victories. A guy who turned down million dollar professional contracts. A guy who lived near campus in a modest house when he could have afforded a brilliant private estate. A guy who simply transcended the game, the university and his own celebrity. With all that in mind, when Joe Paterno announced his retirement, I felt compelled to buy tickets to his final home game. Hours later when he was fired, I felt compelled to go for a different reason.
I didn't know what to expect as I drove to Happy Valley the morning of the game. It could have gone many ways. But what it ended up being, made perfect sense.
The mood of those who encircled Beaver Stadium was notably cheerless. For as much as these fans loved their team, I got the impression nobody wanted the game to start. High above, a small aircraft pulled a banner that read, “Joe is so dirty, he needs a shower.” Remarkably, it garnered little attention.
Prior to kickoff, I walked to Paterno's house. On the way, I came across three Westboro Baptist Church protesters. They stood next to a busy road with their abusive signs chanting, “We are....Penn rape.” In an impressive show of solidarity, 150 nearby college students held up white bedsheets to shield passersby from the hate. All they asked in return was we ignore the church's message.
The scene at Paterno's house was even more telling. If you didn't know the story, you would have thought he died. Hundreds of “mourners” placed flowers and gifts on his front porch. By the time I arrived, the offerings had piled up. Few spoke, and if they did, it was a polite whisper. The media, which stood en mass on the opposite sidewalk, followed a similar protocol. The wind even seemed to carefully negotiate the trees so as not to be disrespectful.
About a mile away from Paterno's home, Beaver Stadium was equally as somber. Walking through the concourse was not as I had ever remembered it. There was no energy. There was no enthusiasm; just 107,000 people trying to find their seats.
Before the game, the university and football program paid respect to the victims of child abuse. Pending the arrival of the teams, the announcer called for a moment of silence. For 30 seconds, I had never heard so many be so silent.
Then, for the first time in 46 years, the Penn State Nittany Lions took the field minus their iconic leader. As a result, the players did not charge out of the tunnel. Instead, they walked five to a row locked arm-in-arm. At the 50-yard line, they joined Nebraska on a knee in prayer.
The game itself was largely forgettable. And when it was over, it was over. But I didn't go to Happy Valley to watch football. I went because it's been said that any institution is larger than any one person. In the case of Penn State I found that to be true; although barely.
Chris Papst is a two-time Emmy Award winning reporter for CBS-21 news. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @chrispapst.