With God as my witness, I have a confession to make. Regarding the atrocities committed at Penn State, the subsequent cover up, and the aftermath, I am guilty. Maybe not to the extent that Joe Paterno, the athletic department administrators, and Jerry Sandusky are guilty, but I have blood on my hands. I didn’t fully grasp my own complicity in the crimes until I returned for a football game this Fall. There, amid the pomp and the pageantry, my mind kept drifting back in time, and the guilt began gnawing at me like a rat’s tooth on bone.
Remember when the days were long,
And rolled beneath the deep blue sky.
We didn’t have a care in the world,
With mommy and daddy standing by.
I entered Penn State in the Autumn of 1986, the year that Vinny Testaverde won the Heisman, and led his undefeated Hurricanes to the Fiesta Bowl to face heavy underdogs, #2 ranked, Penn State. That night saw Jerry Sandusky’s defensive unit hold the vaunted Miami offense to ten points, while intercepting Testaverde five times, and ended with Joe Paterno being carried off the field, with his second national championship in five years. The game played out like a morality play. It wasn’t Xs and Os, or grit over talent; rather, it was the “good guys” in the all-white uniforms, vanquishing the “evil convicts” from The U. And, we bathed in the glory of justice and retribution. And, we weren’t alone in being swept up in the Paterno aura, as Joe was named 1986 Sports Illustrated Sportsman Of The Year, an honor awarded to no other college football coach, before or since, not Woody Hayes, not Eddie Robinson, not Bear Bryant.
I know a place where we can go,
That’s still untouched by men.
We’ll sit and watch the clouds roll by,
And the tall grass wave in the wind.
We lived in Happy Valley, a little Garden of Eden, tucked away in Central Pennsylvania, far from the corruption and sin of the outside world, where football was king, and our biggest worry was how to get the keg to the stadium on Saturday afternoon. It was an oasis from the outside world, and it continued to be long after we graduated. Once or twice a year, we could go back to a place free from the trappings of civilization, and, if just for a weekend, or a football Saturday, get away from the stress and disjointedness of the real world. It was Camelot, a place where we all felt safe.
But happily ever after fails,
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales,…
…The lawyers clean up all details,
Since daddy had to lie.
We all felt safe. Of course, that was the biggest lie of all. Because, under the Beaver Stadium turf, and the coke bottle glasses, beneath the black shoes and national championship banners, lay the dirtiest of little secrets. In Happy Valley, there lived a monster. And the monster wasn’t Jerry Sandusky, though his well documented crimes are among the most heinous and reprehensible ever committed. No, the monster was the Penn State football program, a creature that had grown so large and menacing that it could overpower common sense, conscience, and duty to do the right thing. Joe Paterno and Penn State football had attained mythical status, and, as such, were granted unmitigated power and influence. Joe owned the football program. Joe owned the university. Joe owned the whole damn town. The sad fact is that, if Paterno had picked up the phone and told the authorities that he wanted Jerry Sandusky arrested, fifteen minutes later, Sandusky would have been in handcuffs. But, to point the finger solely at the football coach is to mis-apportion the blame, which should fall equally on the culture around the football program that could afford a coach and athletic department officials enough power that they could cover up such crimes and atrocities to protect their own legacy. Somewhere along the line, winning ten games a year, and putting 100,000 faithful in the stadium, meant that you didn’t have to answer to anyone, or be held accountable for your actions. But, how could this monster have been created and sustained? Because of people like me.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
But, now those skies are threatening,
They’re beating plowshares into swords,
For that tired old man that we elected king.
My friends and I held Penn State football in hallowed awe. We only half-jokingly referred to Beaver Stadium as Mecca, as we walked through campus heading to the game on Saturday morning, like we were making our pilgrimage to the Great City, to the holy shrine. It was all harmless fun. After all, hero worship is a victimless crime. How could anyone get hurt? No, we weren’t completely naïve. We knew that it wasn’t all wine and roses. We’d all gone out on Friday nights and seen PSU football players do the same juvenile things that would land other students in Monday morning’s police log, only to see no mention of the incident ever show up anywhere. But, there was always the feeling that the guilty player would get what he deserved, because being in Joe’s doghouse was somehow far worse than the embarrassment or small fine that may have resulted from making the police blotter. We trusted Joe, just like all the mothers and fathers, who sent their sons off to play in State College, trusted Joe. We believed in Penn State football, that we did it the right way, somehow better than everybody else. And, we didn’t see the danger signs, maybe because we didn’t want to see them. But, that unquestioned trust ultimately led to countless children being repeatedly abused by a member of the Penn State family, as well as a cover up that allowed a criminal to escape justice for far too many years. It’s not wrong to want to believe in something, but blind faith in anything or anyone can have catastrophic consequences. And, maybe it’s not impossible to believe in anything anymore, but it’s certainly impossible to believe that there’s a little valley in Central Pennsylvania free from the corruption and stain of the world we all know.
Who knows how long this will last,
Now we’ve come so far, so fast,
But, somewhere back there in the dust,
Is that same small town in each of us.
Gone are the Halycon days, the days of nostalgia and lore. And, with them, gone is the feeling that there’s a place that you can go that’s still untouched by men. Maybe it was never really there. It’s only human to want to take one long last look, and lament the loss. But, it would be inhuman to think that that wistful longing, however real, means anything at all when compared to the losses suffered by the abuse victims, forced every day to carry the loss of youth, the loss of trust, the loss of innocence.
It happened at Linebacker U, but it could have happened at Any School U. Was the culture at Penn State, with the football coach deified, and where the program had attained iconic status, that much different than at Texas, or Alabama, or Oklahoma? To a certain extent, aren’t we all, as impassioned followers of football teams, college or pro, guilty of some of these same transgressions? Maybe it took a trip back to Happy Valley to bring into focus this sad reality, but, on a cool, crisp Saturday in September, in a sea of 100,00 in blue and white, it became painfully clear. We are Penn State. And, at some level, we are all guilty. We can offer up our best defense, but, in the end, this is the end of the innocence.