They Played a Game, but the Score Barely Mattered
When I remember this game, I’ll remember the silence.
I was in the press box, as usual, and so I already knew that Penn State and Nebraska players had planned to meet at midfield for a pregame prayer. Not surprising, not at all, given the trauma of the week, which I know I don’t have to recount here.
But I was unprepared for what actually happened. The sidelines emptied. Everyone converged at midfield—including several hundred former Penn State football players who had come to stand on the sideline in support. They mingled, Nebraska players gripping hands with their Penn State counterparts. They knelt.
And as Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown led them in prayer, the stadium fell silent. More than 100,000 people, and you could hear the proverbial pin drop—and not because anyone had asked them to be quiet. University president Rod Erickson, who arrived on campus in 1977, called it “one of the most moving experiences that I’ve ever been at in all my years at Penn State.”
From what Brown said after the game, it seems that he’ll remember interim coach Tom Bradley. Brown, a former director of the Nebraska Fellowship of Christian Athletes, recounted how Bradley had asked him where Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was because he wanted to make sure the two head coaches knelt together.
“I thought it really represented the spirit that was taking place inside that huddle,” Brown said. “We knew we were going to go to a battle against each other. It was a big game for both teams, but there was something bigger. We know that there are jobs being lost, and who knows what’s going to happen at Penn State, particularly in the upcoming months. And yet there was a humility and sincerity, and kind of a vulnerability of all these players.
“But then the other thing that hit me was the fans. It was loud and cheering when the players were coming together, but then it got really quiet, and I almost felt everyone in the stadium could hear it. And for a hundred thousand people to instantly hush, I say that’s the favor of God. It was very touching.”
Following the prayer, they played a game—the first game without Joe Paterno on the Penn State coaching staff since 1949. The Nittany Lions fell behind, 17-0, and clawed their way back to cut the deficit to 17-14 in the fourth quarter before losing. But it’s tough to remember the details. I’ve been covering sports since January 1988, when I was a candidate at The Daily Collegian, and this is the only time I can ever remember covering a game and never once looking at the stat sheet.
This game was about the gestures, great and small. Leaving the first seat on the first team bus—Joe Paterno’s seat—open. The “Blue Out,” with students dressing in blue to draw attention to the sexual abuse of children. Bradley refusing to lead the team onto the field—“This is your team,” he told the players—and walking to the sideline all but unnoticed as the team entered the field in dramatic fashion: arm in arm in rows of four or five or six, walking slowly, calmly to the sideline. It was an arresting sight.
“I just saw on the media and TV and the Internet that this team would fall apart with everything going on,” said senior defensive tackle Devon Still, who planned the entrance. “I think we needed to let ourselves know—and to make a statement—that we’ll be together with it all.”
Everything seemed fraught with meaning. Penn State’s first offensive play, for instance. Did it just happen to be a fullback dive, or had the coaches decided to run one of Joe Paterno’s signature plays in tribute? Was it only a coincidence that the ball was handed off to Joe Suhey, a member of the most storied family in Penn State football history?
Bradley didn’t really address that. What he did say, however, was how proud he was of the fans (who “showed class”) and of the players (“who showed a lot of resolve”) during what he called “a week unprecedented in college football history.”
Lori Shontz, senior editor