STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — They came to Happy Valley, 90,000 strong, to chant and cheer and stand by their team in a new era of Penn State football.
By the end, as the Nittany Lions trudged off the field, a battered fan base would need at least another week to celebrate.
Hours after fans made their cathartic drive to Beaver Stadium, handmade signs and banners attached to their RVs, they quietly sang their alma mater.
You know, the song with the lyrics, “May no act of ours bring shame.”
But in a clear display of coach Bill O’Brien’s challenge ahead, the new, short-handed Nittany Lions wore down in the second half, and Ohio, from the Mid-American Conference, upset Penn State, 24-14, on Saturday. It was a sad ending for a devoted fan base that came ready to rock the house, after scandal rocked the program.
“I thought it was a great atmosphere,” O’Brien said, “in the stands at Beaver Stadium.”
Indeed it was, despite the loss. O’Brien, in fact, led the charge in the first home opener without Joe Paterno since 1949, his players behind him, storming the field as more than 97,000 fans kicked off a new chapter in the program’s tarnished history with a raucous and sustained ovation.
Then came the familiar refrain that has echoed through the stadium for decades:
“We are … Penn State!”
The Nittany Lions want to make headlines for more than lurid tales of child abuse. As a result, this opener was about more than football. And it showed.
Penn State held a moment of reflection Saturday for all victims of sexual abuse. Penn State also asked fans to pause and know that all those affected by abuse are remembered in their hearts. Then, a university accused of placing football above all turned the page when it invited 600 athletes from all of its sports teams to participate in the pregame show as part of Penn State’s “One Team” motto.
When the team arrived at the stadium, O’Brien, the former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, was the first person to deboard off bus No. 1, followed by his game captains Derek Day, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Matt McGloin.
Boisterous fans waited at the tunnel entrance for hours and lined the road like a parade route as they waited for team busses.
They showed love for the former coach with chants of “Joe Pa-ter-no!” before turning their shrieks toward O’Brien. There were thunderous roars for the players as they exited the bus. Clearly, the fans showed they will stand by the players that stuck with the program.
More than 90 percent of the roster stayed after the NCAA handed down its punishment July 23.
“Getting off the bus was a crazy feeling,” said Hill, a defensive tackle. “The support that we got was one of the best things I’ve ever felt, seeing all the fans out there outside when we got off the bus.”
So much has changed on the field, but the lively atmosphere remained the same outside Beaver Stadium. Even in defeat, the overall mood around the program is that of pride, perseverance and support — for both O’Brien and Paterno.
The latter’s widow, Sue Paterno, arrived with her daughter, Mary Kay, about 15 minutes before kickoff and came in through an employee entrance. When asked by the Associated Press what Saturday’s game meant to her, she quietly said she “just wants us to win.” Sue left the game before the fourth quarter, in order to watch a grandson’s youth football game.
Though Paterno’s statue was removed July 22, the day before the NCAA announced sanctions for the Sandusky scandal, many fans still journeyed over to its spot.
Where the statue used to stand, a fan placed a Paterno bobblehead between the trees. Others stopped to snap pictures with cellphones and cameras. Dressed in Penn State jerseys, Cindy and Mark Wascavage of Washington, N.J., paused to remember the man they say will always be the face of Penn State football.
“It makes you wanna cry,” Cindy, 54, said as she saw the bobblehead.