I was leaving the roller skating rink, either to play a video game, or hit the men’s room when the three girls stopped me. Sarah, Camille and Katie. They were pretty girls in my elementary school and I was nervous.
“There he is, Mr. Penn State,” Sarah said. I smiled. Katie, a Notre Dame fan, teased me. Then Sarah asked if I had any clothes that didn’t have a Nittany Lion paw on them.
I probably didn’t have many back then. Maybe an Irish sweater, and not the Notre Dame kind, God forbid.
I’m not sure that there has ever been anything I ever associated myself with more than Penn State. Not Penn State football, but Penn State itself. That meant visiting my brother in his dorm or apartment at University Park. It meant my Dad letting me wander around on my own among the campus buildings. It meant following my mom and dad to work at the Scranton campus. Yes, it meant cheering for the football team, but it also meant going to the basketball games, at Rec Hall or at the Scranton campus’ gym, where my father was the coach.
Most of my early memories are Penn State-related. Sitting with my siblings and eating Reese’s Pieces as my dad coached, climbing a tree while my dad tailgated before a game, walking in the library with my oldest sister. Watching my Dad look at Joe Paterno through his binoculars. If Dad idolized him, I idolized him.
I didn’t gravitate to sports until I was 12. The first athlete I idolized was Bobby Engram. I remember sitting my dad’s seats and we watched as Penn State drove toward us. Then Engram made this insane catch in the end zone with one hand.
I remember listening to football games while coming back from cross country meets in high school.
By the time I got to college, with dreams of being a sportswriter in my head, I had my own student tickets. And I loved going to games. But I also loved Thon, basketball games, playing baseball at the Scranton campus, meeting friends, hanging out at the Hub or the SLC.
All my life, I’ve listened to or watched Penn State Football. But my passion for it has plummeted over the years; meanwhile my passion for the school has grown.
It started when I was a staff writer at The Daily Collegian. You saw more of the grime around the program. It felt more like a professional sport than a college endeavor. Back then, I assumed my the drop in my passion was because the team wasn’t that successful. I was wrong.
Then, in 2005, Michael Robinson and Tamba Hali led Penn State to a magical season. That was one of my favorite seasons for any team I’ve ever followed. I can remember where I was and what I was doing for so many big moments.
But even then, it wasn’t like the idolize for Engram and Ki-Jana Carter and Keith Conlin. It wasn’t how I felt about the team with Lavar and Courtney and Brandon. It wasn’t like Chafie Fields running up the sidelines.
The Sandusky-Paterno scandal definitely had an effect too. But, strangely, the fans who turned into JoeBots really had an effect. Sandusky’s crimes were deplorable. The university’s multiple absolute fuck ups – sorry that’s the only way to describe it – when they had chances to address a child predator disgusted me. Dozens of people – including Joe Paterno – betrayed everything they were supposed to stand for. Penn states everywhere should have felt shame. But the facts that conspiracy theories sprung out of the woodwork, that good people denied their heroes dropped the ball, and that fans acted like there were victims other than those who were abused boggled my mind.
I hated talking about Penn State football outside of a select group of friends. “409” bumper stickers made me want to scream.
So, while I still proudly wear my Penn State sweat shirts and love my school, the way I follow the team is bizarre. I don’t miss a game, but I’m very dispassionate. I’m glad when the team wins, but not as glad as I am when the basketball team has an upset or wrestling or volleyball teams win.
The tradition is still there, but the passion isn’t.
I was going through the laundry today and noticed I still have a lot of Penn State clothes. There’s a ton of Penn State paraphernalia in our house. And I’ll tell you what, if someone called me Mr. Penn State, is still swell with pride.