Despite difficulty in coping with Sandusky scandal, champions reunite, still savor title
September 22, 2012 4:00 AM
Post-Gazette file photo
Curt Warner and the 1982 Penn State team will be honored today.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When he thinks back to the night that changed the trajectory of Penn State, Mark Battaglia can't forget the smoke. Everyone inside the Superdome must have lit up a cigar, cigarette, or who knows what -- this game was, after all, in New Orleans.
Billowing gray clouds engulfed the arena, helping Battaglia to disassociate by the end, to think that as he helped Penn State win its first national championship he also was living a dream.
"I just remember that haze," he said. "The fog of war, I guess."
Battaglia, the 1982 team's center, will be back in State College today, joining about 50 of his teammates. At halftime of Penn State's game against Temple, they will be honored. The past will be honored, marking the 30th anniversary of the championship.
Matchup: Penn State (1-2) vs. Temple (1-1), 3:30 p.m. today, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa. Penn State is favored by 7.
Team: Freshman DE Deion Barnes has three sacks and two forced fumbles in the past two games. ... Maligned third-down defense stopped Navy 11 of 15 times on third down. ... RBs Derek Day and Bill Belton are listed as possible. DE Pete Massaro is out, as is LB Nyeem Wartman.
Team: RB Montel Harris, a Boston College transfer, could change the game if he is healthy enough. He has only five carries for 12 yards this season. ... Last beat Penn State in 1941. ... Lost, 36-27, to Maryland in its second game despite forcing four turnovers.
Hidden stat: Temple has lost to the Lions by single-digit margins the past two years. Before those two games, the Owls had not done so since 1985.
In winning the '83 Sugar Bowl, Penn State earned its first national championship. The school also discovered a platform for building an institution that would climb up lists for endowment and academics.
"That football team really started us on the path," said Bill Jaffe, a 1960 graduate and chair of the university's fundraising President's Club.
But, at the new Penn State, the past has become particularly foggy because of Jerry Sandusky, who was as much a member of that 1982 team as anyone else. "Move forward" is the omnipresent slogan. The pervasive message can be every bit as mixed and complicated as you would expect, even concerning the moments worth remembering.
The magic defense
In Battaglia's Pittsburgh-area Merrill Lynch office, a picture of the Sugar Bowl decorates a wall. The famous sports artist Rick Rush painted it.
How to portray such a memorable night? Sports Illustrated directed us toward wide receiver Gregg Garrity's touchdown. He dived for a 47-yard reception in the fourth quarter, giving Penn State a 27-17 lead.
Rush chose to paint a handoff from quarterback Todd Blackledge to tailback Curt Warner. The prophecy of the Penn State game button came true that New Year's night. The button had read "Warner's a Runner, Walker's a Walker." Warner finished with 117 yards. Georgia's Herschel Walker -- usually Superman -- had 103 yards on 28 carries. He couldn't crack the Penn State defense.
The front seven defenders shifted all night, transforming like magic. Sandusky coached that unit.
"It's called Magic because sometimes it is," Sandusky told Sports Illustrated at the time. "Then again, sometimes it's not."
A bond rediscovered
"The whole thing just really blew me away," said Lou Bartek, an offensive guard now a professor of geological sciences at the University of North Carolina. "My experiences are just so out of sync with what has apparently occurred."
He didn't know Sandusky well when he played, but he has one distinct memory. Bartek redshirted as a freshman and broke his hand during a practice. Doctors gave him a protective cover and told him to take it easy. Sandusky helped him relax.
Sandusky always provided the laughs, calmed the guys down. Then, when the offense and defense separated for strategies at halftime, like they did in that '82 game, he would find a way to rile up his defense for a strong second-half performance. That's how they knew the man.
"If we had heard something back then, which we didn't, I'm sure we wouldn't have believed it anyhow," Garrity said.
Last November, Garrity communicated often with tackle Bill Contz, trying to sort out his thoughts. Bartek has attended football games just twice since his graduation, at the '02 and '07 reunions, but he also felt the need to reach out.
"I've had more correspondence with guys in the last 12 months than I have in the preceding 30 years," he said. "It becomes something where you do realize you actually have a special bond with these guys."
Said Battaglia: "We're all searching for answers, and we were all part of it. It was very, very difficult for us to come to grips with. Still is."
Victory as catalyst
Back at the hotel after the championship, they partied. The Hilton in New Orleans had become Penn State's headquarters. A Nittany Lion ice sculpture greeted guests. Fight music blared from every room. Alumnus Jim Meister remembers seeing Blackledge and Warner sing a duet of "Ebony and Ivory."
What a night. Fans like Meister and Jaffe didn't realize it then, but the Penn State celebration was only beginning and would go on uninterrupted until last November. Three weeks after the championship, on Jan. 22, 1983, Joe Paterno gave a famed speech to university leaders advocating reform. For the better part of the next three decades the university experienced increasing academic and financial success partially because of the power of football.
"It highlights the fact that big-time sports, when run correctly, do have an important role in university life," Bartek said.
Many people and organizations, prominently the NCAA and the Freeh Group, have derided the power of the football program at Penn State, and the Board of Trustees has chosen not to fight. Jaffe stressed the university can achieve new goals while holding on to the proper memories.
He likes to point out that the football culture led to a more active alumni group. It led to more donations and a greater endowment, which allowed the university to better its academic programs. As Penn State continues to search for the answers, Jaffe doesn't want the community to forget the importance of football, of the positivity propelled by the '82 team.
"It was an extremely important catalyst, whether we like it or not," Jaffe said. "It was really a transforming event."
Contz cares for Penn State the same way he did before the Sandusky scandal erupted and believes the feeling is reciprocal, evidenced by the fact that the athletic department is helping with this reunion, helping them remember the championship game. It's a game that Battaglia never has seen.
One day, when he's retired, he plans to watch a tape or catch it on ESPN Classic. Until then, he'll remember how the night unfolded the way he always does, as a dream-like moment of clarity shrouded in a haze of smoke.