UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It's almost like senior day began months ago. It was Sept. 1, the first game of this season, and the fans already were paying tribute to the players at Beaver Stadium, surrounding a team they longed to support with messages of love.
One of these stood out in particular, a passage scribbled onto signs and printed onto t-shirts, which stated, "You Stayed With Us, We Stand With You." It captured the story of the seniors who will play their last game Saturday. Of all the classes that have come through Penn State, none have been embraced quite like this one.
When the NCAA sanctioned the Nittany Lions this summer, none of them had to stay, none had to deal with a football season that couldn't extend past 12 regular-season games, none of them had to deal with the residual mess from the Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. But they stayed.
"That whole senior class," said former Penn State wide receiver Patrick Mauti, "is probably one of the best senior classes in the history of Penn State."
Here's what the numbers look like for this class as it prepares for its final game Saturday against Wisconsin at 3:35 p.m. It contains 30 players. Some of them, like linebacker Michael Mauti --Patrick's older brother -- linebacker Gerald Hodges and defensive tackle Jordan Hill, are stars, likely future NFL players. Some, like punter Joe Baker and tight end Brian Irvin, are nearly anonymous.
They've won 34 games, lost 12. They went to the Outback Bowl, the Ticket City Bowl and started the 2011 season 8-1, but all standard measurements for defining a team shifted last November when the Sandusky scandal surfaced.
Complications grew and grew until July, when, as Hill said, this team faced repercussions and, more important, a decision.
"We were put in a situation where it was a yes, no," Hill said. "It wasn't anything that was taken away. It was, 'Are you going to stay or are you going to go?' "
Michael Mauti and fullback Mike Zordich rallied much of the team together. But the decision mainly involved introspection, an evaluation of each person's thoughts and goals. And for most seniors, the decision was apparent.
The day the NCAA ruled against Penn State, cornerback Stephon Morris texted his father, Roman Morris. He told him he was staying, asked him to avoid any phone calls or messages from other programs.
Earlier this week, Roman texted his son. He let him know that he'd never been more proud of him.
So how will the fan base at large express those feelings for Morris and the rest of his class? As Patrick Mauti said, maybe the group will be as much a part of lore as any. The athletic department is acting that way. Friday, it tweeted a photo hinting the 2012 team will have its year posted on the upper eastern wall of the stadium next to the classes that went undefeated and won championships.
Legacies don't matter yet for any of the seniors.
They say they want to focus on the final piece of a season that just four months ago they couldn't wait to start.
A sense of the unknown pervaded every discussion of Penn State football back then, and the potential for disaster hung in the air. They just wanted to play. Many of them repeated that over and over Sept. 1 and said they just wanted to run out of the tunnel. If they could just get to the tunnel, everything would fall into place.
"It's just crazy because, when everything happened this offseason, I was one of those saying, 'I can't wait to go out that tunnel for Ohio,' " Morris said. "And now, this is my last game."
Mark Dent: email@example.com and Twitter @mdent05. First Published November 24, 2012 5:00 AM