Penn State's first national title team to be feted Saturday

It's 25 years later, but for many members of the 1982 champions it still seems like yesterday


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Twenty-five years later, the memories of Gregg Garrity's diving, fourth-quarter touchdown catch in the Sugar Bowl remain as sweet as ever.


Saturday
  • Game: Penn State (1-0) vs. Notre Dame (0-1), 6 p.m.
  • Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
  • TV: ESPN.

It was the golden moment that delivered Penn State's first national championship season in 1982.

Garrity's 47-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Todd Blackledge sealed the Nittany Lions' 27-23 victory against Georgia on New Year's Day in New Orleans.

Garrity's end zone celebration appeared on the cover of the Jan. 10, 1983, issue of Sports Illustrated, under the headline "No. 1 at last!"

An unsigned copy of the magazine can be purchased for as little as $5 on eBay, but it's worth much more to Garrity, the one-time walk-on from North Allegheny High School.

"I never get tired of talking about that catch. Everywhere I go, someone mentions it," said Garrity, who snagged his first NFL touchdown pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw as a rookie with the Steelers 11 months after the Sugar Bowl.

"I still get five or six copies of Sports Illustrated in the mail every week or two, asking me to sign them. I don't mind it. It's a great memory."

Blackledge barked out the play -- Six-43. The Sugar Bowl MVP faked a handoff to tailback Curt Warner, faded back and threw deep to Garrity down the sideline.

Garrity's hands did the rest as Penn State finished 11-1.

"Gregg was always a little faster than everyone expected him to be," Blackledge said. "He ran right by the guy, I launched it and he went and got it."

Garrity was one of 20 players from the Pittsburgh area who were on Penn State's roster that season.

Several earned letters and contributed to coach Joe Paterno's first national title, including safety Dan Biondi and backup tailback Joel Coles (Penn Hills High School), offensive tackle Bill Contz (Belle Vernon), defensive tackle Greg Gattuso (Seton-LaSalle), center Mark Battaglia (Upper St. Clair), defensive tackle Dave Opfar (South Allegheny), linebacker Scott Radecic (Brentwood), linebacker Rodger Puz (Butler), defensive end John Luton (Cornell) and linebacker Carmen Masciantonio (Jeannette).

Many of those players plan to be on hand Saturday night at Beaver Stadium when Penn State's 1982 team will be honored at halftime of the Notre Dame game.

Blackledge also will be there -- he is working the game as a color analyst for ESPN -- along with receiver Kenny Jackson and Warner. They were the team's three star players and all ended up being first-round NFL draft picks.

"The 1982 season was special, no doubt," Contz said. "I think there was a giant weight lifted off the shoulders of a lot of Penn State faithful after we beat Georgia. People were dancing in the streets in New Orleans.

"It meant a lot to be a part of Joe's first national championship back then and it feels even better as the years go on."

Penn State had previously finished 11-0 in 1968 and '69 under Paterno, and 12-0 in '73, yet the Lions finished no higher than second in the national polls.

But '82 was different.

Blackledge threw 12 touchdowns in the first three games as the Lions sandwiched easy victories against Temple and Rutgers around a shootout victory against Boomer Esiason and Maryland.

The fourth game, a stirring 27-24 home victory against Nebraska, was one of the most exciting -- and controversial -- games in Beaver Stadium history.

Turner Gill's 1-yard touchdown run had given the Cornhuskers a 24-21 lead with 1:18 to play. Blackledge, though, marched Penn State down the field, and his 15-yard pass to tight end Mike McCloskey near the left sideline -- there's still plenty of debate as to whether it was a legal catch -- put the ball at the 2.

Blackledge then rifled a low throw that seldom-used Kirk Bowman cradled just above the grass for his second touchdown catch of the game with four seconds left.

Penn State wasn't so lucky against Alabama. The Crimson Tide spoiled the Lions' unbeaten season with a resounding 42-21 victory in the final coaching matchup between Paterno and Paul "Bear" Bryant.

"It was kind of like everything we had worked so hard for had slipped away," Blackledge said. "There was no BCS system in those days, so the thought of winning the national championship seemed pretty unlikely."

As unlikely as it seemed then, Penn State somehow pulled it off, winning its final six games.

They blanked West Virginia, led by former Penn State quarterback Jeff Hostetler; withstood Doug Flutie's 520-yard passing barrage at Boston College; shut out North Carolina State and rallied for victories against Notre Dame and Pitt before stopping No. 1 Georgia and star running back Herschel Walker in the Sugar Bowl.

Penn State's players rejoiced by carrying Paterno off the field on their shoulders. Later, the Lions moved from No. 2 to No. 1 in the final polls.

"They were a great bunch of guys, with great leadership," Paterno said. "Blackledge was not only a heck of a quarterback, but a great leader. Curt Warner was a heck of a football player. They were good. That was one of our better teams."

The 1982 team has been honored a few times previously, but this weekend's silver anniversary reunion figures to be the best yet.

"There were a ton of guys from the Pittsburgh area on our team and we still get together a lot," Garrity said. "We have a blast. We enjoy each other.

"Other Penn State teams may have had more talent than we did, but no team had more heart."


Ron Musselman can be reached at rmusselman@post-gazette.com .


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