UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Safety Malcolm Willis was asked to consider the low point of his five years at Penn State, and he wasted little time before offering an answer.
“A low point would probably be my redshirt freshman year, just not being able to play,” he said.
Time, he said, has gone by quickly. Some other seniors mentioned the same feeling this week as they were asked to reflect on their careers. They are the second senior class to finish their eligibility under whatever you want to call Penn State’s new normal. They were here for the release of the grand jury report, the firing of coach Joe Paterno, the riot, the endless caravan of TV trucks on College Avenue. When the summer of 2012 rolled around and the NCAA extended its bureaucratic tentacles around Penn State, enveloping the football team, they had the same decision to make as any of the celebrated senior class before them. Stay or go?
That November, Penn State adorned the facade of Beaver Stadium with the year 2012. It was a lasting reminder to honor those who stayed after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. This is the next year, when it is normal for someone like Willis to identify the low point as something football-related. The other memories aren’t stale, but they aren’t fresh either, largely repressed and discarded.
“I like to think that we’ve moved on,” Willis said.
The team’s opponent Saturday, Nebraska, was who they played in 2011 a few days after Sandusky’s acts of child sexual abuse were explicitly detailed, and Gary Schultz and Tim Curley were facing criminal charges. The game went on. Out of all the fragments of that whirlwind, Willis remembers the pregame prayer. Nebraska assistant Ron Brown stood in front of a mixture of Nebraska and Penn State players, reminded them of the horrors that must be overcome and told them how little control they, as players, could wield in the circumstances.
“That really is the only thing I remember from the pregame,” Willis said. “But the main thing I remember from playing Nebraska is we haven’t won a game in the last two years I’ve played.”
Senior center Ty Howle said no one on the team talks about November 2011 anymore, or the NCAA sanctions. Senior Glenn Carson takes it a step further.
“I’ve just been trying to block it out,” he said. “I’m sure one day I’ll look back and realize how crazy of a time it really was for me, but for now and until I’m done it’s just something that we went through and pushed through and just always kind of looked at football.”
This year hasn’t been like last year. Last season followed, fairly or not, a narrative of redemption. Not only was it the first year after Sandusky and everything else, but Penn State rebounded from a poor start and moved in an upward trajectory for most of the rest of the year. They had unconditional support from fans. They had Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich breathing fire.
This year, questions about leadership have been common. The direction of the team has been up and then down and up and down again and the opposite of consistent. Fans have complained about too many fourth-down attempts and defensive coordinator John Butler. Coach Bill O’Brien has been overly sensitive at times.
In other words, the season has felt normal, more than last year ever did.
There are two games left. One is Saturday’s senior day game, the time to ponder memories good and bad, and each senior’s personal vision of the past will surface. Fraught with complication as this past may be, they’ll be thinking about football and that’s about it.
“It seems like so long ago that everything happened,” Willis said.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.