Sports show their true power again at Penn State


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- They say sports are frivolous, just another form of entertainment, like television, the movies or the theater.

I'm here this morning to say that's ridiculous.

Go back to Oct. 30, 2001. Game 3 of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. President George W. Bush, wearing a flak jacket, walked purposely to the mound to throw out the first pitch. It was so important to him to throw a strike that he warmed up underneath the stands.

I can still remember Bush's message:

In October, we do baseball in this country. We're not going to allow you or any other terrorists to destroy that.

I can still see the banner hanging in the upper deck:

"USA FEARS NOBODY, PLAY BALL."

That game didn't bring back the innocent victims of the 9/11 attack of the World Trade Center just a short cab ride from the grand old stadium. But somehow, if only for a few hours, the world seemed sane again. It finally seemed right for just a bit after so much grieving and heartache.

I felt the same way Saturday at the Nebraska-Penn State game.

It seems inconsequential to report Nebraska won, 17-14. The game was irrelevant, just as Game 3 of the 2001 World Series was. What mattered was the significance of the message sent. As Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley put it, "Maybe today is the start of the healing process."

A lot of people -- including Nebraska coach Bo Pelini initially -- thought the game shouldn't be played one week after former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of molesting eight boys and only three days after iconic Penn State coach Joe Paterno was fired because of what he might have known about Sandusky's actions.

"It was the right decision to play," said new Penn State president Rodney Erickson, who replaced Graham Spanier, who was forced to resign Wednesday night because of his possible role in the Sandusky scandal.

"It was the opportunity for us to bring recognition to and bring national focus on sexual abuse."

There was a moment of silence for child-abuse victims before kickoff.

The idea of not playing the game seemed especially absurd after watching nearly every one of the 107,903 well-behaved fans at Beaver Stadium stay until the game's conclusion to show their support of the Penn State players and the badly damaged, yet still-proud university they represent with a standing ovation and, of course, their signature chant.

"We Are ... Penn State!"

"That sent chills through my body," defensive end Jordan Hill said.

The day started for the Penn State players during their short bus ride from the Lasch Football Building to the stadium. Bradley left the first seat in the first bus vacant because that's where Paterno always sat.

Paterno, who was ousted after 62 years and 731 games at Penn State, is believed to have watched the game at his home, but his presence was felt in the locker room. He had composed a letter that was read to the squad Thursday.

"He wanted us to know how much he cared for us and how much he wanted us to go out and finish the season strong," linebacker Nate Stupar said. "He wanted us to stay together. He said that we'll always be Penn State football players no matter where we go."

Added Hill, "I'll take that with me the rest of my life."

Paterno had delivered the same message to Bradley and the other coaches, including his son, Jay, the quarterbacks coach. The coaches are expected to be released after the season. This almost certainly was their final game at Beaver Stadium.

"I went to Joe's house about 6:15, 6:30 Thursday morning," Jay Paterno said. "I was sad. I said to him, 'What do you think?' He said, 'Get to work. You owe it to your kids, and you owe it to Penn State.'

"That's the way he's always trained us. He trained us to be professionals. You don't lose those lessons."

Jay Paterno visited his father again early Saturday morning. Asked how the old coach was doing, he said, "Fine. About as well as can be expected, I guess. ... I think he'll find another challenge."

At some point Saturday morning, defensive tackle Devon Still -- one of 23 Penn State seniors playing his final home game -- suggested the players walk arm-in-arm across the field to their sideline before the game. The three other team captains, including wide receiver Derek Moye, heartily endorsed the idea.

"We wanted to show it's going to take a lot more than this to tear us apart," Moye said.

What happened next was remarkable. The Penn State and Nebraska players met at midfield for a group prayer that was led by Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown and lasted nearly three minutes. They were joined by coaches, game officials and several hundred Penn State football letterwinners who came back to show their support of this Penn State team and their university.

"We didn't know anything about it until right before the game when [assistant coach Larry Johnson] told us," Moye said.

"It was actually pretty weird, being hand-in-hand with the guys we were going to play against. I was hand-in-hand with [Nebraska cornerback] Alfonzo Dennard, who I went up against all day."

It also was very powerful.

You almost could hear people breathe in the big stadium.

The game flew by. Penn State fell behind, 17-0, but, in Bradley's words, "Our guys didn't quit. They hung tough. They hung in there together."

The Penn State players were rewarded with that incredible standing ovation.

Senior guard Chimi Okoli was glad to be a part of all of it. He recalled a conversation he has often had with his father, Emeka Okoli, a Fulbright Senior Scholar and a professor at Norfolk State University.

"He's always said, '[Adversity] is what determines great men,'" Okoli said.

"It's not how you handle the good times in life. It's what you do when you're facing the big hurdles."

The Penn State players responded well.

So did their fans.

There's a message there for all of us.

Really, who says sports are frivolous?


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com .


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