STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Jimmy Olson was two weeks old when he went to his first Penn State football game. His parents dressed up their baby boy in blue and white, shielded him against the elements and allowed the energy of fall Saturdays to seep in. It did. He went to dozens of home games as a little kid, as a junior high school student and as a teen. There was never a doubt where he’d go to college. This summer, at age 18, he finally got to campus as an incoming freshman.
And then this happens.
Olson was standing in the student union Monday morning when NCAA president Mark Emmert informed him through a huge flat-screen television that most of the wins he celebrated throughout his lifetime no longer count. Sanctions were handed down for the school’s role in covering up former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s child sex crimes, and Olson could have done the math in his head. He wasn’t even four years old the last time Penn State officially won a football game. Every home game he can remember has now been vacated. The late Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions iconic coach and Olson’s idol, dropped from No. 1 to No. 12 on the all-times wins list.
“I’m furious,” Olson said, standing underneath rows of pennants from other Big Ten schools. “JoePa didn’t deserve this. So many things are getting wiped away.”
There were audible gasps in “The HUB” when the announcement came down, louder with each punishment. Dozens of students cupped their mouths with their hands, shook their heads and in some cases teared up.
“I don’t know how you do that,” Olson said of the sanctions. “It’s ridiculous. It’s not a respectable tone. It’s a cheap shot.”
Yet there were no shouts or yells of solidarity here. Nobody vowed to protest or even gather. The anger of the past several months has given way to something else – something more constructive.
The Penn State identity everyone grew up with no longer exists. And while the football coaches and players may not all stay for the long term, it will be up to the Jimmy Olsons of the school to start something new. So if there was one overriding emotion that followed the shock, it was a resoluteness to rebuild this school’s image, no matter how long that takes.
“Our hearts go out to the victims,” basketball guard D.J. Newbill said. “But it’s a great school. It’s a great program. There is still tradition. It’s still our lives. It’s still a good place.”
Very few student-athletes were willing to say anything. One by one, the football players left their morning meeting with new head coach Bill O’Brien without a word. Nearly all of them shook their heads and kept walking when asked for comment outside the Lasch building that is now infamous for the rapes of children that went on inside. The players gazed straight ahead, as if their minds were elsewhere, which is likely the case considering they must decide whether to stay at Penn State or leave. One volleyball player, when asked outside the student union for a comment, politely said she had just received a text from coaches telling the team not to talk.
And Newbill, when asked about the day’s events as he stood near a Starbucks, looked to a friend who shook his head and said, “You shouldn’t.”
But he waved off the advice. He had something to say.
“We’re trying to stay as positive as we can,” he said. “We’re going to work hard and make the Penn State community proud.”
That was the feeling expressed by those students who did speak. They are no longer reeling as much as resolute. It’s time to start again. Emily Miller, another rising freshman, wore an “O’Brien’s Lions” T-shirt as she watched Emmert’s press conference. “It’s harsh,” she said. “Very sad. But these things need to be done. Otherwise people aren’t going to believe Penn State is ready to make a change.”
Students are sick of the perception that this place is corrupt and incorrigible. One made the claim that it was State College residents, not Penn State students, who overturned a news van during last year’s riots. Another student, working a shift at a diner in town, choked up when she started talking about the “perception” of Penn State. She wasn’t alone.
“We are more than just a football school,” said student Jacob Ross, 18, from Allentown. “We are first and foremost Penn State, a community. It kills me when it’s said that we’re just a bunch of players, just a football team. Every time it’s like twisting the knife.”
Maybe the knife-twisting will stop now. The football punishment will continue but the students on this campus are unquestionably part of the beginning of something, rather than the end. They’re angry, upset, stunned. But they scoff when asked if they hesitate about continuing their studies here. They will not be transferring.
“It was my decision to come here,” Miller said. “I can be a part of that change.”
While the TV blared all day here, a Nittany Lion mascot roamed the concourse, welcoming new students. Balloons floated along the walkways for incoming freshmen. Signs were put up, new blue and white T-shirts were put on. Free cookies were handed out. It’s almost August – almost time for a new school year, the first without Joe Paterno on campus since 1950.
“I still look at him as the same guy,” Olson said. “I want to go into coaching because of him. He’s a mentor and a person I look up to. There’s no chance of that changing.”
This isn’t at all what Jimmy Olson imagined, but he’s still where he always wanted to be – at the school he’s cheered for all his life. He’s got four years here to make a difference.
Nobody can vacate that.
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