|PSU students walk past a mural entitled 'Inspiration,' which depicts ex-coach Joe Paterno. (Getty Images)|
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Penn State story is going to leave a mark. On the victims most of all. Obviously. No other mark compares to that one, but marks will be left all around. On the victims. The school. The town. Men like Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier, men who lost their way and ultimately their jobs. Even on those of us writing about this story. It will leave a mark. How can it not?
This Penn State story will stop your heart.
A visit with Penn State students will get it pumping again.
That's what I got Friday morning, and that's what I needed. If only you could have experienced it too. If you're like me -- and judging from your comments in following our coverage of Penn State, you are -- you're horrified at most aspects of this story, starting at the top with the alleged crimes of Jerry Sandusky and then trickling down, all the way to the reaction of Penn State students who rallied for Paterno outside his house Tuesday, and who then rioted in the streets of State College when he was fired the next night.
Horrifying. All of it. This is a story that, for momentary self-preservation, could turn your heart into a block of ice. And so it was Friday morning that I walked into Room 206 of the Carnegie Building to speak with journalism professor (and CBSSports.com colleague) Jim Rodenbush's class. My heart? A block of ice. I was disgusted with this story, at the things I've had to write about this story -- I'll never get over 6-foot-4, 230-pound grad assistant Mike McQueary, a grown man of 28, seeing what he has said was a sexual assault by Sandusky on a young boy and running away -- and at anyone and everyone who would dare to see any of this from any viewpoint other than mine.
I'm right. If you don't agree with me, you're wrong. That was my unspoken, unacknowledged but undeniable position as I walked into Room 206 on Friday morning.
And then they started to speak to me, young adults like Sarah Espinoza and Ryan Van Wagner and Rebecca Dvorin and Zach Dugan. They started to speak from their heart, to mine. And the whole thing broke me down, broke me down and then started to build me back up.
Because you know what? The things they said to me were absolutely correct. Penn State is not the alleged atrocities of Jerry Sandusky. Penn State is not the pathetic reaction of Mike McQueary, or the inadequate response by Paterno and Spanier. Penn State is not the thousand or so kids who chanted, briefly, "Beat Nebraska" on Paterno's lawn on Tuesday night, or the 10,000-plus students who roamed the streets Wednesday night, some of them tearing down light poles and tipping over media trucks.
Penn State's community has had those people, yes. But those people do not define Penn State, and that's a critical component of this story. One of those kids in Room 206, Ryan Van Wagner, told me Twitter is full of crude references to Penn State, a takeoff of Steve Spurrier's "Free Shoes University" comment on Florida State in 1994. That comment by Spurrier -- FSU stands for Free Shoes University, get it? -- was snarky-cute.
Ryan Van Wagner told me about the latest social media craze: calling this great school Pedophile State University. That's not snarky or cute. That's unfair, despicable, even destructive. Reputations have been shattered this week, and not just reputations that deserved to be shattered. Innocent reputations also have been shattered, something that honestly hadn't occurred to me.
I was weakening, and then they started piling on, those kids in Room 206. A young woman asked me why the media -- why I -- had interpreted the rally on Paterno's lawn as an insult to Sandusky's alleged victims. Maybe, she told me, those students were just trying to bring comfort to the shattered man who has meant so much to this school, Joe Paterno. And that was a good point. My perspective is different, but my perspective is mine. Not hers. Not theirs.
Rebecca Dvorin wore me down some more, telling me there were people in that riot Wednesday night -- people like herself, actually -- who lived nearby and came outside merely to see what was going on, and who used their iPhones to get on Facebook and urge their friends, "Please, stop rioting."
At this point it was over. I was beaten, yet I had won. Finally, I was feeling good about something, anything, after a week in a town where everything had been so bad. But Ryan Van Wagner and Zach Dugan started running up the score on me, scoring again and again. Ryan dared me -- didn't ask me; dared me -- to find a better way to gauge the Penn State reaction to this tragedy: Ignore the lowest common denominator, Ryan said. Don't lean on the people tipping media trucks. Ask someone rational. We exist.
Exactly, Zach Dugan said. Ask a student walking across campus. Pick somebody. Anybody.
"Don't go to the deranged people to see how Penn State students feel," Ryan said. "That's not me, and that's not us. We're as heartbroken as anyone."
Actually, I'm not sure it was Ryan who said that. It could have been Zach. It could have been Rebecca or Sarah or someone else inside Room 206. Whoever it was, his identity is a blur at this point -- and maybe that's for the best. Whoever it was, he wasn't speaking just for himself. He was speaking for another side of Penn State, a mostly ignored side.
He was speaking for the best of Penn State.