National Columnist

Penn State had to play to begin erasing memories of horror


Penn State and Nebraska players join for a pregame prayer that helps justify playing the game. (AP)  
Penn State and Nebraska players join for a pregame prayer that helps justify playing the game. (AP)  

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State played and Penn State lost, and one of those things had to happen Saturday. But only one of those things.

This game? It had to happen.

The Penn State loss? That wasn't necessary. Not to me, anyway, though there are those among you, maybe even the majority of you, who would disagree. Lots of you wanted Penn State to lose to Nebraska, and you got what you wanted. Penn State lost 17-14.

But this game never should have happened. That's what I've been hearing, and not as a whisper coming from around the corner. That's a scream coming from pretty much everywhere, even from the head coach of Nebraska, Bo Pelini, who told reporters on Saturday afternoon: "Going into the football game, I didn't think [it] should have been played."

Pelini had company. The Nebraska student paper suggested a few days ago that Penn State football shut down for the rest of the season.

A guy from a newspaper in Detroit called for a forfeit, piously suggesting that the Penn State community "would be better served spending this Saturday afternoon seriously reflecting about their unflagging worship of an athletic program that enabled a suspected serial pedophile."

A guy from Jacksonville, Fla., went a cruel step farther, predicting "no bowl game is going to want them. How would you feel about Penn State coming here for the Gator Bowl? You'd probably be pretty disgusted."

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They were even calling for a Penn State forfeit in England, but the pressure didn't buckle new Penn State president Rodney Erickson.

"I believe this was the right decision -- to play this game," said Erickson, who said Penn State would accept whatever bowl bid comes its way. "Yes, there were a number of ... emails and other communications that suggested under the circumstances it was not appropriate to play today. [But] this was the right decision. This was the way to do it."

Yes it was -- though Saturday wasn't without its uncomfortable moments. More than once the crowd broke into chants supporting ousted coach Joe Paterno, whose response to a sexual-abuse allegation against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in 2002 was obviously insufficient, given that Sandusky allegedly preyed on young boys for the next nine years.

The public support for Paterno on Saturday was unseemly, but this is what we know: Everyone remotely responsible for this horrific scandal has been removed from the football program -- Sandusky obviously, and all those who were in a position to stop him. That includes Paterno; the assistant coach, Mike McQueary, who said he saw Sandusky attacking a boy in 2002; and the president, vice president and athletic director who declined to involve the police.

They're gone. The football team remains. These guys, players like quarterback Matt McGloin and receiver Derek Moye and linebacker Nate Stupar, they were just kids in 2002. Far as we know, nobody else on the coaching staff knew what McQueary and Paterno have known since 2002.

Forfeiting this game, forfeiting the rest of the season ... who would that help? The victims? For me to believe that this football game was emotionally devastating to the victims, I'll need to hear it from them.

Not from you.

You don't have any idea what it's like to be them, what's going through their minds. And thank God you don't.

I can't even imagine being a Penn State student right now. The image of their school, which will provide them a degree and a springboard into the future, has been demolished. It will get better, but not any time soon. So imagine being a Penn State student and walking to Beaver Stadium on Saturday and being confronted by four loons from the Topeka, Kan., cesspool known as Westboro Baptist, these four kooks holding signs that said, "God hates you."

Well, here's what Penn State students did: About 50 of them stood near the cesspool and asked the other fans in the area to stay strong, but stay silent. Keep walking. Don't even acknowledge those sociopaths. And that's what happened.

Another group of Penn State students stood outside the stadium with their own signs:

"Our hearts are with the victims"

"We are still Penn State"

"Donate to Child Help"

Since the story broke six days ago, Penn State students and alumni have raised nearly $300,000 for RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). Another $22,000 was raised at the stadium, where a bomb threat phoned into the university on Friday night was determined by Saturday morning to be a hoax.

This game was supposed to be one of those made-for-TV whiteouts, but the student body decided instead to wear blue to support the fight against child abuse. Students painted blue ribbons on their cheeks, the ribbons reading, "Keep kids safe." I saw tears on some of those ribbons.

It has been gut-wrenching here, but they're trying to make the best of this epic human tragedy, even the players who met at midfield before kickoff for the captain's coin toss. The captains came out, and soon everyone was out there, players from Nebraska hugging players from Penn State while the crowd cheered in appreciation. Then both teams dropped to their knees for a prayer, and Beaver Stadium fell silent. This wasn't our moment, but theirs, and they had it for almost two minutes while we just watched. Powerful stuff. Uplifting. It was the kind of thing you can't forget, and after a week of unforgettable horror, it was a welcome respite to get two minutes of something honorable.

Was it enough? No. Of course not.

But it was a start.

Let the long, long healing process begin.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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