National Columnist

Penn State players happy to be playing football; Is that so wrong?


Penn State's Matt McGloin, left, and Drew Astorino celebrate the Nittany Lions' win at Ohio State. (AP)  
Penn State's Matt McGloin, left, and Drew Astorino celebrate the Nittany Lions' win at Ohio State. (AP)  

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Treat a Penn State football game like a Penn State football game, and you're an insensitive jerk. Callous. Cold. There are alleged victims out there, moron. Victims of crimes so horrendous, it turns the stomach. So don't turn the page and write about Penn State's 20-14 victory against Ohio State on Saturday like it matters, because it doesn't.

That's one way of looking at it.

But here's the other.

Treat a Penn State football game like a metaphor for life, and you're a fiction writer. Sappy. Silly. These aren't the 85 scholarship people you'll meet in heaven. These are college football players who find themselves in the middle of the most lurid scandal in college sports history, yes, but it's not their fault. They didn't commit the alleged crimes. They didn't witness an alleged attack, didn't sit on it, didn't fail to go to the police. Football is why they're here, and winning games is their goal, so don't act like Penn State's 20-14 victory against Ohio State on Saturday didn't matter, because it did. It mattered to Penn State more than you can imagine.

"It was a feeling of being free," Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin said. "Out there, getting on the field -- that's where we want to be. The last couple of weeks have been tough on us."

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See, there it is again. Another fork in the road for you as a reader, me as a writer, to take. Did Matt McGloin really just say the last couple of week have been tough on him? Really? Imagine being the alleged victims, McGloin. Try being them. They'll never have that feeling of being free, not if their allegations are true. If Jerry Sandusky really did sexually assault them, they'll never be free. Shame on you for saying such a thing, Matt McGloin.

That's one way of looking at it.

But here's another.

The last couple of weeks have been hard on the Penn State football players. First they learned that a man many of them had come to know, a man they saw around the football building -- a man who still worked out there, still kept an office there -- has been characterized by police as a serial pedophile. Within days their legendary football coach was fired. Their recruiting coordinator was put on leave of absence, possibly under police protection. Their athletics director was indicted. Their school president was fired. Their fellow students were rioting.

Imagine being Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and running backs Silas Redd and Stephfon Green. Imagine being kicker Anthony Fera.

"These last two weeks have been a blur," Fera said.

At this point on Saturday afternoon, it was just Fera and me in a corner of the interview room. The rest of the media had moved on to the quarterback or the running backs or Paterno's son, Jay Paterno. So it was just Fera and me when he looked at me and said the damndest thing:

"What are we now, anyway -- 9-3?"

No, Anthony. Penn State is 9-2.

"Right -- 9-2," he said.

Hard to keep track, after a while. Hard to stay focused. That has been the challenge for Penn State, a challenge most folks don't want to hear about. Who cares if Penn State's football players are focused? Their coaches covered up alleged rape, man. That's the default argument for everyone angry with Penn State, and the anger sprays everywhere. The team should have forfeited last week's game against Nebraska, people were saying. The team should have forfeited the whole season, others were saying. Whatever it does, the team should withdraw from postseason consideration because let's be honest: What bowl city wants to have Penn State show up for the holidays?

Meanwhile, Penn State's football players are trying to play football games. A game like Saturday, when they wanted to prove -- not to you or me, but to themselves -- that they could win a game, post-scandal. They wanted to prove to themselves that this horrific story, this enormous cloud, hadn't blotted out their season along with everything else it has blotted out.

And they proved it Saturday, if you don't mind reading a little about the football game here. Penn State proved it can beat a tough team in a tough environment in tough circumstances. On Friday after the team landed at Columbus, interim coach Tom Bradley gathered his team to tell them the latest news: Joe Paterno has been diagnosed with lung cancer. How bad? Nobody knows how bad. But it's cancer. And Paterno is 84 years old. How good can it be?

"When they filed out," Bradley said, "it was dead silence."

On Saturday, there was emotion. The Nittany Lions were excited to be away from the media, away from the questions, away from the horror -- "That was a relief, to get on the field," said safety Drew Astorino -- and they played like it. Penn State ran for 239 yards, had three different backs reel off a gain of at least 35 yards, and on defense the Nittany Lions limited Ohio State to 289 yards. After torching the Penn State defense in practice the previous week, pretending to be Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez on the Penn State scout team, receiver Curtis Drake was given three carries as a wildcat quarterback Saturday and gained 50 yards. Penn State's almost making it up as it goes, and Saturday it had some fun.

Not that football's supposed to be fun. Not for Penn State. The Nittany Lions are supposed to be seen but not heard, and to some folks the Nittany Lions shouldn't be seen at all. They should go away, pay for the alleged sins of other men.

Which makes next week pretty awkward, when you think about it. Because Penn State will travel to Wisconsin next week for the Leaders Division championship. The winner of that game gets a spot opposite Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, and more -- the winner of that game is guaranteed a spot in one of the Big Ten's top-tier bowl games.

Imagine that. Imagine Penn State having the honor of playing in the inaugural Big Ten title game, and then perhaps getting to the Capital One Bowl or the Outback Bowl or even the Rose Bowl.

Penn State.

Hard to imagine, right? Well, don't bother. Ignore Penn State, if it makes you feel better. Stake out the most lofty spot of moral high ground you can find, and leave Penn State there at ground level to play football. You do what you do. I'll do what I do.

And as they showed Saturday by beating Ohio State 20-14, the Nittany Lions will do what they do.

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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