PSU seniors stood out
Make no mistake, this should not go down as one of the best football teams in Penn State history.
Before anybody would let the Nittany Lions' beloved senior class sprint back into the locker room after a tear-filled pregame ceremony to honor the last game they'll ever play for Penn State, they were asked to look toward the suite level. There, on the facing of Beaver Stadium's most recent addition, hang years. Years that represent the very best football teams this program has had to offer, dating back to the 6-0-1 team of 1894.
Yet, when those players looked, a curtain fell. And when the curtain fell, the year 2012 hung there, too.
No, this can not be considered a wildly successful team. They finished 8-4. The other 15 teams honored on that display lost four games combined.
Those other teams lost to teams like Alabama and Michigan and USC. This one lost to Ohio. This one lost to Virginia in a game where it missed four field goals. This one led Nebraska by two touchdowns at halftime and couldn't seal the deal.
There are unbeaten teams among those first 15 on the wall. There are conference champions. There are national champions. But there are no teams like the 16th team. There was no year like 2012.
"Perseverance," guard John Urschel said, when asked why this team deserves to be in that kind of company. "I think this team has really persevered through a lot. It has been through a lot. This team has been extremely resilient in spite of all the things that have happened in this past year."
Let's recap: Last November, a longtime assistant coach, a cornerstone of the community, a campus legend, was arrested for sexually abusing children, the most heinous betrayal of public trust. Legendary coach Joe Paterno, the man the vast majority of this team came to Penn State to play for, was fired in the wake of the scandal. Lung cancer took his life in January.
The Freeh report brought them public scorn. The NCAA brought them sanctions that threatened to tear apart their team from the top down. Players like Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich had to focus on keeping players on campus as much as they had to focus on football, clutching at their creating like a child protecting his sandcastle from high tide.
Truth be told, there is a segment of the population - likely a sizable one - that has no sympathy for Penn State players. Many didn't think they should have been permitted to play at all. Once they opted to rebuff the NCAA's offer to leave and stay with Penn State instead, the sentiment from the outside - from national columnists and fans of schools that are no stranger to NCAA discipline - joined these players, this school and Sandusky's actions at the hip.
Then, they did what they couldn't do. They lost their first two games.
"We started 0-2, and I'm pretty sure the whole world was like, Penn State is definitely going to finish under .500," cornerback Stephon Morris said. "We were probably one of the laughingstocks in the country, losing to Ohio, to (Virginia). People pretty much had us losing against Navy as well.
"After that UVA game, we started bringing that "One Team" thing, and we gave it all we had."
Obviously, Penn State finished better than a laughingstock. The Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. As quarterback Matt McGloin correctly pointed out, they could have - and should have - been even better. This doesn't have the feel of a program on the quick decline anymore, like it did when Silas Redd and Justin Brown skipped town to be away from turmoil that never quite materialized into something that dragged anyone on this team down.
This looks like a program that can weather just about anything, with just about anybody. With Bill O'Brien, a no-nonsense, no-excuses coach from Boston who grew up watching Paterno coach the Nittany Lions in the 1980s. With McGloin, a one-time walk-on quarterback from West Scranton who came into the postgame media session in full uniform, because he couldn't bring himself to take it off one final time. With Jacob Fagnano, another walk-on who may have saved the game with an interception in the fourth quarter, 16 years after he'd run to his bedroom and cry when Penn State would lose a game. With Sam Ficken, who missed four field goals in that Virginia loss, brazenly hitting all three of his attempts to beat Wisconsin - and each of the last 10 he tried as the season wound down.
This is a team that Penn State wants remembered, more for all of that than its record.
"That means the world, just to make your mark there in stone," injured linebacker Michael Mauti said. "It's just such an honor to be a part of it, and I'm really proud of how these guys have battled for a whole year. I mean, 365 days, these guys battled.
Battled everything. In every way. Every different kind of adversity. And these guys just kept fighting."
No, this wasn't a great football team. An argument can actually be made that, looking back on the opportunities it had to put teams away, it should have finished no worse than 10-2.
But this team belongs in that ring of honor, with those other 15 groups, the unbeatens and untieds, the champions and the immortals.
Because after all, college sports shouldn't be about winning and losing, right?
Because didn't everyone hope what happened at Penn State taught everyone that?
Because if it's not about winning and losing, isn't it about how you represent yourself and your school, the class and dignity and self-discovery that sports are supposed to teach all of us? If it's that, then this Penn State team is beyond worthy.
(Donnie Collins covers Penn State football for Times-Shamrock. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)