My black Reebok cleats started to soak through the Central Pennsylvania grass on a hazy summer morning before the sun came up.
As a teenage aspiring linebacker at an early-morning Penn State football camp, my stomach growled and my eyes glazed over as a gray-haired man pulled me aside to tell me the importance of footwork when moving laterally.
This memory replays often, not for the free lunch or the conditioning drills, but because of who the gray-haired man with the goofy smile turned out to be – the man who nearly destroyed Penn State football.
More than half a decade later, former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky sits behind bars while several confirmed victims pick up the pieces of their scarred childhoods.
Horrific stories surfaced about the man whose face is now seared into my brain. My disbelief grew as it became clear that the monster described in the newspaper was the coach who taught me footwork mechanics. That feeling grew as I learned about the administrative negligence. I became horrified of what the culture of Penn State football allowed to go unseen.
The unsettling reality was that this small town, run by big-time college football, would spare no bounds to protect a legacy. The precedent had been set across the country, and continues on through sexual assault allegations, stolen property and drug abuse.
I went to a satellite campus of Penn State so I could cruise in my white 1999 Suzuki Vitara, but learned quickly it wasn’t for me.
The blind following of a 160-year tri-state football tradition drove me away from what many Pennsylvanians swear to be the pinnacle of Pennsylvania collegiate sports. Sitting in a dining hall, I heard students discussing the unfairness of the possibility that they would never see their beloved Nittany Lions in a bowl game.
I heard people complain about the late Joe Paterno’s win total being rebuked, I saw wristbands with the numbers “409,” and T-shirts that read, “We are because he was” and I watched Penn State football surge through what was expected to be its darkest day.
The resilience was inspiring for many, but as a Temple-bound transfer student, I was bewildered by the lack of understanding. Whether students, athletes or coaches intended it or not, the legacy of Penn State football was prioritized over the welfare of children.
Some considered the sanctions taken on Penn State’s program worse than the death penalty – an NCAA punishment that bans a school from competing in a sport for at least a year.
Instead, former coach Joe Paterno was stripped of 13 years worth of victories, a lessened number of scholarships and a $60 million fine.
However, the influence of football continues.
In the drunken Saturday afternoons celebrated by students and alumni alike, the football-constructed community lived on.
Numerous vendors still line up streets neighboring Beaver Stadium, as people fed their families with Nittany Lion fans’ money.
Those vendors represent the undeniable need for Penn State football, the chilling reality that big-time football programs dictate the conduct of the small towns they inadvertently endorse.
The NCAA missed on its sanctions, and in doing so, attempted to eradicate everything except the culture that enabled heinous acts in Penn State facilities. Instead, it poked the bear that is Nittany Lion pride, only strengthening it when it really needed a dose of humility.
In 2013, Penn State averaged 96,587 in attendance. While it was down nearly 150 seats per game, it remained among the Top 5 stadium fillers in college football.
Now, with lifted sanctions, a Top 25 recruiting class and an NFL-bound junior quarterback, Penn State football is alive and well, as is the culture.
The same culture that cultivated secrecy, all for the sake of the white helmet and blue jerseys that unite a student body.
During my time as a student, Sandusky was the elephant in the room, while the unwavering support for the players, with their names emblazoned on the backs of navy blue jerseys became the centerpiece of Penn State athletics.
When ESPN talking head Keith Olbermann called Penn State students pathetic earlier this month, he was wrong. The education provided in State College is nationally renowned, and those attacks had no basis.
However, attacking the self-involved mindset that Penn State students oftentimes represent is spot on with Olbermann’s words.
When my satellite campus classmates learned I was transferring to Temple, I heard various swipes about it being an inferior Pennsylvania school.
I became editor-in-chief of the student paper in my third semester, and didn’t see many tangible challenges ahead of myself. I left for two major reasons – the fear of not being challenged by better, more talented journalists and the disdain toward omnipotent football programs running a Pennsylvania town.
E.J. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.