Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Growing Up State: I am Penn State


Imagine if you will, a place where a small lazy river, winds endlessly through rounded mountain ridges.  Imagine that this place is miles away from the nearest city, and speckled with small towns.  There are farms and fields forming much of the landscape with major highways ocassionally criss-crossing through the land.  Imagine if you will the people who live here.  Mostly blue-collar, hard-working, and religious folks.  You will find these people working hard Monday-Friday, coaching soccer and Little League on Saturday, and going to church on Sunday.  

In many ways, it's like taking a step back in time.  The nearest malls are miles away.  There are many places where the nearest neighbor is too.  Large storms still knock out power, and blizzards can, and do strand people in their homes for more than a mere 12 hours.  There is no Starbucks on every corner.  In many towns, everyone still knows everyone's name.  And here, four wheel drives are driven for a purpose other than showing off how much money you have.  In short, welcome home.  Welcome to my home.  I was born here. I was raised here.  And for 22 years, I lived in one house.  Central Pennsylvania, is an hour and a half from the nearest "bustling" city of Harrisburg.  Philly and Pittsburgh take 3-4.  In short, there's really not all that much to do.  

This is a place where your neighbor knows you and will still give you the shirt off your back if you need it.  It's a place where kids still play outside.  They still climb trees, ride bikes, and occassionally wander too far from the house while they play in the creek. Towns still have parades, and driving with a gun in your car is perfectly normal.  It's a place that has given birth to the Little League World Series, the Bloomsburg Fair, Middleswarth Potato Chips, and Mike Mussina.  This is Central Pennsylvania.  This is also Nittany Lion country.

From my earliest days, the seasons all had specific activities associated with them, and we looked forward to them all.  Winter in Central PA means that you are guaranteed snow, and that it can be rest assured that you will watch a lot of movies when the plow doesn't come by your rural address for a few days.  Spring means the return of the Crocusses, trout season, and AYSO spring soccer.  Summer of course meant outdoor swim team and lots of sleepovers at the 'river lots' and campgrounds, maybe mixed in with a trip to Knoebels Amusement Resort, and of course, carnival season. And Fall.  Fall was glorious.  Not only for the gorgeous coloring of the leaves up Route 15 on the ridge lines, but for many other reasons. Fall was Fall AYSO soccer (and eventually high school soccer), hunting season, and football.  Glorious, glorious football.  

Central Pennsylvania, nestled into the valleys of the Susquehanna river, lies just over an hour due west from State College, or Happy Valley as it has been nicknamed.  As far back as I can remember, our proximity to the University always meant that Saturdays in the fall were for Penn State Football.  I can remember my dad at my soccer games with his radio headset on, trying to catch the broadcast while he watched us play.  And honestly, you couldn't expect to get in the car during a Penn State game and hear a song on the radio.  Every station would broadcast the Penn State game.  I can still hear in my head the VERY particular way the announcer would always say, "I formation in the back field."  Route 80 would be packed on Friday and Saturdays with people headed west then east, flying their PSU flags and sporting their stickers en route to the games.  Route 15 and 322 brought people from the South up into Happy Valley.  It was guaranteed that restaurants and stores along these routes would be packed every weekend, and you couldn't expect to drive through the area and not see a variety of flags, license plates, car magnets, and bumper stickers that all supported our Lions.  

As a kid, I used to love to go visit my grandparents in Shamokin.  A little out of Central PA it lies a little farther to the east, in coal country.  Long time Penn State supporters, Pop Pop and Grandma went so far as to keep their Penn State blanket and a stuffed Nittany Lion in the back of their car.  For a long time they had a van that traveled west for EVERY home game of the season.  Once the stadium became too much for my grandfather's knees, they had to stop going.  But even though they stopped going, they never stopped supporting.  In the kitchen of their house for 20+ years, hung the Nittany Lion head with the saying "Love Ya' Lions" right over the kitchen sink.  Being a Penn Stater was ingrained in me from an early age, and to that university I attach some very fond memories.  

Some people though, don't understand why.  Why has this program become so big?  Why is it such a huge thing?  Why is the "Nittany Nation" so strong?  Growing up as a part of the Nittany Nation, but now living away from it, I have my own thoughts as to why that happened.  State College, where Beaver Stadium is located, sits essentially nestled into the mountains as well.  Although an hour closer to Pittsburgh, it still essentially sits in the middle of nowhere.  The people of State College, and the students who attend University Park, are essentially an island.  There's nothing there besides the town and the University.  In part, I think that this is one of the reasons why the Nittany Nation is as strong as it is.  There are few outsiders in the Penn State world because quite frankly, you really have to WANT to be there to be there.  It is my belief, that as with CrossFit where people who suffer together form a community, the same type of thing happens in Happy Valley.  Suffering together through freak snow storms and bleak winters away from much of the outside world, the people there band together in a way that many people do not understand.  Some have used the word cult.  I think that that is a bit extreme.  I think the area simply doesn't appeal itself to everyone, so to the people who don't want to be there, it is easier simply to label the people that do.   People who go there, or live there, are there for a reason.  I strongly believe that that strong sense of commuity is one of the attractions.  And I think that the football program is a continuation of it.  There is NOTHING, NOTHING, I tell you, like sitting in a stadium with 108,000 (the average home game attendance) people who all want the same thing you do.

In addition to being a great weekend activity, everyone who was a Penn State fan, felt good about being a Penn State fan because of who led that team.  To have a strong community was great.  But to have a strong community that was led by what we felt was a strong leader, was fantastic.  We had a man who talked about success with honor and had some of the highest graduation rates in college sports.  He also spent his years as a coach giving back to the community in which he lived.  Joe Paterno, despite having multi-million dollar paychecks, continued to live in the community of State College.  Joe never bought a mansion, never moved into a gated house.  He continued to live as a member of a community.  He was just like us.  He was a normal, everyday guy.  He gave to the University Library, the Special Olympics, and gave his time to different University functions, like THON, throughout the year.  He was the embodiment of good in a world that is not often so.  Penn State fans felt a connection with that type of leadership, because it represented many of us.  Many of us are small town folks who believe in community and in doing the right thing.  

Flash forward to November of this past year.  Jerry Sandusky and the scandal that errupted tarnished our university and our football team.  It tore to pieces the image of a man that we had thought we knew, and had come to feel represented a lot of good in this world.  As alumni, as fans, we were disappointed in our leadership.  We were disgusted with what they allowed to occur.  We were torn between continuing to think that Joe Paterno had done the right thing, and acknowledging that maybe someone we thought we knew, was not infallible.  It was heartwrenching to watch.  It was heartwrenching to hear the truth.  It was hard to hear that someone we all loved and admired, was maybe not quite as worthy of that admiration as we thought.  We wanted to believe that we couldn't be wrong.  It was hard to hear that they had allowed children to be put through what they went through. For those of us who had been fans for decades, it was painful.  I'm not comparing our pain to that of the victims, so please don't jump to conclusions, but if you have ever loved something very much, and watched it go down in a ball of flames, then you may understand what I mean.  Penn State represented a lot of memories for us, and it was hard to watch something you love go through something like this.  It wasn't long after the scandal errupted that the media began to paint everyone associated with Penn State with the same brush.  

According to ESPN, EVERYONE knew.  And according to the media, EVERYONE was to blame.  Because we loved our community, and because we loved football and how it felt to be part of the Nittany Nation, and because we took PRIDE in being a part of the Penn State family, it was our fault.  WE did this.  Not Jerry Sandusky, not any of the administration, but US.  That sort of thinking has been very hard to swallow.  The blind hatred and the accusatory remarks that have been hurled at Penn Staters for simply being Penn Staters over the past few months has been horrific.  The ESPN message boards are a flood of hate filled posts.  As a Penn Stater, it's hard not to be upset by that.  It's hard sometimes to keep quiet when all you hear are people attacking something that you love.  It's a natural reaction to be defensive and to attack back.  Penn State fans and alumni have been attacked relentlessly by the media for months.  Is it not understandable why they are starting to get angry? Why they are starting to attack back?  The media has accused anyone associated with Penn State of essentially being a bad person.  It's hard NOT to come out swinging when someone says something like that.  Although this is not the same, since I know most of you reading this are CrossFitters, I will use a CrossFit analogy here.  How does it feel, when people who don't CrossFit, and don't understand it begin talking trash about CrossFit? About how wrong our methods are, about how wrong we are to eat and train like we do. About how CrossFit is a cult?  What is your first initial reaction? To tell them that they are wrong, and to essentially fly off the handle at them for coming up to you and having this conversation without fulling even understanding what CrossFit is, right?

That's how many Penn Staters feel.  We're tired of people who don't even know anything about the University talking a whole lot of trash.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say that the University should be shut down.  Do you realize that Penn State has over 20 branch campuses in addition to University Park in State College?  Do people realize that Penn State has a partnership with Hershey Medical Center and that it is a top research school? Do people realize that Penn State engineering schools are ranked among some of the best?  Do these people know that THON is the LARGEST student-run philanthropic organization in the COUNTRY and that last year ALONE they raised $10 million for children's cancer via the 4 Diamonds Fund?  Penn State is genuinely a quality university.  There are a handful of people who seriously messed up, and yes, they do need some form of punishment.  But shutting down the university and belittling the students, faculty, and fans of Penn State is NOT the answer.  It doesn't erase any of the past.  It just makes it harder to move into the future. As a former, and now again current, Penn Stater through World Campus, I am proud to be a part of the Penn State family.  I am proud of what this family can accomplish when they put their minds to it.  I only hope that people who are not part of the Nittany Nation will read this and begin to have a clearer understanding of Penn State and what it means to many people just like me.  Perhaps they will then be able to join with the students and alumni who are working for RAINN and begin to do some good as we move into the next chapter of Penn State's history.