Monday, July 23, 2012

Bless Me Father, for I Have (Apparently) Sinned

It's long overdue time that I made this confession.

I went to Penn State because of the football team.

There, I said it. And it's a statement that's both technically true and easily subject to any number of misinterpretations. You see, I didn't go to Penn State for football in the literal sense, in that I was not a football scholarship athlete. The closest I got to gridiron glory was an endzone-to-endzone interception return for a touchdown I made—in 8th grade, during a gym class flag football game.

Nor did I go to Penn State just because I wanted to go to a "football school." Although Penn State was ranked #2 in the country when I did my application in the fall of 1999 (before the disastrous three-game skid to close out that regular season), I did not apply to the school because I was a football fanatic. If that was the case, I would have applied to at least a few other football schools—certainly Michigan, maybe Texas and Wisconsin. But that wasn't the agenda. I applied to four schools, and Penn State was the only football school in the bunch.

But when I looked at my acceptances—Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Penn State—and my waitlist offer from UVA, it took me all of about 5 minutes to make a confident, final decision of where to spend the next four years of my life: Happy Valley. Academically, my parents wouldn't have let me apply anywhere they wouldn't be proud to say their son attended. And frankly, I wouldn't have applied to any school that I wouldn't be proud to one day put on my resume. And I also simply wasn't concerned about being particularly close or far from home. I knew I didn't want to go to college in Philadelphia. Beyond that, I didn't really care or think about how long it would take me to drive or fly home for Thanksgiving, winter break, etc.

So my choice was truly limited to the schools' environment, which is where Penn State football comes in. Not because I was a particularly fervent football fan. So it really wasn't about that. It was about what was clear from watching Penn State football games on television: 100,000 people who shared a community—one built not just around winning athletes, but on ideas with labels like "Success With Honor" and the "Penn State Way." When I visited the Penn State campus in October 1999, it was clear that these ideas didn't just apply to the football team, but permeated every aspect of the University, and these ideals were something that every student, faculty member, alumnus, coach, and administrator were expected to live up to. To quote our Alma Mater:

For the glory of old State,
For her founders strong and great,
For the future that we wait,
Raise the song, raise the song.

Sing our love and loyalty,
Sing our hopes that, bright and free,
Rest, O Mother dear, with thee,
All with thee, all with thee.

When we stood at childhood's gate,
Shapeless in the hands of fate,
Thou didst mold us, dear old State,
Dear old State, dear old State.

May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.

While the Alma Mater is over 100 years old, and the school over 150, for my generation (and the generation immediately before mine), these ideals were embodied by a short, funny-looking Italian guy from Brooklyn with Coke-bottle glasses. This blue-collar guy with an Ivy League degree who came to a college in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania and began a "grand experiment" of doing things the right way, not cutting corners, and still being successful. And everyone in the University community bought into it, not just his football players.

Lightheartedly, I refer to the Penn State scandal as the Great Onion—because there are layers upon layers to the story, and they all make me cry. But when people look at Penn Staters and think we're mostly upset today because our football team is going to be bad for the better part of the next decade, they're missing the point. Because while football led me, and many like me to Penn State, it wasn't because we gave the first damn about bragging about going to a national championship-caliber school; it was about joining the grand experiment ourselves, by joining a community exemplified—but not defined—by a football team that believed in doing things the right way.

Image Credit: Penn State Live on Flickr

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