independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Vincent Hogan: Penn State's tale of unique solidarity winding its way towards Croker

Shocking abuse scandal scarred an American institution – but their spirit will not be broken

Former US Ambassador to Ireland and chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers Dan Rooney joined GAA Director General Páraic Duffy and the Penn State University mascot, the Nittany Lion, at the 108,000 capacity Beaver Stadium, Pennsylvania, to launch the Croke Park Classic which takes place next August MARK SELDERS / SPORTSFILE

From a staircased box, pitched close to the tallest point of Beaver Stadium, the south end looks like a trembling field of cotton blossoms.

Cheerleaders rim the end-line, their backs turned to the field, doll-like figures in tiny costumes choreographing 25,000 students in support of more than a football team. This is the home of Penn State, a proud American institution with dirt beneath its fingernails.

From early morning, the kids had swarmed towards this vast, grey stadium in the shadow of Nittany Mountain, shouldering crates of beer for a big-game preamble programmed to stretch all the way to early evening.

With an almost comic prudishness, the serving of alcohol is banned anywhere inside the stadium. So students crowded the esplanade, fuelling themselves in an all-day big-game ritual, set next to the lavish 'tailgate' picnics of a sprawling community of alumni.

College football is one of America's great mysteries. Beaver Stadium encapsulates this with epic throngs testing the stitching of its 108,000 capacity for Penn State home games, despite live coverage perpetually available on ESPN.

Last year's average attendance was 96,000, the very figure congregated tonight for a Big Ten Championship meeting with University of Central Florida.

They say the life of a college footballer is the nearest thing America has to a GAA existence, amateurs playing to remarkable audiences for no more than the pride entailed (thought a recent 'Sports Illustrated' expose of Oklahoma State hinted at different standards in different places).

Next August 30, Penn State and University of Central Florida will reconvene in Dublin for the 'Croke Park Classic', so tonight is a kind of long-lens preview of what the GAA hope will draw 69,000 people to GAA headquarters.

It quickly dawns that the most important person here is the stadium announcer.

WAVED

He plays puppeteer with the students, every one of them armed with white tassles to be waved at key moments, creating what is known as 'a whiteout'. The other three sides of the stadium essentially, thus, turn south for their entertainment during breaks in play.

The student end is never still. In their very presence here, they have all but signed a contract compelling them to channel energy towards the field. Energy, you suspect, that requires no artificial stimulus.

The great, angry scar of Penn State's history now is the convulsive narrative of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal. It was a story that broke in 2011, Sandusky – the college's assistant football coach – charged with 45 counts of child molestation, including the sexual assault of at least eight underage boys.

For Penn State, maybe the real blackness lay in a sub-story of alleged cover-ups by several high-level school officials.

Sandusky was assistant to the legendary Joe Paterno, a nationally revered figure who refused several offers to coach NFL teams during his 45 years at the helm of the college football team. An investigation of the Sandusky scandal found that Paterno and others failed to act against a colleague they knew to be a child predator, concealing that knowledge from college authorities.

To great emotional turmoil locally, Paterno's statue was removed from the stadium forecourt in July of last year. This was the equivalent of a brick tossed through a chapel window for those worshippers of a man who led Penn State to 24 Bowl victories.

Paterno's record today, thus, has the status of a rumour.

Indeed everything Penn State achieved on the football field between 1998 and 2011 has been erased from NCAA records as just one strand of the most severe sporting sanctions ever inflicted upon an American college. They also had to pay a $60m fine and accept dramatic scholarship reductions over a period of four years.

As often happens with the wounded, this pain seems to have deepened Penn State loyalties.

From early afternoon, one single chant reverberated around Beaver Stadium with monotonous regularity. A single, random voice in the crowd would initiate it, bellowing, "WE ARE ... " to be met by the throng's obedient response, "PENN STATE!"

Repeated four times, the instigator would then the roar, "THANK YOU", to which the collective response is a rather surreal, "YOU'RE WELCOME!"

This is a place more drawn to its football team just now than is maybe either wise or rational. The perception resides here that Penn State has taken a kicking for the sins of one man. More than that, that Paterno's extraordinary career has been shamefully erased from history by, at worst, an old man's lack of comprehension of the Sandusky horrors.

Just two weeks before Paterno died of lung cancer in January of last year, Penn State appointed Bill O'Brien as their new football coach.

O'Brien had been quarter-back coach to Tom Brady with the New England Patriots for four years and surprised many by taking over what was seen as a hopelessly compromised project. To him, however, the Penn State post remained what he calls "one of the top 10 football jobs, regardless of NFL or college".

"I had a goal my whole career of being a head coach," he explains. "I had worked for some great head coaches and I knew, if given the chance, I could help a programme and put a good staff together and coach the players the right way.

"So, at the end of the 2011 season when I was with New England, Penn State approached me. I came here and really enjoyed the people I met. I knew the history and tradition of the programme.

"I also knew that something horrible had happened here. And so obviously my wife was heavily involved with the decision. But we decided to take the job and we've never looked back.

"This is a fantastic place, it is an exciting place, the student body is fantastic here. The players that we coach in my opinion are second to none, just great kids. It's been good so far."

Penn State remain prohibited from playing in Bowls for titles or silverware until 2016, so they are essentially just running to stand still. Yet the scale and spectacle of a game in Beaver Stadium thieves the breath away.

On this night, they slip 34-31 to the Floridians, yet the players instantly gather at the students' end to jointly sing the college anthem. This is a community determined to radiate profound unity.

Up in a box, Paraic Duffy watches intently. The GAA director general is a keen follower of American Football and had hoped that next year's Croke Park event might be a full NFL fixture.

To that end, the GAA had the assistance of Dan Rooney, the 81-year-old owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a former US ambassador to Ireland.

But the NFL dream had to be put on hold because of that league's apparent desire to create a London franchise. So it will be Penn State against Central Florida next August in the first American Football game to be played at Croke Park since '96. For Duffy, the attraction is resolutely unromantic. "The first thing, to be honest, is financial," he says.

"One of the reasons for the development of Croke Park has been to generate funds for the Association, so clearly we want to make a financial profit from it to put back into the GAA in other ways.

"We've more or less set ourselves the aim of doing this in 2014, 2016 and 2018," he explains.

The 'Croke Park Classic' will, thus, be held 26 hours before one of next year's All-Ireland football semi-finals, and stadium chief Peter McKenna expressed confidence in his staff's capacity to undertake the stadium turnaround.

The game will qualify as a home fixture for Central Florida, who will accordingly be in receipt of a flat fee for the inconvenience.

Their average home attendance is 40,000 and it is thought unlikely that many of their supporters will travel. Penn State's travel expenses will be covered and it is hoped that they might bring anything up to 20,000 supporters.

A specially commissioned trophy – named after Dan Rooney – will be presented to the Dublin winners.

For Penn State coach O'Brien, the differences between college football and the full NFL version are more than simply ones of perception.

"I always say this job at Penn State is one of the top 10 football jobs, regardless of NFL or college," he says. "I am very fortunate to have it right now. There is so much history and tradition here.

"But I suppose, when you look at it, there are major differences. You are coaching (in NFL) 30-35-year-old guys with families, who are married and are getting paid a lot of money. It is a lot different than coaching the 19-year-old kid who just got out of maths class.

"You don't have as much time with the college guys as you would with the pro guys. And the rules are different. The talent level is different.

"But there are similarities. The importance of it is the same. Whether it is Penn State or the New York Giants, it is a very important part of our society. These are important jobs."

In Dublin next August, Ireland will get a unique close-up.

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