In 2012, I went to the Senior Day game. It was the first time I’d ever attended a game and didn’t watch Joe Paterno run out of the tunnel. For years that had been as much of an important part of my pregame ritual as the drum major landing his flips– making sure Joe still runs across the field even into his eighties. It started as a sort of reassurance that if Coach was still healthy enough to run with the team, everything was alright. Of course, as I watched for him in the 2011 season, I had no idea what was to come. No idea that in just over a year’s time, everything we had taken for granted, even complained about, for so long would be upended and Joe would be gone. That I’d be standing in front of handmade tributes instead of a statue. Ordering Peachy Paterno as an act of protest. All of this was swirling through my mind as I cried watching Bill O’Brien run in Joe’s footsteps. Senior Day had never been emotional to me before, yet I cried watching all of the players who stayed following the sanctions, especially that beloved group of seniors, to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.
Michael Mauti led not just the football team, but the entire University. He, along with his teammates, used his platform as a senior in a prominent national program to be the sole voice of defense and reason for Penn State. The only ones who spoke up for us. About the speech, he said, “we went there to tell everyone that we were staying together and that we were going to ignore the noise and go to work.”
Stay together. Ignore the noise. Go to work. Isn’t that just what we’ve been doing for the last five years? Sometimes finding a win and sometimes nothing but frustration, but always staying together, ignoring the noise, and going to work.
I’m not sure if, after all we’ve been through, Senior Day will ever cease to be emotional for me. The seniors we honored this weekend grew up in a program in flux, and provided leadership at a critical point in our history. From old to new. The changing of the guard. Many of us worried. Would our tradition be preserved or erased? Would we steady on in black shoes, basic blues or conform to mainstream, dramatic uniforms and gimmicky turnover chains? Would Success with Honor continue through so many coaching changes?
Under the ever watchful eyes of alumni, lettermen, and another new head coach we weren’t yet sure of, these seniors rose to the task brilliantly. I couldn’t imagine a brighter, more eloquent group of young men to bridge the gap than Grant Haley, Marcus Allen, DaeSean Hamilton, Jason Cabinda, Brandon Smith, Mike Gesicki, and the rest of our seniors, who almost never get mentioned by name but have the integrity and fortitude to support from second and third string positions. Cabinda said, “This was cementing what Penn State is and what Penn State will always be no matter what happens here, no matter how people try and put us down — there’s nothing you can do to this place that we won’t rise above.”
While they’ve been staying together, ignoring the noise, and going to work, we’ve been enjoying one winning season after another. That’s why I’m looking at the bigger picture, and why I refuse to hear the short-sighted complaints about giving second and third stringers playing time in a win on senior day. That’s why this week I’m nothing but grateful for the hard work and strong character of the Penn State players who move on after this season. Thank you for being so much fun to watch, and for showing the nation We Still Are Penn State!