COMMENTARY: In the wake of tragedy, Penn State has something to smile about
Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 charges related to the molestation of young boys over a 15-year period. (Source: The Patriot-News)
Former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno died on Jan. 22, 2012. (Source: Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News)
Former Penn State president Graham Spanier resigned after charges were filed against Sandusky. (Source: PSUMark2006/Wikimedia)
Penn State students crowd a home game in State College, PA, including the senior student section known as the "S-Zone." (Source: Jeremiah Orr/Wikimedia)
Beaver Stadium is the home of the Penn State Nittany Lions football team. (Source: Billma/Wikimedia)
(RNN) - It's one of the first things a prospective student hears when touring the picturesque, central Pennsylvania campus: a proud cheer.
"We are … Penn State!"
The school and its football program came under heavy NCAA sanctions in the wake of the horrifying child-abuse scandal that involved a former coach. But in the aftermath, members of the Penn State community have come together to prove they are still Penn State.
The Jerry Sandusky scandal still throws a dark shadow over the program and Penn State has lost its first two games this year, but for a team that is ineligible for postseason play for the next four years, the Nittany Lions have played with pride and their fans have behaved with a dignity that commands respect.
The cloud over Happy Valley wasn't just a result of wrongdoings by Sandusky, head coach Joe Paterno and university officials. National support for the school plummeted after students expressed their frustration over Paterno's November 2011 dismissal.
Although most of the protest against the school's sudden dismissal of the veteran coach was peaceful, a small group of students turned over a television news van and damaged two light poles. Video of the scene went viral and a terrible situation got even worse.
But now, Sandusky has been tried, sentenced and will spend the rest of his life in jail. The true Penn State spirit is shining through.
The recovery began soon after the NCAA hammered Penn State with a $60 million fine, imposed the ban on postseason play and vacated Paterno's wins from 1998 to 2011.
Although many expected the harsh penalties would cause a mass exodus among players, the hit was less devastating than predicted.
Eleven players left the squad, three were starters. Five recruits decommited. But the men who stayed on the squad have the moral fiber that coaches dream of.
The remaining players would have every right to feel bitter about being punished for something they had no part in. There's no evidence of that.
"No sanction, no politician is ever going to take away what we've got here. None of that is ever going to tear us apart," said Nittany Lions linebacker Michael Mauti in a video statement. "Right now, all we can do, we can put our heads down and we're just going to work."
Mauti said his team is building its own legacy. He closed the statement with an assurance to fans.
"We're going to show up every Saturday, and we're going to raise hell," he said.
University officials have backed their players' commitment by altering the team's historic uniforms. The athletic department has added their last names to the backs of their jerseys. Under Paterno, the uniforms had no names on the back. He did not want his players to think any individual was greater than the team.
"We want our fans to know and recognize these young men," said Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien in a press release. "They have stuck together during tough times, and I commend them for the leadership they have shown."
But it's not just the school that's recognizing the quality of the team's character. It's their peers as well.
Last weekend, the Nittany Lions traveled to the University of Virginia. Penn State endured a tough, one-point loss, but the team fought hard and won its opponents' respect.
"The NCAA made it pretty obvious with those sanctions that they can get out and go to a different school and go play with no hesitation, no problem, and those guys stuck by the school and the program they love, and that's something that's pretty awesome," said Virginia defensive tackle Jake Snyder in an interview with The Associated Press.
And has fan pride dwindled? Not in the least. If anything, the character of the young men who represent the school has made supporters proud.
This year, the fans are not cheering for success on the field. They're rallying for respect and supporting the decisions their players and coaches have made to revive the school's reputation.
There was no shortage of blue-and-white support at Virginia's Scott Stadium on Saturday, proving that Penn State fans still intend to travel this season. They were as loud and proud as ever - something their host team had to admire.
As someone who grew up on Pitt football and cheered against the Nittany Lions, I know I do.
Derrick Chengery is a producer for Raycom News Network, a Marquette University graduate and proud Pittsburgher. Follow him on Twitter at @chengeryRNN.
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