STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The Penn State players left the field with their heads bowed, the fans mostly silent.
A lifetime worth of emotions was crammed into the past week. Shock, rage, regret and, now, exhaustion. The child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky cost Joe Paterno his job and, no doubt, scarred Penn State’s soul.
A football game on a brilliant autumn afternoon won’t erase it.
It was, however, a start.
“We’ve had better weeks in our lives, obviously,” Paterno’s son Jay, the quarterbacks coach, said after No. 12 Penn State’s 17-14 loss to No. 19 Nebraska on Saturday. “The world’s kind of turned upside down, but I think our kids were resilient.”
The game was a combination of pep rally, cleansing and tribute, a way to acknowledge the past and take a step into the future. Affection for Penn State and Paterno was abundantly visible from players, fans and coaches. So was support for abuse victims, the kind of empathy many felt was missing in the days after news of the scandal broke.
Beaver Stadium was awash in blue – the color associated with child-abuse prevention – and public-service announcements flashed on the scoreboard throughout the game. A fund-raising campaign for abuse-prevention charities at the stadium gates raised more than $22,000.
In one of the most poignant moments in a week filled with lurid allegations, Nebraska and Penn State players gathered at midfield and knelt for a moment while Cornhuskers running backs coach Ron Brown offered a prayer.
“It felt like we all banded together. And it wasn’t just about football,” said Melissa Basinger, a 2005 Penn State grad who made the trip from Charlotte, N.C. “It was about coming together as a school, and showing the country, world or whatever that this does not define who we are.”
Sandusky, once considered Paterno’s heir apparent, is charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span, with several of the alleged assaults occurring on Penn State property. Two university officials are charged with perjury, and Paterno and president Graham Spanier were fired for not doing enough after Sandusky was accused of molesting a young boy in the showers of the campus football complex in 2002.
Rex Burkhead ran for 121 yards and a touchdown for Nebraska (8-2, 4-2) before the Nittany Lions scored 14 points on two second-half touchdown runs by Stephfon Green.
“I was awful proud,” said interim coach Tom Bradley, who took over for the 84-year-old Paterno. “They got down 17-0. They didn’t quit. They hung tough.”
No one would have blamed the Nittany Lions (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) if they decided to pack it in. But they didn’t.
Time expired after a fourth-down pass by Matt McGloin fell harmlessly to the ground.
The last time Penn State played a game at Beaver Stadium, on Oct. 29, Paterno was feted by Spanier for his 409th career victory, the most in Division I history.
Paterno apparently spent the day elsewhere Saturday.
He returned home only after the game had ended and heading directly inside, students, fans and even a former player milled around his front lawn, leaving signs and cheering when his wife, Sue Paterno, blew them kisses and thanked them for their support.