Playing Ball: We Were . . . Penn State

Friday, November 11, 2011 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1aIt must seem a little odd to anyone who lived in Central Pennsylvania in the 1980s to see Penn State students smashing car windows because the head football coach, Joe Paterno, had been fired. Two decades ago, the sentiment often ran the other way in that little corner of the world. In those days, after virtually every defeat, after each sputteringly unimaginative offensive display—even my 15-year-old friends and I knew exactly what play Paterno was going to call next—the cry would go up in wall-to-wall-carpeted living rooms from Altoona to Wilkes-Barre: “Joe must go!” He wasn’t “JoePa” to the locals, at least not then. There was only one Joe.

One Saturday afternoon in the early 80s, my parents and I sat in a boat with another family on the Susquehanna River listening to Penn State nearly get shut out by a second-rate school. It was only the first or second game of the season, but that was enough for the father of the family that was with us. He picked up the radio and almost threw it into the water. “Joe is through,” he shook his head and muttered. “They can’t do anything!” I think Penn State would end up going 9-2 that year, and the next season Paterno led the school to its second national championship. Joe never went, and the offense, once he loosened up on the play-calling, got better. Still, even in the good years, there was another coach on the team who, in those living rooms from Altoona to Wilkes-Barre, remained more revered than Joe: the architect of Linebacker U's defense, Jerry Sandusky. (Shows you how little we know about anything that happens outside of our own living rooms.)

My hometown, Williamsport, is 80 minutes northeast of State College. Thousands of Penn State graduates live there, and die with the school’s football team. For years, a house across the street featured a large rock in the front yard with the Nittany Lion logo on it. The family next door had it on their RV, which they drove everywhere the team went, from Notre Dame to the Orange Bowl in Miami. Paterno's tentacles spread everywhere. My high school French teacher’s husband had been a linebacker for him in the 1960s. Our head football coach—nickname: Rockhead—had laid down what Paterno called the hardest hit he’d ever seen when he was at Penn State. A classmate of mine, Gary Brown, would star there as a running back while regularly butting heads with Paterno. The football team at PSU, like big-time college football teams in small-town areas all over the country, was by far the most glamorous operation we came into contact with. Penn State was, unlike anything else in Central PA, nationwide. For that it was loved like nothing else. The day Paterno was fired, a friend from Williamsport texted me, “This is the saddest day of my life.” He meant it.

Penn State fans in Williamsport had grown up in the area, attended the big state school down the road, and moved back. Their kids did he same—to these alums, the team was theirs in a way that no professional team can be. My parents, though, were the rare aliens in town; they’d moved there from Philadelphia. My dad was a pro sports fan, and never connected with the PSU mania. They were put off by it, for the most part. When 100,000 people in the school’s football stadium went into their familiar, proud, and frankly obnoxious chant, “We are . . . Penn State!” we generally responded with an eye roll. We weren’t, Penn State.

But I could only hold out so long. With no college football alternative, I eventually went with the crowd. I tailgated and played touch football at Beaver Stadium with friends’ families, and when clean-cut Penn State took on the heavily favored, black-hatted team from Miami for the national championship in 1986, I was so nervous I squirmed up higher and higher on the couch as the game went on, trying somehow to get away from the screen. By the time Miami’s final drive was stopped near the end zone on an interception by Pete Giftopoulos—a Linebacker U name if there ever was one—I was practically on the other side of the couch.

In the stories of the last few weeks, State College has been described as “bucolic,” and inevitably referred to by its nickname, Happy Valley. It really did seem that way to me as a kid. There was a comfortably democratic quality to the place. The streets were lined with nice but not ostentatious houses, and front lawns were not too fussily kept. It was our closest cultural center, the place where we went to buy records that we couldn’t get at the Wee Three in Williamsport, or see movies that we couldn’t see at the mall.

Even more idyllic, to me, was the tennis in State College. I was amazed on my first visit to see rows and rows of public courts scattered around the city. Our high school team had a rivalry with theirs—the State College tennis players were also clean cut, and their families were just as vocally enthusiastic in support as they were of the football team. More important to my game, the college’s tennis coach, Jan Bortner—he started with the women’s team before taking over the men’s job—gave me lessons when I was in high school. A lean, lanky, good humored ex-pro with high standards, he demanded more than anyone had demanded of me in the past, and he helped me develop my best shot, my return of serve—he did this, essentially, by drilling hundreds of very hard serves at me. He also let me know, subtly, that even when I thought I was working hard, I really wasn't; we both laughed when he made a videotape of me playing and I saw how slow I was. He was right, I wasn't working anywhere near as hard as I believed I was. Jan was there for one of my best wins, at an 18-and-under tournament on the campus courts, and he made a long drive to see me take my toughest loss, too, in the semifinals of the PA state championships my senior year. I wouldn't have made it that far without him.

As for that much more famous Penn State coach, I was introduced to Joe Paterno once, very briefly, in the mid-80s. He was walking briskly, head down, in a beat-up blue windbreaker, out of the athletic building while I was walking out of the tennis facility next door. I was with the mother of a local tennis player who knew Paterno—pretty much everyone in the town seemed to know him; he lived among the masses, in one of those tidy little houses with an unfussy lawn. That day, he looked less like a football coach and more like the English professor he had originally set out to be. He was pensive, abstracted, lost in thought until she called to him—“Joe!” Paterno smiled and walked over, shook my hand, and said in his trademark rasp, “Welcome to Penn State.”

I didn’t go there, though three of the top students in my graduating class entered the school’s highly regarded honors program. But I kept rooting for Penn State, and was stunned and gutted when Paterno was fired—no one, even back in the 80s, seriously thought that word and JoePa would ever be used in the same sentence. But Joe finally did have to go, and I’m glad the university went through with it. He was the godfather, for better and, it seems, occasionally for worse, and his demise leaves all of Happy Valley a less idyllic and exceptional place than it has been during the 40 years of his reign.

Still, Paterno was, after all, not the only person at the school. The last I heard, my own Penn State coach, Jan, is still there, and his three kids all attended the university—it's still a great place to live. Jan knew I probably wasn’t going to go to his school or play for his team, but he cared about how I did and did everything he could to make me a better tennis player. While the school’s athletic program has lost its halo forever, and its football fans will never shout “We are . . . Penn State!” with the the same self-assured, exceptionalist pride, I’ll remember Jan as an example of ambition and excellence and good humor, of an ideal college spirit that, whatever we may believe at the moment, really does live on.

*****

Have a good weekend.

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