A Game and a Prayer

This isn’t about the molestation incidents on the campus of Penn State University, nor about the ensuing scandal regarding alleged cover-ups, nor about the reporting thereon by news media. Well, not quite. It’s about the early stages of the movement forward for the vast majority of people who in one way or another identify with Penn state and had absolutely nothing to do with any of the above.

There is a very familiar antiphonal chant that rings through Beaver Stadium on a football Saturday. It is repeated in other smaller arenas around campus; it is shouted out in the open around campus and town, and has become a ritual of greeting when alumni are identified by one another, literally around the world. WE ARE, with the return PENN STATE. That simple ritual took on an added significance on Saturday, Nov. 12, as the stadium filled in anticipation of another game and–that’s just it: people didn’t know exactly what to expect.

Some wondered whether the game should have been played at all, fearing that it would signal a minimizing of what had been revealed during the week leading up to the highly anticipated contest with the University of Nebraska. Would it signal business as usual, moving the pain and trauma experienced by some boys back toward the obscurity in which it had resided? Would it indicate that our resolve to be ever more vigilant about caring enough to prevent this sort of thing from happening in our own circles of concern was only momentary? Would it show that the University still didn’t get it?

The game went on. But it was not business as usual. The previous night saw thousands of students gathered at a candlelight vigil of remembrance, accompanied by the Blue Band, most famous for its pregame and halftime rituals on those few Saturdays in the fall. The same students encouraged the wearing of blue, not solely because of its association with university sports teams, but as a measure of solidarity with the cause of child-abuse prevention. Donations were solicited; banners were displayed. And then something I had never seen before in more than fifty years of watching football in person or via television. Instead of the Penn State team running onto the field with arms raised and fists pumping, this group of Nittany Lions walked, arm-in-arm, row by row toward the sideline. “We Stand As One,” read the banner on the sideline, with a clear double meaning on this day. Yes, it was a reference to the players’ unity, acknowledging the distractions from their preparations and ensuing loss of their coach, which could easily have derailed them; but it also referred to the overwhelming resolve of the people who comprise the campus community to be their little brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

That alone made the day special. But what followed was equally amazing. Immediately before the game, players and coaches from both teams walked toward the center of the field, mingling with one another; then, surrounded by the 80-100 returning Penn State players from the past, many of them knelt and were led in prayer by an assistant coach of the Nebraska team. Have you ever “heard” the silence of 107,000 people? So quiet that the un-miked voice of that coach could be heard in the upper deck of the end zone seats (I know because that’s where I sit)?

This was a day when those who did not know otherwise, or those who had forgotten, were informed that Penn State football is more than Joe Paterno and that Penn State University is more than football. An exclamation point was added to that statement when the game ended. Penn State suffered a difficult loss, failing to score on its final meaningful possession. Instead of filing out grumbling, the students in attendance, along with and many alums and other fans, gave the team a standing ovation. At Penn State. After a loss.

Two observations about this remarkable afternoon. The first has to do with that iconic cheer. The reverberating WE ARE . . . PENN STATE changed in meaning to WE . . . are Penn State. WE, the students, the faculty, the alumni, and all who go about teaching, learning, working, serving communities, caring about what happens to the weaker among us, are Penn State at its best. This, not what happened due to the actions of one individual, and not what might have been done to keep those actions from the legal and public eye, is what the place is about. (And I should add that the same can be said for those who represented Nebraska, both on the field and in the stands).

The second observation is about the prayer before the game. The scene was shown on network highlight shows and more than a few general newscasts, and must be available on YouTube. My hope is that it serves as a reminder to those who are believers, to those who have forgotten that that is what they are, and to those who are not sure, that creating resolve and finding effective ways of restoring our health as a society–particularly but not only in the way we treat our children–will require resources beyond our own. We have learned that we cannot trust in our academies, or our government, or our information media, and not even our most charismatic and trusted individual leaders to deliver us from our tendencies toward damaging one another. 107,000 people silently, if unknowingly, stopped in silence as witness was born to our need for God to deliver us from evil and instill in us a greater vision for and commitment to His kingdom.

Yes, it was a good day at “The Beav.”