To Err is Human, To Be a Nittany Lion…

Johanne at Penn State vs. Indiana (November 2010 - FedEx Field)

Roommates: You’re from where?

Professors: How did you end up at Penn State?

Family Back Home: Are you okay up there?

Graduating from high school landed me and my best friend, Johanne, in drastically contrasting collegiate landscapes. Both uniquely different from our New York City upbringing and infamous for their sports history and marquee status in their respective states. 

I headed for the ultra-sunny, ultra-conservative and Confederacy-linked campus of the University of South Carolina. Jo found herself in the snowstorm prone and academically challenging halls of Penn State University.

Between 1997 and 2001, she was consistently asked the three questions above. My experience was equally similar, but more ten years later the most historic people and events to ever mark the University of South Carolina Gamecocks include Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and a few bowl game wins.

We all know of the recent travesties at Penn State University, its famed former and dearly departed football coach, and the impending trial of its accused sex offender, but not all of us know an actual Nittany Lion who has lived, rooted for and unconditionally loved Penn State, its football coach and its history. 

Johanne is a Penn State alum and these are her words: 

I hadn’t even heard of Joe Paterno before attending Penn State University. I had no clue who he was, how many games he had coached, nor his significance to Penn State.

I didn’t even know what a Nittany Lion looked or sounded like, and why its history should be capitalized. And I didn’t have a clue about football.

My admission to Penn State was accepted without even visiting the school, but all my friends knew I was going to Penn State or bust. The people I looked up to and admired the most went there. My track teams captains who exemplified the notion of the student-athlete and a slew of other intelligent young men and women from my high school went to Penn State. They were smart, confident and carried themselves with respect. And so, my mind was made up. Happy Valley, here I come.

It didn’t take long to learn what mattered at Penn State: school pride, school pride, and oh yeah, school pride. And no one exemplified that more than Joe Paterno – from Paterno Library and Joe Paterno Halloween masks, to the culinary finds of Peachy Paterno ice cream at the Penn State Creamery and Joegies in the student center.

With their sizeable donations, Joe and Sue Paterno helped expand and grow the Penn State campus. They were committed to the students and the school. Joe was ingrained in the institution. We questioned his sanity when we lost games we should’ve won and marveled at  his genius when we won games we should’ve lost.

He was a legend. A hero. The (unofficial) school mascot, historian, keeper of the flame, and all things good and great about State College, Happy Valley, and every Penn State campus. If he grew up in Brooklyn, New York like me and spent 40-plus years in Happy Valley, surely I could get over my homesickness and survive four years.

During freshman year, my roommate and I had a list of things we wanted to do before we graduated – one of which was to meet Joe Paterno.

One day, I was leaving work study still wearing my PSU work uniform: khaki pant and navy polo. I exited through the back of the building so I could take a shortcut to class. From far away I see a man walking in my direction with a familiar outfit: khakis, black shoes and PSU polo shirt. And then I heard it group of guys shout “We love you, JoePa!”. He turns around and responds “I love you, too!”. He waves to them and keeps walking in my direction.

I wanted to say hi or something, but he beat me to it. Joe Paterno walks up to me and holds out his hand and says “Hey, how ya doin’?” My response: “Good. Going to class.” He shakes my hand and tells me to have a good day and get to class before continuing his daily walk to his office. That was my JoePa experience.

For the past few months I’ve told that story more than I’ve repeated it  in the past decade. And over the past few days, that was my memory of Joe as I watched thousands of people line up to pay their respects to his legacy. That’s what I remember when reporters and sports analysts debate and argue  his legacy and life at Penn State after JoePa. And while my story is not as compelling as the encounters or relationships others have had with him, it is the image I will always have of the man affectionately known as Joe Pa.

I was in love obsessed with Penn State before I even heard of Joe and Big Ten football. I loved it after I graduated and I will continue to love it and represent the school’s past, present and future in the best light possible, because Penn State helped shape the person that I am today. It was the long lines at the Penn State Creamery, breaking civic fundraising records with THON, wondering what the Willard Preacher would do or say, and enjoying the first day of spring on the lawn of Old Main.

It wasn’t a perfect experience, but it was my experience.

It was Penn State

I am Penn State