UNIVERSITY PARK - It was late Wednesday night, and Penn State senior offensive tackle and team captain Quinn Barham felt he was having a nightmare.
"I was just doing homework, and I got an alert on my phone,'' Barham said. "Then I turned on the TV, and I saw the announcement. My jaw just dropped. It just hurt. At first, I didn't believe it. I thought I was in a dream or something like that. I was up to 2 or 3 in the morning, just watching. I was like, 'This is really happening.'''
That's how Barham found out that Joe Paterno had been fired as the Nittany Lions football coach as a result of his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that rocked the sports world and beyond.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Malcolm Willis (left) and Silas Redd pray in the north end zone before the game.
That was the climax of one of the most tumultuous episodes any college sports program has ever endured and almost certainly the most at Penn State. It wasn't the end, though. Two days later, the players found out that wide receivers coach Mike McQueary also was gone from the program, following Paterno, university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president for finance Gary Schultz, all as a swarm of national media descended on Happy Valley on what was supposed to be the football players' senior week.
After all of that, the Nittany Lions still had to face Big Ten newcomer Nebraska, considered one of the best teams in the conference, on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State didn't win, but the Lions fought through the distractions and a 17-0 deficit to force the Huskers down to the wire before succumbing, 17-14, before a 107,903-fan sea of navy blue.
"I met with the players [after the game]. I told them how much courage, how much heart, how much character they played with,'' said Rodney Erickson, who replaced Spanier as president.
"We came back, and we made this a game,'' said senior running back Stephfon Green, who came off the bench after being suspended by Paterno earlier in the season to rush for 71 yards and both Nittany Lion touchdowns. "We were right in this game. Even though we lost, those guys in that locker room should be proud, because we came out and we overcame all the obstacles.''
The Nittany Lion football players found themselves in a firestorm that really didn't involve them after Sandusky, an assistant coach for more than 30 years who hadn't been part of the program since 1999, was indicted on 40 counts related to child sexual abuse. Curley and Spanier then were charged with perjury, and the wheels began to move in accusations that Penn State had implemented a coverup.
"We feel for every single person that was involved,'' safety and captain Drew Astorino said. "At the same time, we're not involved. That happened 10 years ago. We just try to work hard and play football and represent the university in a positive manner. I think we do that.''
Several in the public called for the dismissal of Paterno and McQueary, who both began the week with the team and had reported a 2002 incident involving Sandusky on the campus to their superiors. Coming off his 409th career victory to become the all-time winningest coach in Division I football, Paterno announced his retirement effective the end of the season on Wednesday, only to be fired by the Penn State board of trustees late that night.
There were demonstrations, rallies and mini-riots. Some wanted the game cancelled, or even the remainder of the season. There reportedly were threats against McQueary and even a bomb threat at the stadium. Before kickoff, fans took photos of police mounted on horseback on the north side of the stadium.
"There were a lot of ups and downs. It was very emotional,'' senior linebacker Nate Stupar said. "You had a lot of things to think about. School. Taking care of my girlfriend. Thinking about Joe. Thinking about Nebraska. There were a lot of emotions flying around. We just had to keep focused.''
There were several team meetings, some involving just the players.
"A lot of us players have to become coaches right now,'' Astorino said. "I think a lot of us grew up a lot this week. It's been tough.''
The atmosphere and events at the game itself were surreal. On the bus to the field, Paterno's seat was left open. More than 300 former players were estimated to have been on the Penn State sideline during the game. In the locker room before kickoff, a letter from Paterno was read to the players, expressing to them how he wanted to be there and wishing them the best.
Instead of running out of the tunnel, the Lions came out with their arms interlocked, a decision of standout defensive tackle Devon Still.
"It was just to show everybody we were going to be together, despite everything that's going on,'' Still said. "I think it served its purpose.''
Then, both teams and all the former lettermen gathered in the center of the field and knelt in prayer.
According to players like Astorino and Barham, the game was a welcome release from everything that had happened in the preceding days.
"We had a good week of practice, but it was tough to practice and not have Coach McQueary and Coach Paterno there. Hearing the rumors and having the press there trying to take pictures was very distracting. We stayed focused, and being able to come out here today and to be able to play football and not worry about anything else, I think that helped us,'' Barham said.
Interim coach Tom Bradley said the team, considering everything that was happening, remained remarkably on point leading up to the game.
"The practices were great,'' Bradley said. "I think it was an opportunity for them to come together when no one else was there. There were no distractions. They were happy to come, because it was all about football. I saw a lot of joy at practice. They had a lot of camaraderie going on. They were having fun. They were just excited to get in with their group with no outside influences asking them question after question after question and not having to watch the TV.
"I knew that because they were giving me the business, too, about different things.''
While the game brought at least a semblance of a return to normalcy, emotions still ran high. Jack Crawford, who came all the way from Great Britain to end up playing defensive end for the Lions, was somber and eventually tearful, sporting black tape under his eyes with the initials "JVP" written in white.
"It's tough. For the seniors, this is our last time in Beaver Stadium, so it's hard,'' Crawford said. "Everything just hit me on the bus. We've always been a close team.''
For many of the Lions, their thoughts remained with their former coach. There'd been talk that the players would present him with a game ball, something none of them confirmed or denied.
Just two weeks ago, they were celebrating his passing of Eddie Robinson for first place on the all-time Division I coaching wins chart. Stupar, whose father also played for Paterno, tweeted earlier in the week that he was upset about not having the longtime Nittany Lion coach there for his senior game, and he stood by those feelings after the loss to Nebraska.
"Four-and-a-half years playing for that man, and I don't get to shake his hand and hug him coming off the field for all the things he's done to create me as a man and a Penn State football player,'' Stupar said. "But you've got to take what you can get. I'm sure I'll see him around sometime.''