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Penn?State’s 1982 team savors its place in history

September 22, 2012
The Altoona Mirror

The NCAA may have clouded Penn State's immediate future, but it can't take away its proud past.

At least that's how members of its first national championship team feel and rightly so. The players will celebrate their 30th anniversary with weekend festivities that include a halftime introduction during today's game with Temple.

Longtime Penn State followers can argue the best of Penn State's best teams - whether it's 1968-69 (the best defense), the unbeaten team of 1973 (John Cappelletti wins the Heisman), the 1986 national championship vs. Miami (best win), the 1994 team (greatest offense ever) - but there is no debating the first national champion.

That belongs to the 1982 team which, despite a midseason loss to Alabama, beat Georgia 27-23 in the Superdome and carried Joe Paterno off the field.

Three decades later, the distinction of being first, Gregg Garrity said the other day, is still "pretty cool."

Of all the PSU images frozen in time, Garrity's 47-yard touchdown reception from Todd Blackledge in the fourth quarter that beat Georgia stands alone.

Fact Box

PSU-Nebraska in '82:

game-winning trivia

The defining play of the 1982 regular season that positioned Penn State to play Georgia for the national title was not the 20-yard pass to Mike McCloskey that was ruled a catch even though it was caught out of bounds, but Todd Blackledge's 2-yard pass to Kirk Bowman that sealed the 27-24 victory.

Offensive lineman Bill Contz saw a replay of the game recently, and he came up with a trivia question: Which future NFL players were not on the field for that play?

Answer: Curt Warner, Kenny Jackson and Gregg Garrity.

Explanation: Warner had been hampered with cramps and was on the sidelines and the Lions were in a jumbo set with two tight ends (McCloskey and Vyto Kab) and three backs (Jon Williams, Joel Coles and Tony Mumford).

Out of that set, on first-and-goal from the Nebraska 2, Blackledge hit Bowman for the game-winning TD with four seconds left, capping a 65-yard, 10-play drive in 1:18.

- Neil Rudel

He insists, though, that he doesn't.

"At the time you don't think about it," Garrity said from his construction business in Pittsburgh. "I was very lucky and fortunate to be able to play and contribute, but just to be a part of the whole thing is more special than anything. The more you look back on it and see all the teams - all the great teams Penn State had - to be the first one to be recognized [as national champs] is pretty cool. There are other teams that should have been, but unfortunately they weren't."

The team convenes every five years. Reunion leaders are offensive linemen Bill Contz and Mark Battaglia and receiver Mike Dunlay. In addition to the organizers, those committed to be among about 60 ex-Lions greeted today include Garrity, Curt Warner, Mike McCloskey, Scott Radecic, Ken Kelley, Massimo Manca and Mike Zordich (the dad).

"It's special for me to be recognized with the first team to officially win the national championship, of course," Contz said. "But how about the '68-69 teams and the '73 team that established this program? One set of downs separated the '78 team. We [1982] were lucky that the stars aligned."

The team willed them to align. With a total of 24 draftees (the 1994 team had 23), the 1982 team played eight top-20 teams and four ranked in the top five.

"The '94 guys hold Big Ten records," Contz, a sales director of a medical device company in Pittsburgh, said. "It was laughable how much talent they had so it's a great debate. [Brian] Gelz[heiser], pulls my chain that we lost a game [and the '94 team didn't]."

"I know they were a definitely a high-octane offense," Garrity said, "but if you look at us as a team, I'd put our team against anybody - offense, defense, special teams. They may have had a great offense, but we had a great defense, too."

While Contz and Garrity enjoy their past, they're not discouraged about the future. Neither has met new coach Bill O'Brien personally yet, but they're impressed from a distance.

"I certainly respect this guy stepping into a firestorm and handling it with as much poise and character as he has," Contz said. "I think Bill O'Brien was the right man for the job, and I admire some of the changes he's made."

"From everything I've seen, he's a very impressive guy," Garrity, whose son is a Division I prospect at North Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh, said. "I like what he's trying to do, and I think it was a great call and a great fit."

Neither player wanted to delve too deeply into their sentiments on the post-Sandusky sanctions.

"I'm like a lot of the other guys," Garrity said. "We want to hear the whole story so we can have some closure and pass our own judgment from the findings. I think there's still a lot of stuff out there that we don't know and the public doesn't know. Until all that information comes out, I'm kind of holding judgment."

"I think the healing process has started for the most part," Contz said. "The events that have unfolded over the past 10-11 months have truly been tragic. My prayers truly go out to the victims in this case. The university has certainly now been identified with this horrific type scandal - something you would not possibly have imagined. The information that came out and what still may come out - that's the X factor here. We're at the initial stages. We have yet to come to full understanding and comprehension. How many victims there are. I don't know how far-reaching this is."

But his pride in his former team and his university have stayed strong.

"I remain intensity proud to have gone to school there and what it still stands for and what it's done for me and the experience and camaraderie and the friendships," Contz said.

Optimistically, he sees teams of the future eventually experiencing what he did.

"The scholarship limitations may hurt us, but I'll bet you'll still see a high graduation rate and positive contributions made to society and competitive football," Contz said. "We're not that far removed. I hope people see the silver lining in this cloud."

The 1982 team, like many other teams that make up Nittany Lion lore, is definitely one of those "silver linings."

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

 
 
 

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