By: C.J. Doon
They say that football builds character.
They say that the bond between teammates lasts a lifetime.
They say that great teams fight through adversity, and prevail against all odds.
This Penn State football team – the team that faced 13 months of sanctions, penalties, scrutiny, and even the death of their beloved former head coach – prevailed. By standing by one another, hand in hand, they became great.
It was never about winning or losing. It was never about stats or records. It was never even about football. It was about standing tall, staying strong, and fighting to prove that Penn State was still a great university, and will remain great long after this group of seniors depart Beaver Stadium for the last time.
Before the season began, Penn State faced an onslaught of negative press. Sports Illustrated printed an issue with the words “We Were Penn State” emblazoned across the front cover, while Christine Brennan of USA Today lobbied for Penn State to shut down the entire football program, effective immediately. Having heard some of the volatile press leaking from newsstands across the country, senior linebacker Michael Mauti and senior fullback Michael Zordich decided to take action and address the media on the state of Penn State football. After yet another grueling summer practice, a handful of Penn State football players gathered in front of the football building on July 25th to deliver a message to anyone who would listen.
“We want to let the nation know that we’re proud of who we are. We’re the true Penn Staters. We’re going to stick together through this,” Zordich said. “We’re going to see this thing through.”
“No sanction, no politician is ever going to take away what we’ve got here. None of that is ever going to tear us apart,” Mauti said. “Right now all we can do is put our heads down and we’re just going to work. That’s all we can do. We’re going to fight for Penn State and each other because this is what Penn State is about – fighting through adversity. We’re going to show up every Saturday and we’re going to raise hell.”
Those words – given by two of Penn State’s most outspoken leaders – became the team’s inspiration. For the first time in months, the Penn State community finally had something to be proud of. They didn’t know it at the time, but this group of players – 18-22 year old kids still trying to find their place in the world – would become the motivation Penn State needed to re-build.
It was fitting that the final game of the season was one of the toughest Penn State had to endure. On a day that would be the last time 31 Nittany Lions ever adorn their beloved blue and white uniforms, Penn State fought back from an early 14-7 deficit, and defeated the Wisconsin Badgers in overtime 24-21, after Wisconsin’s kicker, Kevin French, missed a game-tying 44-yard field goal.
After missing four field goals in a heartbreaking loss to Virginia, Sam Ficken could have given up. He could have given into the harsh remarks he received on Facebook and Twitter. He could have left the team in disgrace. But he refused to quit on his team. The sophomore kicker booted a 37-yard field goal on Penn State’s first overtime possession, which would prove to be the eventual game-winner after French’s kick sailed wide left.
“Week-to-week, day-to-day and I couldn’t be prouder of Sam Ficken,” head coach Bill O’Brien said. “To think of where he came from to where we are tonight, kicking the winning kick… I can’t say enough about him and the way he rallied tonight.”
On Senior Day, Penn State’s leaders were able to walk off the field with their heads held high, knowing they were victorious in their final appearance at Beaver Stadium.
“It was a storybook ending,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill said, who recorded 12 tackles and two sacks in the victory. “It was a perfect ending to a bad beginning. I felt the whole game it really told the story about what we went through all year, being knocked down early and being able to get back up.”
Before the game, the year “2012” was revealed etched onto the façade of Beaver Stadium, a tribute to the class and perseverance of this year’s team. The “ring of honor” is normally reserved for teams that go undefeated or capture a Big Ten title, but with a record of 8-4, the 2012 team symbolizes true success both on and off the field.
“I want [this team] to go down in history, not for the wins but for the character of all our guys and everything that we’ve been through.” Hill said.
“It’s exciting to go down as one of the great teams in Penn State history,” senior quarterback Matt McGloin said, the former walk-on who leaves Penn State holding seven passing records. “To have that season stapled on the stadium forever is a great feeling, and to be a part of it is exciting.”
Through all the excitement and festivities, Penn State did not forget their leader. Michael Mauti received the loudest applause from the crowd when he ran onto the field for the final time, grasping his bouquet of blue and white flowers that have been part of Penn State tradition for decades. Wearing street clothes and his #42 jersey, Mauti roamed the sidelines during the game and fired up his defense when they needed inspiration. As a gesture towards Mauti’s leadership, each Penn State football helmet was affixed with the #42, while Gerald Hodges, a pre-season All-American linebacker, wore Mauti’s #42 jersey on the field.
“I’m tearing up thinking about it,” Mauti said after the game, referring to Hodges. “It was the biggest honor for me. We have come so far in our relationship and as players. It has really been an honor to play with him.”
Thanks to players like Mauti, Hodges, Hill, and McGloin, this Penn State football team was able to erase all the doubts, silence the critics, and cement their legacy as one of the greatest group of individuals in Nittany Lion history.
Because of them, the season that was supposed to end in disappointment instead ends in victory.
Because of them, the sanctions that were supposed to cripple the program instead have become its motivation.
Because of them, the university that was supposed to fade and wither away instead has returned stronger, and full of new life.
And so all I can say is thank you.
Thank you to the players, coaches, trainers, medical staff, and all who dedicate their lives to the Penn State family.
Thank you to the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and all the caring family members who support their Nittany Lions, no matter what path they choose.
Thank you to all of the fans, students, faculty, and alumni, who proudly wore the blue and white when we needed you most.
This season has been one of the most exciting, emotional, and inspiring football seasons I have ever witnessed, and it has been an honor and a privilege to cover the games for you, my readers.
I hope that you have enjoyed the ride as much as I have.