Editor’s note: As the community, state, country and world works its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Independent’s sports staff will every now and then take a look back at some of the memorable events we’ve covered. For sports editor Bob Hamar, the Nebraska football game at Penn State on Nov. 12, 2011, made a powerful impression.
In the summer of 2011, all was well in Happy Valley — home to one of the iconic football programs in the nation.
Joe Paterno was preparing to lead his guys into yet another season of Nittany Lion football. Few knew at the time that things were in the works that would blow the lid off of College Station and, indeed, all of college football.
But there were rumors. One college football media member was on “Sports Nightly” that summer. He said something was going on, something big. There was a grand jury convened and it was investigating something to do with the Penn State football program.
And then in November, it did blow up. Man, did it blow.
On Nov. 5 that year, the investigation into former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky became public. Sandusky was accused of making numerous inappropriate advances or assaults on eight boys from 1994 to 2009.
On Nov. 9, Paterno announced he would retire at the end of the season. But hours later, the Penn State board of trustees announced that Paterno was fired effective immediately.
One of the great coaches in college football history was done.
And three days later, coach Bo Pelini brought his Nebraska football team to Happy Valley.
The Huskers had been scheduled to play in Happy Valley on Nov. 12 for quite some time. Nobody could have predicted the turmoil that would be going on in State College.
It made for one of the most unusual atmospheres I’ve ever seen at a sporting event.
There was a pallor over the entire thing. The fans weren’t as excited as they normally would be, and the players seemed a bit more subdued than normal.
There were fears concerning this game. Extra police were on hand. State troopers were stationed all around the field keeping a close eye on things, but there were no incidents reported.
There were some scattered protesters, and some JoePa supporters, but that was about it.
No doubt Penn State fans wanted to move on in a positive manner. When the PA announcer asked them to be courteous to visiting fans and Husker fans were shown on the replay board, a big cheer went out.
Earlier outside the stadium, one Nebraska writer heard a Penn State fan start to heckle some Husker fans, but then he stopped like he remembered something.
“We’re supposed to be nice,” he said.
It’s not unusual to see some players from both teams form a circle and have a prayer after a game. This time, both teams participated in a prayer before the game led by Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown. He was the perfect man for the job.
“Hopefully, at least due to the fact that both teams went out, sat down and prayed together, maybe that put it in perspective a little bit,” Pelini said. “It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about society. It’s about right and wrong.”
Brown also shared some of his thoughts about the prayer.
“I think the thing that probably struck me the most was how silent the stadium got,” Brown said. “We had heard all week long about the potential rowdiness and security issues. To see a stadium of over 100,000 people come to a dead silence and kneeling before God and paying reverence and pleading to God for help in our nation with a very tragic type of a situation ... it was personally a very, very special moment.”
Yes, there was a football game, but it wasn’t particularly memorable. The Huskers took a 17-0 lead in the third quarter on a 14-yard run by Rex Burkhead.
Penn State scored later in the quarter and added a TD in the fourth to pull within 17-14.
That was the final score in an unremarkable game played under remarkable circumstances.
No one would have guessed that this game would mark a high point for Pelini. The coach understood everything that was happening at the time. He even said he thought the game should have been called off, but he’s just a coach. He plays when they tell him to play.
“The situation that’s going on is bigger than football,” Pelini said after the game. “It’s bigger than that game that was just played. It’s bigger than the young men in the game who would have missed it had they called it off. It’s about education, people putting in perspective what the situation is all about.”
That week was the beginning of the end for Paterno. He died just two months later at the age of 85.
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.
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