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Amid all the sacrifices they made to play football, Penn State players say it was worth it

It has been an unusual season for the Nittany Lions, but they have been able to play all their scheduled games thus far despite the pandemic.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford said he expects to grow from the challenges he faced this year.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford said he expects to grow from the challenges he faced this year.Read moreAdam Hunger / AP

The sacrifices have been many for those at Penn State and the dozens of major college football programs that wanted to play a 2020 season amid a pandemic.

The Nittany Lions players will tell you it’s been difficult. They’ll also say, absolutely, it was worth it.

“It’s outside the [football] facility that’s the biggest change,” quarterback Sean Clifford said. “It’s your daily life. It’s not being able to see my family, not being able to hang out with my girlfriend. At one point, I was living on my own. So it’s the little things like that that people don’t see.

“They might think that we’re just kind of going about our day like everything’s normal, but there’s been really nothing normal about it. It’s been a very interesting process to say the least. But I take everything as a chance and opportunity, so I think that it’s been completely worth it. It taught me a lot of lessons that I’m going to continue to grow on and learn on, so I’m definitely appreciative of 2020.”

Penn State head coach James Franklin was one of the most vocal proponents of playing a season after the Big Ten initially pulled the plug on a fall schedule Aug. 11. His guys wanted to play and were ready to do whatever it took, isolating themselves inside the team bubble, being accountable for their actions and looking out for each other.

Big Ten presidents and chancellors reversed course Sept. 16 to start a fall football season with daily testing and stringent protocols in place. From Penn State’s perspective, its bubble has worked with no reported positive cases in the football program, although Franklin has complained about false positives in the testing, more than 50 at last word.

The Lions, who take on Michigan State Saturday at Beaver Stadium, are one of only three Big Ten teams that will play an eighth game this weekend. The game has been moved to noon, to be televised by 6ABC.

“I’m not just looking at it from football. I’m looking at the whole picture,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “When all these decisions were made, it was hard to predict how this was going to play out. You look at the Big Ten in general. You look at the records. There have been a few programs that have been able to do it, but I don’t know if there’s even been a year like this in the Big Ten from a competitive standpoint.

“To be honest with you, we’re in a position where it’s still hard to predict what the future holds, when this is going to end, when this is going to change, how we’re going to get back to normal.”

Defensive end Shaka Toney said the team has made a number of sacrifices, not going home, not seeing family or friends, and “kind of freaked out” when they went into stores not wanting to pass the virus on to a teammate or a coach.

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“We’re not able to enjoy a lot of things this year that regular people are enjoying,” the former Imhotep Charter star said. “It’s just like, pump y’all brakes before you start judging us because mentally this has been so tough.

“Be happy that at least you could watch football this year because there’s some teams that haven’t. You watch some of these games, it’s week 12, and some people are still 3-0. You’ve got to be grateful. You’ve got to appreciate the stuff that we’re doing here.”

Toney’s buddy on the defensive line, redshirt senior tackle Antonio Shelton, said the sacrifices – a core value of the team – are necessary.

“Success isn’t free,” he said. “There’s always something you have to sacrifice in order to be successful in whatever you want to do. It’s definitely been weird not being able to be around people. You’ve got to stay in the house, bro. It’s either you stay in the house or you’re out for three weeks. What do you want to do?”

The Nittany Lions have two games remaining, but Franklin, who usually is laser-focused on his next game, wonders what it will be like at the end of the season for his players, his coaches, and himself.

“I’m very sensitive to it,” he said. “How can we get everybody to their families in a safe way and let them get some more time before we come back to school and get our offseason going and try to get back to some normalcy?”

» READ MORE: With a lot going on, Penn State coach James Franklin keeps his focus on Saturday’s Michigan State game

Franklin’s wife and two daughters are in Florida, where his younger daughter continues to quarantine because she has sickle cell. The family has decisions to make after the season, especially whether to reunite in Happy Valley, which has no medical facility to treat sickle cell, he said.

“I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters,” he said. “One of the big things is, not only getting down to see my family, but how can I get my family back here at some point? How can they come back and do that and keep my daughter safe?”