Want to see packed Penn State football games on your TV screen this fall? Or scream “We Are” at a White Out with 107,000 fellow Nittany Lion fans for the first time in two years?
Then get a coronavirus vaccine, said football coach James Franklin.
“I encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated,” Franklin said Wednesday. “The more people who are vaccinated, the better chance we have to get back to 107,000 strong here in Beaver Stadium.”
Franklin and Penn State President Eric Barron joined Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf — who has been traveling the state to promote immunizations — at a news conference inside the university’s Pegula Ice Arena, across the street from Beaver Stadium. Due to the pandemic, the massive venue has not welcomed spectators to a football game since November 2019, dealing an economic blow to the region and the university (which estimates it has lost about $50 million in ticket sales and other gameday revenue) and pausing decades-long fall Saturday traditions for hundreds of thousands of alumni and fans across the country.
“Last season wasn’t the same without the support of our amazing fans at home and on the road,” said Franklin, who is entering his eighth season at Penn State. “We want our Ball State game on Sept. 11 to be our first family reunion in almost two years, and we want Beaver Stadium and all of Happy Valley rocking.”
Franklin, a Langhorne native, said that he, his wife, Fumi, and many members of the Penn State football staff and team are fully vaccinated. The couple were especially motivated to get the shots to protect their daughter, Addy, who has sickle cell anemia.
Wolf encouraged other Pennsylvanians, including college students, to follow their lead. Officials have not said exactly how many Pennsylvanians they’d like to see vaccinated before allowing full capacity in Beaver Stadium. While the governor announced Tuesday that the commonwealth would lift coronavirus mitigation measures, including gathering limits, on Memorial Day, Penn State has not announced how many fans it will be allowing back in the stands come September.
As of Wednesday, nearly 51% of the entire state population, including children who aren’t yet eligible for shots, had gotten at least one dose, as had 63% of adults 18 and older. According to federal data, 41.8% of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated. Experts estimate 70% to 80% vaccination rates are needed to reach herd immunity, and Wolf has said mask mandates will remain in place until 70% of adults are fully vaccinated.
The Big Ten is letting each football program determine its crowd limits, and last week, Penn State vice president of athletics Sandy Barbour said the team was planning for several fan attendance options. She said she was hopeful full capacity would be possible.
Barron echoed those hopes Wednesday.
“We’ve lost countless opportunities to spend time doing so many things that we love, such as coming together at Pegula or Beaver Stadium or just about anyplace else,” the president said. “Those things are now within our reach after 15 very long months.”
Tight end Theo Johnson became emotional as he spoke about how difficult it was for him and his teammates to play in front of a nearly empty Beaver Stadium during the shortened 2020 season, with only family members of players, coaches, and staff permitted in the stands.
The team also normally hosts a Blue-White scrimmage in April that can draw tens of thousands of people. It was canceled in 2020, and this year, the team held two scrimmages, inviting freshmen to one and seniors to another.
“We ask everyone that is able to get vaccinated,” said Johnson, a freshman. “I speak for our entire program in saying we are looking forward to bringing the family back together this fall.”
The full return of college football to central Pennsylvania won’t just impact players, Franklin noted, but will also boost the economy and morale throughout the commonwealth.
As a Penn State fan himself, Wolf said he, too, wants to see a full stadium. But first, he needs to see more shots in arms.
“I know that Penn State fans, here and throughout the commonwealth, want to get back to supporting the Nittany Lions in person again, and I want to see those stands across the way filled as much as anybody here,” the governor said. “But to make it safe for all of us to come together again, we really need more Pennsylvanians to get the vaccine.”