STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Long after the game had ended, after the members of the marching band had latched their instrument cases, after the stadium lights dimmed, after the fans departed and the sun set upon their slow exit caravan, the last, thinning remnant of a daylong pilgrimage still queued up at the statue of Joe Paterno.
They waited their turns outside the east stands of Beaver Stadium and then handed their cameras and cell phones to the next ones in line to authenticate their presence on a day that carries an indelible time stamp: The First Game After Paterno.
Most of them cheered and mugged for the cameras and mimicked the upraised index finger of the bronze Paterno. You couldn't blame them for letting off steam. It had been a hell of a week for them, and wasn't so good for the real Paterno, either.
There might be worse weeks to come, though.
The Penn State football program, its players and its fans, had their moment on Saturday in an atmosphere in which regret, pride and defiance were brewed together for the better part of four hours. The flavor of the resulting stew, like everything else concerning the Penn State tragedy, depended on the consumer.
I still think it was a poor decision to play the game, to unfurl all the usual pageantry, to cheer wildly, and figure it was OK because there had been a moment of silence. You can't change the culture of an institution by changing the color of one's shirt.
There were obviously poignant moments and a certain collective catharsis took place, but after the game the new university president admitted that even the board of trustees was divided about the appropriateness of playing. Regardless, they played. When football returns next season, it will come back to a much different place.
Everyone has an opinion about what should or will happen at Penn State. Everyone has a conspiracy theory to relate. There are some doozies out there, everything from speculation that the university used business deals to buy the silence of some prominent witnesses, to what really happened to the disappeared former district attorney, Ray Gricar, who declined to prosecute accused child rapist Jerry Sandusky in 1998.
Everyone thinks he or she has figured out why Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired but athletic director Tim Curley remains on paid administrative leave. Everyone has suggested following the money, and the people investigating past donations to the nonprofit Second Mile, which Sandusky founded and apparently used to select victims, are doing just that. If what they find matches the speculation, the scope of this horror will widen.
The criminal pursuit of Sandusky seems like the obvious part of the story. What will happen on campus is another matter. New president Rodney Erickson ushered in the anticipated era of reform and transparency with a postgame news conference that was a masterpiece of tight-lipped obfuscation. Changing the tone would be a better idea, but old habits apparently die hard.
Paterno's involvement in the scandal will remain a focus for those who wish to see him exonerated (or, yikes, rehired as coach) and for those who believe the program, his program, became a tangle of misplaced priorities on his watch.
Someone familiar with how the football program worked during that period is going to come forward. There were just too many people, and people talk. It could be a former coach or administrator or someone's wife. It could be someone not all that fond of Paterno - who was cantankerous, dictatorial, and autocratic in his heyday - but the story might be true nonetheless. If everyone on the staff knew about Sandusky, that is going to come out.
It is difficult to believe Paterno knew nothing of Sandusky's alleged sick proclivities before 2002. It is simply not credible that the Penn State defensive coordinator was the subject of a lengthy police investigation in 1998 and Paterno never got a whiff of it. He might have slowed down in the last three or four years, but during the crucial span in question, Paterno was the central power on campus. If a rock was thrown in State College, he knew about it before it landed. And the defensive coordinator was under police investigation and he didn't know? Not likely.
So, as simple and horrible as it seems, is it merely that the football program and administrators up the ladder sought to control the situation the same way they might fix a parking ticket? Just keep the lid on, because this was a story that could look very bad for everyone? Tell me something that makes more sense, and I'll happily believe it.
I met Joe Paterno in 1979 or 1980 when he came to a high school near the rural, small-town newspaper where I started in this business. He came to witness a player, a huge local star at an offensive skill position, signing his letter of intent to play for Paterno.
The player went to Penn State but had only one letterman season and left abruptly before completing his eligibility. Some years later, I reminded Paterno of our first meeting and said something about it being a shame the player didn't work out.
"Yeah, you know, we never had that problem up here before with cocaine. It took us by surprise," Paterno said.
I was surprised myself at the time but never thought that much about it until last week. Was there a drug bust, or a police report? Not that I remember, and I tried to follow the player closely. Was the player just sent home quietly and allowed to take his problem elsewhere?
Maybe that worked out for him, if that was the case. Maybe not. We know that simply telling Jerry Sandusky to take his problem elsewhere didn't work out well for all his victims after 2002.
Whether those on campus who knew Sandusky were actually aware of the extent of his alleged problem is the fulcrum on which the rest of this will move. If people know things, those things will come out. Secrets are as dangerous as unexploded land mines. They are bound to go off eventually.
That is why there might be even worse weeks to come for the Penn State community. It doesn't seem possible that could be true, but after last week, it is obvious there is no longer a limit to what is possible.
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