Early on Saturday morning Penn State students and alumni received an e-mail alert saying that someone had called in a bomb threat to Beaver Stadium. A sweep of the massive 110,000-seater produced nothing, it added. Probably because the bomb had already gone off the week before.
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For the past week, the entire country has been obsessed with the disgusting scandal at Penn State, with the 40 counts of child abuse facing former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, and with the actions the school took (or didn’t take) to brush it aside.
It isn’t surprising that this obsession has come with a healthy dose of wonderment from those outside State College. The media has covered so many aspects of this case — what will happen to legendary head coach Joe Paterno? What has happened to University officials? What happened when the students rioted one night?
But they haven’t talked about the town. They haven’t talked about Sandusky’s neighbours, and the people who have supported Joe Paterno since the 1960s. And that’s a shame, because many of them knew this was coming for three years.
And many of them surely knew this was coming even earlier than that. In a town where all the kids go to the same high school, and the entire county has only slightly over 40,000 residents — A town where everyone knows where Joe Paterno lives, and all of downtown is simply two parallel streets — someone has to know.
So Business Insider spent the weekend at Penn State trying to understand how the town, the people most in danger of being hurt by Sanduksy’s crimes, were taking the news.
The main reason why It’s not hard to find someone who knows something in State College is simply because everyone knows everyone. Since the 1960s, they all believed they knew Joe Paterno (Joe Pa) too.
“Back then,” said *Michael Keller, a resident whose family’s been in the area for generations told me, “you used to go to the game in your Sunday best.”
“You feel like it’s a bad dream…” he went on. “But you take the names off the faces and you realise they (the coaches and administration) all have to go.”
Penn State hasn’t actually been that wonderful at football in the past decade or so. Some townspeople have called for Joe to step down, while others (especially older members of the community) wouldn’t hear of it. Paterno had built Camelot in Happy Valley, was the argument. He was the hero in a football story that lasted for generations and was built on the most important thing to Penn Staters — pride.
“I feel betrayed, that’s the heart of it,” said Keller. “We weren’t what we used to be, but everyone here had one thing to hang their hat on…we’re true blue, we do it right.”
And this is what doing it right means to State College. From a young age kids are taught the basics of touchdowns and field goals. The boys who run fast and catch well play Pop Warner. If your father or uncle played for Joe Pa, everyone knows it and everyone is proud of you. Your family went through the system that brings honour (and let’s face it, money) to your town. You can, and absolutely should, do the same.
Once you’re done with Pop Warner you might go to Jerry Sandusky’s football camp at one of the Penn State branch campuses to learn the finer points of the game. Little boys, now grown, who didn’t get to go to camp tell me that it stung when their friends came home, throwing better, running harder.
Regardless, at some point it’s time to play for State College Area High School — the field is downtown, and the town shows up for the Friday night game.
When the time comes you play at Penn State, like Mike McQueary, who went through this system, and so many other State College-bred young men who’ve played for the team over the years. To them, Penn State football coaches aren’t just leaders — they’re a part of their understanding of what life is supposed to be like.
On the other hand, the boys that Jerry Sandusky victimized had very different stories. We know that at least one came from Central Mountain, another from Lock Haven. Both are forgotten farm villages within 40 minutes of State College. The people in those places depend on the University for jobs, and they depend on the Camelot myth for pride. So when Sandusky started The 2nd Mile, it was only natural for them to want to participate.
And the town participated as well. The wealthy and affluent donated, and sat on the board of The 2nd Mile. Now many of them feel guilt— “why didn’t I see it?”
But back to the children.
Mr. Keller’s wife told me that Sandusky made the kids feel special. That he was a warm and friendly all-around guy. He was already on a pedestal, she told me, his charity elevated him to the level of sainthood. “That’s why he’s been able to do the things he did.”
But then 3 years ago the whispers started. Sandusky was being investigated.
Some chose not to believe it. Up until the news came out, the old coach was going to parties at Paterno’s daughter-in-law’s house, and people would go and bring their kids. Some people.
Others looked at the suspicious happenings around the investigation and started to question. Police say there’s no link between the 2005 disappearance of Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar and the Sandusky case, but he had been working it when he simply vanished from town. People wonder how much the board knew. And some (this is vicious rumour going around town) allege that Sandusky was simply part of a ring of child abusers, and that he would testify and give up other names.
There are jokes floating around too: “What do you call a woman who goes after younger men? A cougar. What about a man who goes after younger boys? A Nittany lion.” “Dinner reservations for Sandusky, party of two, make sure you have a high chair.”
humour is one way to deal with grief. Another is retrenchment. In the early morning hours before Saturday’s game two men knelt before Joe Paterno’s house and prayed for a win. It didn’t help, the team lost to Nebraska 14-17.
What did people expect? A world where something drastic has happened overnight can sometimes look the same in the morning, and people in town know Coach Tom Bradley (Joe Pa’s interim replacement) has been running the show for years.
But then again some have always denied that fact, hoping that the frail 80-something coach they see on television is still secretly a lion in the locker room, and not just a figure-head for a flailing program. They’ve applied that same skill for denial to this scandal.
“This whole thing is trial by media,” one former 2nd Mile donor told me. “We don’t know anything, yet. And all of these outsiders are here working people up.”
Indeed I heard reports that CNN journalists were asking questions outside Sandusky’s old gym, were trying to get students to riot.
“Look, Linette, everything is going to go back to normal soon,” the donor added as we drove past a dairy farm. “Nothing that bad ever happens in Happy Valley.”
*Several sources asked that I not use their names in this story. Because of that, names have been changed.
Until I entered the stadium, I saw few signs of turmoil. The I got here — this woman is handing out leaflets about child abuse.
This was the one person I saw holding a sign that said everyone should be fired. He got a lot of flack, but he didn't get hurt, thankfully.
On one of the arts building (the wall in the centre of this picture) someone wrote a message in chalk.
The game was on the radio or on TVs everywhere. Here's the classic PSU pit stop, The Corner Room in blue and white.
In between the streets is Calder Way, where a mural depicting town heroes is painted. Sandusky used to sit in that empty chair. But it was painted over last week.
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