The silence in Beaver Stadium was deafening.
Gathered at the center of the field was a massive huddle, some wearing red and white, others wearing navy blue jerseys, along with countless more in regular clothes, all kneeling as one man spoke in the middle. While prayer circles at football games are nothing new, the one that took place prior to Saturday’s game between Nebraska and Penn State at Beaver Stadium meant a lot more.
“Both teams and I thought it was the right thing to do,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I thought a show of solidarity was something that was probably pretty sorely needed in this situation that everybody is facing.”
A scandal accusing former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky of sexually abusing young boys that cost Joe Paterno his job has rocked Penn State.
Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown, who is heavily involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, had been asked earlier in the week if he would consider doing something before the teams kicked off Saturday. After contacting a campus ministry official at Penn State, Brown discussed some possibilities of what would be an appropriate action.
Both teams’ head coaches, Pelini and interim Penn State head coach Tom Bradley, approved the idea of a pre-game prayer and Brown was able to have it happen. The reaction of the crowd however, was something he had not seen coming.
“I can’t imagine a stadium of over 100,000 people becoming hushed like that,” Brown said. “I really think that God was in the stadium. I think He gave favor in terms of the respectability and honor. The game was played classy but the fans, they were classy too from what I could tell.”
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez said he was near the back of the huddle and didn’t hear much of Brown’s talk, but the experience gave him chills. Penn State senior defensive tackle Devon Still heard bits of what Brown said and said it was mainly a message of overcoming adversity.
Saturday morning, Brown discussed his idea with Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson and Nittany Lions offensive lineman Quinn Barham said Johnson informed the team they would be joining Nebraska for the prayer.
Brown’s prayer wasn’t so much a message, but a question of why. Why this week? Why this year? Why this Nebraska team and why this Penn State team?
He told the group that since Paterno had been at Penn State, very little had changed regarding the program, until this week. While the circumstances were beyond their control, what those assembled on the field could control was their spirit and attitude, Brown said, and they could remind the country there were plenty of children trying to make sense of life through a football game.
“I talked to my little daughter early in the week, she’s 13, and I said ‘Have you heard about what’s been happening?’ ” Brown said. “And she looked at me and she dropped her head and said, ‘Yeah dad, I have.’ So you can imagine there’s a lot of little kids around this country, a lot of young boys in particular, trying to figure out what is manhood so I pray to God, ‘God we will demonstrate manhood in this stadium today by the way we play football, by our competition, by our spirit.’ ”
Before the prayer began, Brown said Bradley was asking him ‘Where’s Bo?’ because he wanted to kneel next to Pelini, and to Brown it represented the spirit he wanted in the huddle. He realized it was a big game for both teams, but that moment was more important than the game.
Pelini said having Brown lead the prayer was an obvious choice and that for him, signing off on it was a “no-brainer.” Players and coaches from both teams appreciated the gesture, and several Penn State players said it was a first step in the healing process.
“We just decided as captains, I think the coaches, too, they said just walk on the field and come together and say a prayer with Nebraska just for the victims,” Barham said. “It was the right thing to do. And I appreciate it for the fans just to wear all blue. It was touching for us as well. It was tough, it was tough