In a crowded Beaver Stadium media room, more than two dozen reporters huddled around running back Stephfon Green after Penn State’s 17-14 loss to Nebraska. Some were locals. Others had likely never stepped on campus.
From the back of the group, a man raised his voice and asked a question the then-senior didn’t quite know how to answer. He wanted to know what Green knew about former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and his molestation of young boys.
“Uhhh…I was, like, 10 when that happened,” Green said, alluding to the fact he knew nothing.
There were a few seconds of awkward silence, and the questions continued. But none were about football — just about everything these players didn’t want to hear.
During the week of Nov. 9, 2011, the Penn State football team wanted to feel normal. At 8-1, it hadn’t dropped a game in Big Ten play and had one of the nation’s top 10 defenses.
With a win Nov. 12 at home against Nebraska, then a victory a week later at Ohio State, the Nittany Lions would play in the first ever Big Ten title game. The regular season finale against Wisconsin, which wound up winning the conference, wouldn’t matter.
While they should've been focusing on the Huskers, then the Buckeyes, then the Badgers, players soon realized they couldn’t go to class without getting cameras shoved in their mugs. They couldn’t walk out of the Lasch Football Building without being asked for comment on former head football coach Joe Paterno, Sandusky or the fate of the once-model program. The national media had State College and University Park locked down like a SWAT team would.
From downtown, to Paterno’s house, to Holuba Hall and Lasch, there was almost nowhere for these players to get away.
All they wanted to do was feel normal. They wanted to feel like an 8-1 football team, dreaming of roses and Pasadena. They didn’t want to be victims of terrible circumstance, struggling to focus on a simple football game.
But for all the flack the program took during that week, for three hours on Saturday Nov. 12, the players got to feel a little more normal.
Penn State fell behind 17-0 early in the third quarter to Nebraska, then Green scored twice on the ground to narrow the Cornhuskers’ lead to just three with five minutes to play.
After forcing a three-and-out — Silas Redd got stuffed on 4th-and-1 the previous drive — the Lions had one more chance, but ultimately, it came up short.
Matt McGloin’s pass skipped off the turf on another 4th-and-1. It hit wide receiver Justin Brown in the chest after he dropped to his knees to try and scoop it up, tumbling sideways in desperation.
Once that leather grazed the grass, that sense of normal went away. It was back to answering questions in the media room about Sandusky. It was back to criticism of the football program.
Then-senior tackle Quinn Barham said the team tried to block it all out that week, but admitted things were different.
“We really focused on the football this week, but you really can’t ignore the fact that coach Joe wasn’t there as well as coach McQueary,” Barham said. “…We still have to play football, and that’s what we had to do.”
A football game still needed to be played that Saturday, and Penn State did its best to make it normal. Both teams gathered at midfield before the game to say a prayer for children who have been abused — a step in the right direction, perhaps, to make everything normal once again, interim coach Tom Bradley said.
He spoke of the overwhelming support from the school, other Penn State teams and students. That Saturday morning, Bradley said he could feel the wheels spinning in the right direction.
“Maybe today is the start of this healing process,” he said.
The Lions went to Columbus and took down Ohio State the next week, then got smacked by Wisconsin, 45-7, and the Badgers took the Leaders Division title.
But the journey to return to normalcy began Nov. 12, 2011, and it still continues today. When that journey will end, if ever, it’s tough to tell. But still, every day, Penn State’s players are just trying to be normal student-athletes, working hard to represent the university they’ve committed to, just like every other college football team.