In a week of turmoil, it was an unexpected silence.
At midfield, players knelt, blue jersey beside white jersey, and football was put aside. Students, alumni and fans quieted as they began to understand what was going on.
At the center of a circle comprised of Penn State and Nebraska’s football teams stood Ron Brown, who delivered a pregame prayer on an afternoon that was anything but typical nearly a year ago.
“We wanted to share the burden and the load that those Penn State players, coaches and fans had gone through,” said Brown, Nebraska’s running backs coach and co-director of Mission Nebraska, a statewide Christian Ministry. “There were a lot of innocent people in that situation that had paid a price. What has taken place there is not reflective, overall, of the school.”
The prayer became one of the lasting memories in the most hectic week in school history, which featured the firing of Joe Paterno and a downtown riot. A week after the news of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal broke, Nebraska defeated Penn State, 17-14, on Nov. 12, 2011 in front of a crowd of 107,903.
Protesters, extra police and droves of news vans surrounded Beaver Stadium for the highly anticipated contest in which Tom Bradley served as Penn State’s interim head coach. But before the game, Bradley knelt next to Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, while Brown was beside Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, and for a few moments, everything was hushed.
“I had someone tell me [Thursday] as a matter of fact, somebody who was at the game said ‘I was up eight rows from the top of the stadium, amongst the other 107,000 people, and I could hear your voice,’ ” Brown said. “That’s how quiet that stadium was.”
Penn State heads to Lincoln, Neb. this weekend to face the Cornhuskers for the first time since last season’s contest, and players on both sides have their own memories of what happened the last time the two teams met.
For both Nebraska tight end Ben Cotton and Penn State cornerback Stephon Morris, the pregame meeting stands out when they think of last year’s game.
Cotton said it was Nebraska’s way of showing Penn State that the team wasn’t alone.
“We were letting them know, ‘we’re with you guys on this, this isn’t just you guys against the world,’ ” Cotton said. “We felt for them, and it was out of their control, out of their hand. It was none of the players’ fault, and we feel it’s hard to see players like that, who weren’t involved with what was going on to be punished for it.”
The senior added the prayer might be the most memorable moment that a fan will see away from the field in college football. Meanwhile, Morris said he thought Nebraska showed a lot of respect by the way it handled the situation last season.
“It was hard, it was hard for the team given the circumstances,” Morris said. “Once we played last year that was a special thing to be a part of, especially at the beginning of the game when both teams came together.”
Fans may not remember Nebraska jumped out to a 17-0 lead or that quarterback Matt McGloin made a 16-yard reception in last year’s meeting. However, people are likely more inclined to remember the atmosphere of the stadium on that sunny afternoon.
Pelini said he had many emotions flowing through him that day, and he couldn’t imagine what those on the opposite sideline were feeling. The coach added Nebraska tried to handle the contest and all that was surrounding it with as much class as it could.
“The feedback we got coming out of it was very good,” Pelini said Monday at his weekly press conference. “But in my opinion, it wasn’t about how we looked, it was about doing the right thing. And I thought as a program, we did everything we could to do the right thing given the circumstances.”
After the prayer last year, there was still that game to be played. Despite two second-half touchdowns from running back Stephfon Green, Penn State fell short. It was the Lions’ first conference loss of the season, which also snapped a seven-game winning streak.
“At the end of the day, regardless of what happened, we came out to play a football game,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “Unfortunately we were on the losing end of it, but we felt like we were in the game. And we wanted to win the game just like it was any other game. It just so happened there were unfortunate circumstances that came down on us.”
And while some players remember the prayer and everything else surrounding the game, senior fullback Michael Zordich had two words to express what he remembered most about Penn State’s last meeting with Nebraska.
“We lost,” Zordich said.
Brown said as of Thursday afternoon, there are no plans for another pregame prayer involving both teams. But he said last year’s gathering was spontaneous and he said he’s open to do something again this year if the right opportunity presents itself.
Prayer or not, Saturday’s meeting will be between two teams that respect one another.
Both traditional college football powers, Penn State and Nebraska met as members of the Big Ten for the first time last season, and though they’re not in the same division, the teams have a protected crossover game and will meet every season.
This storylines in this year’s contest differ greatly from those of last season. Nebraska is looking for a win to maintain fist place in the Big Ten Legends Division, while Penn State is trying to cap off a perfect 4-0 conference road record in its first season with Bill O’Brien as its head coach.
Regardless of what is surrounding the game, Cotton said the two team’s will hold each other in high regard off the field, and play hard-nosed football on it.
“You’ve got two traditional programs which have great success in the past and the present, and I’m sure we’ll have great success in the future,” Cotton said. “We respect the heck out of them, as we hope they do us. It will be a physical game, I think it will be a game to see football the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Brown said he also respects the Penn State program and admires what players and coaches have done in the past 12 months. He said he not only was surprised by how well the Lions responded to adversity last season, but he has been in awe of what they’ve been able to accomplish in nine game this season.
“I was in shock that the players at Penn State were so well prepared to play that game, that to me was unbelievable,” Brown said. “A lot of teams would’ve folded the tent. But that was just the tip of the iceberg…with the NCAA allowing schools to descend upon that university, set up shop on that campus like it’s a meat market, I’m in shock of what that team and Bill O’Brien and that staff has done what they’ve done.”
Many people learned a lot about this Penn State football team since its last meeting with the Cornhuskers.
While opposing players and coaches like Cotton and Brown from across the Big Ten and the country have expressed their admiration toward the team, Penn State players have learned something, too.
“This team in the past year, we’ve just stuck together,” Morris said. “Coach O’Brien, the minute he got here, he did a great job with us, he’s been loyal to us, the fans have been loyal to us, the whole Penn State community has been very loyal. It’s not just us, I’d say Penn State as a whole is resilient.”
To email reporter: email@example.com