Gregg Garrity’s mind raced as Todd Blackledge’s deep toss soared through the air with the 1983 Sugar Bowl on the line.
Thirty years later, the former Penn State wide receiver’s recollection of the play still develops in slow motion, as if it occurred just yesterday.
“Next thing you know, I see the ball in the air,” Garrity recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh, man. Whatever you do, just catch it. Whatever happens, happens. But catch the dang ball.’ ”
The resulting scene — Garrity diving to haul in a crucial 47-yard touchdown — helped seal Penn State’s first consensus national championship, which the Nittany Lions went on to win over Georgia, 27-23. The historic 11-1 season had monumental effects on the program, university, fans and coach Joe Paterno.
Members of this team look back on the season that unfolded just more than three decades ago with several key moments sticking out in their heads. While Garrity’s reception, generally referred to as “The Catch,” is generally considered the most memorable play, several former Nittany Lions also recalled the immense fan support they received throughout their journey to New Orleans.
Blackledge and All-American running back Curt Warner — who finished the season with 1,376 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns — helped lead the Lions in the 1982-83 season. The team lost only to No. 4 Alabama in week six but defeated five other top-15 teams along the way.
The Lions jumped out on New Year’s Day to a commanding 20-3 lead against the Bulldogs, but that lead dwindled down to just three points by the fourth quarter.
As Penn State drove down the field to close out the victory, Warner said the offense felt well-equipped to handle the pressure accompanying a championship-deciding drive.
“That’s one thing Joe Paterno used to say to us on a number of occasions,” Warner said. “He’d say, ‘There are going to be two or three or four plays that are going to be the game-changers. It’s going to be whether or not you make that play when the time is at hand.’ And that’s kind of the exclamation point of how it all went.”
Paterno had led three undefeated teams prior to the 1982 season, but was never able to attain the elusive first championship until the Sugar Bowl came to its dramatic close.
Kenny Jackson, the leading receiver on the national championship team and eventual assistant coach for the Lions, said for Penn State to finally get over the hump was a huge relief for Paterno, who was a major opponent of the way national champions were decided at this time.
“He always wanted to have the game won on the field. He didn’t want it to be based on politics,” Jackson said. “He was always promoting [a tournament]. He tried to get the same situation in football [as basketball] so the best team is decided on the field, instead of in the newspaper.”
The ramifications of Penn State finishing atop the polls proved to be groundbreaking, but not only in regard to the program’s national standing.
Jackson, the wide receivers coach from 1993-2000, said the championship “really helped Penn State a lot economically.” He said along with the 1986 National Championship, the 1982-83 season allowed for major changes within the program, such as facility renovations and stadium expansions in the 1990s.
However, Jackson said perhaps the biggest impact the 1982 National Championship had on Penn State was the increased following that the football program gained.
Jackson said this boost in the team’s national profile didn’t take long, either. The overwhelming support began to sink in for players and coaches as soon as they experienced their two-hour bus trip from Harrisburg on the tail end of their celebratory trip home.
“Every little town we went through to State College, there were people on the side of the road,” Jackson recalled. “Every small town we went through, people were waving at the bus. I can remember the fans being so happy. I’ll remember that more than the players.”
Thirty years removed from the championship, much has changed within the program, but the lineage of this fall’s roster will reflect two specific similarities to the 1982 team. Garrity’s son, Gregg Jr. (an expected walk-on) and Warner’s son, Jonathan (who redshirted this past season), will both be following in their father’s footsteps.
Both fathers said due to the many changes over the years, it’s difficult to give their sons specific words of advice for their time at Penn State.
However, Garrity Sr., the former walk-on who went on to make “The Catch,” said his instructions to his son were simple.
“I just told him everything I had to go through, and when you get a chance, you just have to take advantage of it,” Garrity said. “Sometimes, you only get one chance and you’ve got to be ready for it.”