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2012 Penn State football team stuck together, rallied community through ‘unprecedented’ season

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On Sept. 17, “Saving the Roar” made its debut and with it, the behind-the-scenes story of the 2012 Penn State football team was put on a larger scale than ever before.

Former Nittany Lion quarterback Matt McGloin had been interviewed about the 2012 team more times than he can count, but he was still willing to help work on the documentary. However, he knew it was a story that needed more than just his voice.

Writer, director and producer Michael Nash did just that, bringing in other members of the 2012 team like Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich while also featuring past and future Penn State legends like Franco Harris and Saquon Barkley.

McGloin said he knew Nash would let him and his former teammates tell the story the way they wanted to, and after months of filming, McGloin and Mauti got to see the premier like everyone else.

The documentary was “very emotional” for everyone involved, according to McGloin, and it gave a chance for him to look back, say “wow” and realize how special that team really was.

For Mauti, the film brought back memories from that season that he didn’t experience for a long time.

“It certainly brought back a lot of memories just going back and diving through that whole season,” Mauti told The Daily Collegian. “You realize kind of how unprecedented it was.”

Unprecedented is one way to describe that era of Penn State football.

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case, the university was fined $60 million, and the Nittany Lion program had 40 scholarships stripped away from it in addition to a four-year ban from postseason play.

And Penn State fired its 46th-year head coach, who had just won his 409th game at the helm — the most by any major college football coach in history.

Joe Paterno was fired alongside then-university President Graham Spanier on Nov. 9, 2011.

McGloin, Mauti and the rest of the team found out just like everyone else: sitting in their apartments, watching TV.

“Nothing hits until it happens. I was sitting in my apartment, and Joe got fired,” McGloin told the Collegian. “Then it was kind of like 'Wow. This is real.' That's when it hit.”

The 2011 Penn State team was 8-1 when Paterno was fired. McGloin said the team was in a groove, playing complementary football and setting its sights on the Big Ten Championship.

Then Paterno was fired, and not even members of the team knew exactly what was going on. There were people rioting in the streets of State College. McGloin stayed put in his apartment, and Mauti’s first thought was simply “Who’s going to be our coach?”

“You don't know what to say, you don't know what to think. You're just searching for answers,” McGloin said. “[It’s] hard because somebody is telling you one thing, somebody's telling you another thing, you don't know what's true, you don't know what's not true, you don't know what to believe.

“While all this is going on, you're still focusing for a game you have to play.”

Penn State went 1-3 to close the year with Tom Bradley stepping in as interim head coach, but there was a lot more than on-field results to worry about in Happy Valley.

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A program in turmoil had future implications just as much as present ones, and then-prospect Nyeem Wartman-White was in the thick of it.

Wartman-White committed to the Nittany Lions in the summer before the 2011 season. He never decommitted from the program, but the uncertainty in Happy Valley prompted some heavy thought.

While he was a self-proclaimed “naive” high-school kid at the time, Wartman-White understood he didn’t want to rush anything before he had more information regarding the situation. He had high school football playoffs to worry about at the time everything happened.

After discussions with his high school coaches and family, he decided to stay committed to Penn State, but he kept his recruitment open while taking everything “one day at a time.”

Wartman-White started to entertain offers from places like the Pitt and Rutgers more than he had before. He also needed to know that whoever became the new head coach was committed to him and his success.

Bill O’Brien was hired in January 2012. He went with Bradley on a recruiting trip to see Wartman-White shortly after his hire.

However, Bradley wasn’t planning to return to Penn State in 2012, and Wartman-White knew that at the time. Bradley still passionately recruited Wartman-White to join the Nittany Lions.

“That's what made me stay even more, just watching him. He's about to get fired and [has to] figure out what he's doing for his family, and he's promoting Penn State when he knows getting me to go to Penn State does nothing much really for him,” Wartman-White said. “That showed me that Penn State is just one of those places. Once you go there, you're in the family.”

Wartman-White was locked in. He would be a Nittany Lion.

When O’Brien took the job, about half of Penn State’s recruiting class was already committed, while the other half was added on near the end of the recruiting cycle by O’Brien, according to Wartman-White.

What instantly stood out about O’Brien was that he wasn’t going to sugarcoat anything for his players. He was a “straight shooter,” and Wartman-White said he instantly recognized his new coach was cut from that “Penn State cloth.”

His transparency with his players made the former New England Patriots assistant a perfect fit, too.

“O'Brien didn't really give a message directly to us, but just that we're going to turn it around. The future is gonna be bright,” Wartman-White said.

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O’Brien understood that the Penn State program had been going through a lot more than just football over the last few months. He acknowledged it, stayed true to his players and prepared to usher in a new era of blue and white football.

There were plenty of obstacles before the Nittany Lions could even really think about stepping on the field to play a game, though.

As part of the NCAA sanctions against the program, every player in the program was granted the opportunity to use a free transfer waiver that granted immediate eligibility.

Plenty of significant contributors from the 2011 team made the decision to move on from Penn State, including names like Silas Redd, Rob Bolden and Anthony Fera.

Plenty more, including McGloin and Mauti, chose to stay.

While he admitted it may have been somewhat of a selfish thought, McGloin never considered leaving Penn State, partially because 2012 would be his first chance to be the No. 1 quarterback at the start of the year.

McGloin said the resiliency in the program was instilled by Paterno. If it wasn’t for the longtime coach, McGloin wouldn’t have been where he was, and he said the 2012 season may not have turned out the same way.

When O’Brien took over, McGloin instantly felt a connection to him and his new coaching staff. It wasn’t long before McGloin said he felt like he couldn’t let O’Brien down, and a lot of the same values Paterno instilled would be carried over.

“I think right away, I knew that's how special of a coaching staff that was, how special of a coach he was, how special of a coach [strength and conditioning coach] Craig Fitzgerald was,” McGloin said. “I felt like I had a connection with those guys that I owed it to them, I had to do everything I could, to do my part.”

Mauti was also quick to see the potential of what O’Brien wanted to build in Happy Valley. The redshirt senior also knew how much his new coach would have to lean on veteran players, so Mauti wanted to be able to represent the lettermen who had come before him.

“I felt like I had an obligation, a responsibility to uphold that [standard] through the transition,” Mauti said. “I was part of that letterman group, and I wanted to make those guys proud.”

The veteran linebacker did actually briefly question his future at Penn State because of his aspirations to reach the NFL.

Within “hours,” though, he knew the right thing to do was stay and “hold down the fort.”

Mauti’s connection to the blue and white also runs deeper than others, as his dad and brother each played football at Penn State. He said being a second-generation player factored into his decision to ultimately stay with the Nittany Lions.

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“I was raised as a byproduct of that culture and that system,” Mauti said. “To be able to display that as it was being called a lot of different things, and a lot of people's sense of identity definitely was wavering… to be able to stand out in front and be proud of who I was and who we were as a team… that was what was most important, and I think a lot of people resonated with that.”

Mauti and McGloin were at the forefront of the group that chose to stay and help keep Penn State football afloat.

There wasn’t any bad blood between them and those who decided to transfer away from the program, because both understood and respected that those who left made what they felt was the best decision for them.

But those who stayed knew they had a job to do, and they wanted a tight-knit group of guys who wanted to be there and help rebuild the legacy of the Nittany Lions.

“If you don't want to be here, man, then that's fine. Just go then. Because I don't want to be your teammate,” McGloin said. “That's at least my thought. If you don't want to be here, there's the door. It's kind of this all-in mentality. Us against the world.”

After everything that happened, it came down to whether or not McGloin, Mauti, the other seniors and even the incoming freshmen trusted O’Brien and where the team was heading.

They did.

They trusted the process. They trusted O’Brien’s plan. They trusted Fitzgerald, who led the team throughout summer workouts and McGloin said goes “hand-in-hand” with O’Brien.

Just like Wartman-White experienced, McGloin and those around him believed in the message O’Brien was sending.

“Every time [O’Brien] spoke to us, it was real. It was the truth. He was honest,” McGloin said. “He was passionate about the game, he was passionate about Penn State football, he was passionate about helping rebuild or helping fix or whatever word you want to use. It came down to trust.”

What the Nittany Lions had in front of them was unprecedented, and there was no script to guide them through it. That’s why Mauti felt responsible for holding the team together and displaying the historic culture at Penn State.

He said he, McGloin, Zordich and other seniors felt like they were doing what needed to be done, not just for the team but for the entire Penn State community.

“You recognized that the community was reeling. A lot of people — their sense of identity and pride within the program or relating to being a Penn Stater — that definitely took the wind out of everyone's sails,” Mauti said. “I think once we got into that sanction timeframe... we became more than football.”

Mauti said he didn’t necessarily know what he was doing then would end up being as impactful as it was, but he believed in the cause because of the tradition at Penn State.

When O’Brien took the job, he sent out a letter to alumni and past lettermen. Within a few days, there were 400+ former players at the facilities in Happy Valley, according to Mauti.

They stood in front of the team, explaining what the Penn State program meant to them. It confirmed to Mauti that he made the right decision.

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“I think we understood that our senior class had to stick it out for one year, and those underclassmen had a little bit more of an uphill battle, and so their decision was a little more difficult,” Mauti said. “I respect those guys a hell of a lot for sticking with it and all the guys that committed after us.”

Once the season rolled around, it wasn’t perfect, and it was far from it at the start.

Penn State started 0-2, dropping games to Ohio and Virginia.

Even through the rough start, McGloin’s faith in Penn State football never wavered. He never had a doubt that the Nittany Lion program would be fine — that season was even the most fun he’s ever had playing football, he said.

Then the wins started to pile up. Penn State topped Navy, then Temple, then Illinois, then Northwestern, then Iowa.

The five-game win streak finally halted at home against Ohio State, but the consistent success the Nittany Lions found when no one expected it rallied the entire Happy Valley community.

The typical energy of Beaver Stadium was back, and Penn State was sticking it to everyone who doubted the Nittany Lions.

“When we started rolling, it was more of a 'That's right' mentality. Like, 'You know, dude, we're right. We've been right this whole time. When you doubt us, this is what happens,'” McGloin said. “It was that good feeling that we were reassuring our fans… But then also [to] everybody that was criticizing us, it was kind of like 'Alright, shut up.'

“We told you we were gonna fight through this. We told you we were gonna be fine.”

The blue and white picked back up after the Ohio State loss, losing just one more game to Nebraska for a 9-4 finish on the year.

The team wasn’t able to go to a bowl, but a season-capping overtime win against Wisconsin left a pretty good taste in every Penn Stater’s mouth.

For Wartman-White, who played in two games as a true freshman before suffering an injury, said he looks back on the year fondly because of the uncertainty that brought the team together.

“I love looking back on it, because it's just one of those things that, being so young, you never knew what was actually going to happen,” Wartman-White said.

And as someone who was tasked with carrying the torch after McGloin, Mauti and others were on their way out of the program, Wartman-White appreciated the learning experiences he had through seeing the history and tradition at Penn State carried out firsthand.

“All you heard was 'Penn State's gonna die,' and all this and everything,” Wartman-White said. “It was nice to come out on the other side to see Penn State never went anywhere.”

There may be a few other programs out there that have similar history and tradition to the blue and white, but McGloin said it takes a special person and a special student-athlete to play at Penn State.

To stand up to the tradition of the school and understand that it transcends football, you have to be someone who will be consistent in your approach and your passion every single day. Mauti, McGloin and other members of the 2012 team now stand the test of time as players who exemplified that.

McGloin endured one of the most adversity laden years in Penn State and college football history, but experiencing that time and helping lead his Nittany Lions through it showed the gunslinger just what it means to be a part of the Penn State football program.

“I feel like that 2011-2012 year was the first time I realized that you carry Penn State with you for the rest of your life,” McGloin said. “It's not this four or five-year journey that you're on, it's a lifetime journey.”

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