Four Years Later: A Townie’s Take On Penn State’s Past And Future

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I remember sitting in my junior English class at State College Area High School (benevolently referred to as State High by townies like myself) when I first heard the rumors. Of course, my classmates and I had no idea what was about to unfold over the next few days, months, and years after that fateful November day four years ago.

I’ve been attending Penn State football games for as long as I can remember. Nothing spells fall quite like a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Beaver Stadium. It’s a cherished part of the year for countless Penn Staters, including those who support the team from afar, representing the largest dues-paying alumni association in the world. But even I, an avid Nittany Lion fan, had barely heard of Jerry Sandusky. I recognize that was hardly the prevailing sentiment though. As I came to learn, Sandusky was an esteemed member of the community who many believed could do no wrong. Obviously that proved to be nowhere near the truth, as he steadily ripped the foundation of this town from its roots for years without anyone knowing.

It’s hard to believe it’s been four whole years since the Penn State community was rocked to its core. I can’t speak to what it was like for students on campus at that time; only the last four graduating classes can attest to that, but as a State College citizen, it was a time of confusion and despair. As for the victims, I can’t even imagine the kind of hurt they went through, or the courage it took to stand in their truth and speak up. We must always remember, no matter how many measures are put in place to stop atrocities like this, to acknowledge the victims for their bravery first and foremost.

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Looking back on the events following Sandusky’s arrest and the subsequent house-clearing of the university’s main figures, a few things are still somewhat puzzling to me. I’m not sure why the Penn State Board of Trustees elected to hand down the infamous news that Joe Paterno was “no longer the head football coach, effective immediately” after 45 years, regardless of the dire scrutiny at the time, late on a Wednesday night. The ensuing riot not only painted Penn State in a very bad light, but also caused plenty of damage to downtown State College as well as the university’s psyche. Why not wait until the following morning, when students were already busy going about their days, to hold a press conference? The students’ actions at the time cannot be excused, but the BoT certainly didn’t do them any favors.

This column is about how far the Penn State community has come since Nov. 5, 2011, not what could or should have been done differently four years ago. In the year or two following the scandal, I was surprised by the amount of people I met outside of Centre County that still didn’t understand what Penn State actually stands for. It wasn’t their fault, though, because today’s society as a whole tends to ask the question “what have you done for me lately?” far too often. In 2011, outsiders sought to roast every member of the Penn State community with the same, pointed questions being broadcast across America and the world. Terrible things happened at Penn State, that’s the plain and awful truth, but the misguided failures of a few don’t come close to reflecting the community’s willingness to step up in the fight against child abuse.

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While Bill O’Brien held the football team together during the darkest hours in the university’s history, and plenty of progress has been made on the field under James Franklin, nothing will ever be quite the same as it was. That sentiment doesn’t reflect pessimistically in my eyes, though, because the hurt that everyone felt, and will remember forever, serves as a guiding light to ensure the same mistakes aren’t made elsewhere. Grave mistakes were undoubtedly made in the years leading up to the scandal, but we are also undoubtedly stronger, more compassionate people after learning that a community can come together and make the necessary changes, no matter how many outside opinions gash its character along the way.

Two summers ago, while at a health and wellness workshop in upstate New York, it came up that I was a student at Penn State. This woman I was talking to admittedly had no clue about the positive things going on at University Park. I brought up the fact that THON is the largest student-run, philanthropic organization in the world, and explained a little about how it sets a tremendous example in the fight against pediatric cancer each year. In that moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride in the place I’m privileged to call home.

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There is a remarkable amount of resiliency in Happy Valley, and it was put on full display in front of a global audience in the months and years following the scandal. Even after the NCAA overstepped its bounds, handing down perhaps the most severe sanctions on a college program ever, Penn State didn’t crumble.

Current New Orleans Saint and beloved Nittany Lion linebacker Michael Mauti said it best when he and teammate Michael Zordich gave brief, yet incredibly moving remarks outside of the Lasch Building on July 25, 2012. “We take this as an opportunity to create our own legacy. This program was not built by one man, and this program’s sure as hell not gonna be torn down by one man. This program was built on every alumni, every single player that came before us; built on their backs.” Critics called Penn State a university with a “culture problem” of putting football on a pedestal. But I would argue that this program will always serve as an example of the outstanding pride and dedication to “success with honor” both on and off the field.

Then, when the sanctions were lifted midway through last season, the sky continued to clear. It’s a process that is certainly ongoing, but the foundation is in place to reach greatness once again. Heading into the Northwestern game this weekend in Evanston, Ill., Penn State has gone a combined 29-17 since the start of 2012. ESPN on-air personality Stephen A. Smith tweeted the following on July 13, 2012: “there’s no future at Penn State for the foreseeable future. Minimum next five years.” Well, the past four seasons have been unorthodox, that much is certain, but you simply can’t call them a failure. In fact, the future is growing brighter each day. Franklin’s squad has a chance to knock off its first ranked opponent in the No. 21 Wildcats Saturday, but the optimism surrounding this team stretches far beyond the last three weeks of the 2015 regular season.

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This is not “just a football school,” though. Of course, football is a big part of fall in Happy Valley, helping local businesses to flourish and providing an escape from the daily grind of classes and work for students, fans, and alumni. But the same can be said for countless Division I programs across the nation. What makes Penn State different is the compassion and connection with our peers that we’re encouraged to enjoy. There is a niche where every student, faculty, and staff member alike can become involved and truly make a difference in the lives of others. The beauty of this place, both visceral and physical, is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Sure, winters in State College provide a constant struggle in terms of motivating oneself to walk to class amid negative wind chills, but I’ll gladly layer up in pursuit of a degree from what I believe is the greatest all-around university this country has to offer.

Thankfully fall is still in full effect, though the gorgeous summer-like weather of late may beg to differ. The aura of tradition runs deep here, but like any great institution, students and community members alike are again in the midst of a shift toward the unexpected. Penn State’s compass is dialed in on the future, but where will it lead next? That part is up to each and every one of us. How will you leave your mark on this place?

Time will continue to press on, downtown will experience more changes as the skyline above State College evolves, but a few things will always remain constant here: the endless opportunities to find oneself, a chance to connect with the people and things that make one happy, and the feeling of camaraderie you’re forever a part of as a member of the Penn State family.

Photo By: Kevin Cacela
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About Author

Ethan Kasales

Ethan Kasales is a townie who grew up in Lemont, a few minutes from campus. He's majoring in Journalism and has a passion for Spanish. Ethan's a lifelong Penn State football fan and loves talking all types of sports with whoever will listen. In the winter, when it's way too cold in Happy Valley to play golf, he teaches snowboarding at Tussey Mountain. If you ever want to learn how to ride, he'd love to teach you. Ethan enjoys whistling along to everything from Bruce Springsteen to Action Bronson. You can follow him @easyEKasales or email ethan@onwardstate.com.

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