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‘An Absolute Treasure’: For 44 years, John Black has faithfully chronicled the Nittany Lions for fellow alums through 'The Football Letter'

by on November 02, 2020 11:31 AM

The first Saturday in October, John Black, longtime editor of The Football Letter, was doing something he never before could do at that time of the year. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the Penn State football season, and without a game to attend, Black and his wife took a road trip to see fall foliage.

Since 1976, Black has spent his Saturdays in the fall watching Penn State football to compile his comprehensive reports about the games for The Football Letter, a publication of the Penn State Alumni Association.

Over the past 44 years, he’s witnessed Penn State’s rise from a regional power to a national contender, two NCAA titles, upsets, season-defining games, and future NFL players. At the same time, The Football Letter has evolved from a black-and-white, two-sided sheet of paper mailed on Tuesdays to an online publication emailed with dozens of color photos to more than 130,000 alumni and fans.

“This was a report of the game written by a loyal alum like he was just sitting down and talking to an alum about the game,” says Black, a 1962 Penn State grad. “I’ve always tried to carry that feeling on. I hope to have that intimate contact with loyal alumni in describing the latest performance by these young men who are representing our university on the gridiron.”

New for Black this season is a live show each Thursday, which is organized by the Alumni Association and co-hosted by its CEO, Paul Clifford. The show is broadcast on Zoom and Facebook Live, and the recorded version is available to watch on YouTube, too. It was conceived as a way to engage football fans and alumni when the football season had initially been canceled.

Black and Clifford discuss what’s in The Football Letter for the week, and they have a guest spot, such as members of the Blue Band, former Nittany Lion mascots, and football lettermen.

Black says The Football Letter has always been something he’s volunteered to do.

He came to Penn State in 1970 for a job with the Alumni Association after working as a correspondent with the U.S. Information Agency. He helped edit the letter for its founder, Ridge Riley, and ultimately took over after Riley died in 1976. Even as Black moved to associate director and deputy director of the association, he kept attending games and sending out the letter.

Black takes his perch from the press box at home and away games. His photographer, Steve Manuel, says Black is one of the few writers, if not the only one, who doesn’t use a laptop.

“John is zooming in with his binoculars,” says Manuel, who’s shot photos for the letter for about 20 years. “He’ll make notes with a pencil. He’s probably the only one in the press box not typing.”

Black says he starts writing and making photo selections for the letter on Sunday afternoons, and he’ll wrap up late, such as at 2 or even 4 a.m. The main feature, which runs about 1,800 words, is about the football game, and he incorporates updates on other Penn State sports that are in season.

He’s had plenty of successes to write about. Through the end of the 2019 season, his letter had recounted 387 wins out of 542 games. His articles provide the details of the contest, but also the atmosphere and the buzz on campus leading up to the games, in the hope of making alumni feel the excitement if they weren’t there.

After Penn State’s 17-10 upset of Ohio State in 2005, his opening noted the weather, called the crowd the “most raucous” ever to “jam Beaver Stadium,” and said it was the first night game in three years. He went on, mentioning the “whiteout,” the annual tradition for the biggest game of the season.

“The second largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history, including the impressive student-section ‘whiteout,’ was credited by the Nittany Lions with motivating them to outplay the mighty Buckeyes and swap places with the visitors in the national polls,” Black wrote.

Even when Penn State isn’t on the winning side (think of the last-second 27-25 defeat at Michigan in 2005, when, Black points out, Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr had a few seconds put back on the clock), or when the game isn’t pretty (think Iowa 6, Penn State 4 in 2004), Black tells the story.

“You just have to keep control of your emotions and try to write any positives you can, despite the loss,” he says. “It stretches your emotions, but you just gotta do it.”

Black says his most memorable game isn’t either of Penn State’s national title wins, in 1982 and 1986 – those are Nos. 2 and 3.

Instead, it’s the 1981 game against Pitt, a 48-14 demolition of the top-ranked and unbeaten Panthers.

Here’s why: When Penn State went into Pitt Stadium on Nov. 28 to close out its regular season, the Panthers had national title aspirations and future NFL Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino at quarterback. The two teams had been ranked in the AP poll’s top 5 for six weeks in1981, and the Nittany Lions were No. 1 and the Panthers No. 2 in back-to-back weeks, until Penn State lost at Miami.

The game, and the rivalry, loomed large.

“You can’t be a young fan and understand the significance of that game, but if you’re as old as I am,” the 83-year-old Black says with a laugh, “you know what a fantastic rivalry that was.”

Marino led Pitt to scores in its first two possessions for a 14-0 lead. The game looked like a blowout, Black says, as Marino had the Panthers back in scoring position on their next possession. Marino fired a pass into the end zone, but Nittany Lions’ defensive back Roger Jackson leapt in front of the intended receiver to grab the pass. He kept a toe inbounds, saving the interception.

The momentum shifted. Penn State scored 48 unanswered points to win in a stunner and ruin Pitt’s hopes of an NCAA title.

“From that point on, there was a 180-degree turnaround,” Black says. “It was our greatest victory as an independent football program.”

Clifford, the Alumni Association’s CEO, says that as a kid, he couldn’t wait for the The Football Letter to arrive in the mail so he could read the exciting reviews of the games. He read everything, he says, and pored over the statistics.

“I grew up in a Penn State household,” Clifford says. “During football season, like clockwork, the mail would come and The Football Letter would be in it. That kind of signaled the beginning of the football weekend. I remember hanging on every word.”

Clifford says he’s honored to work with Black on the live show.

“He’s an absolute treasure,” Clifford says. “He has told other people’s stories for so long, and now we’ve kind of turned the table on him and we get to learn a little more about him.”


Mike Dawson is a freelance writer who lives in College Township.


Mike Dawson is a freelance writer in State College.
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