Jay Paterno: Vandalism Tears at 'Fabric of Each School's Life'
College football has always been a game that has attracted truly passionate fans. In the game’s fiercest rivalries, fans' passions for their side run just slightly deeper than the dislike for their school’s most bitter rival.
In traveling to other stadiums, Penn State’s team has been mooned, spit on, given the one-finger salute, and had a player hit with a glass bottle. In 1976 Joe Paterno and some of the players received two weeks of serious death threats before the Pitt game. The threats continued at halftime—the phone in the Three Rivers Stadium locker room rang, and Joe was told he’d be shot if he came out for the second half.
After a tough Alabama loss to Auburn in the 2010 game, one Tide fan allegedly allowed his frustration to morph into a hate-filled act. The man allegedly drove to Auburn’s campus to poison the old live oak trees at Toomer’s Corner. For those who don’t know the Toomer’s Corner tradition, it is where students gather to toilet paper the trees after big Auburn football wins.
Legend has it the tradition of toilet-papering the trees at Toomer’s Corner began sometime in the 1960s and has continued unabated for nearly 50 years. In a high-speed, high-definition, wifi, 4G, Twitter and Facebook world where last month is ancient history, a 50-year tradition is something that has certainly stood the test of time.
I have never been to Auburn, but I know from my time in college football that each school has places and traditions that are a sacred, time-worn part of the fabric of each school’s life.
If you’ve ever seen a picture of Toomer’s Corner after a big game, you’ll know how much paper we are talking about. Does anyone doubt that corporate executives at Charmin, Cottonelle and Scott paper were rooting for Auburn in the BCS title game? The smart play on Wall Street after the BCS title game was to buy Scott paper stock—I’ll bet January sales figures were very strong.
All kidding aside, the alleged poisoning of the trees runs counter to everything true college football fans and Alabama fans are all about. Ask any Penn Stater who traveled to the Alabama game this year, and he or she will tell you stories of great hospitality and open tailgates. This one suspect has stained the tradition of Roll Tide—but the actions of one cannot mar the reputation of an entire fan base.
If football is considered a religion in the South, the poisoning of the trees at Toomer’s Corner is a lone person’s bastardization of that faith into a hateful cowardly act.
I do understand that we are talking about trees—no one was murdered or harmed physically. But if the trees die, the perpetrator will have taken something bigger than a couple of trees. Places like this on a campus are bigger than the sum of their parts. They are a common thread that binds the generations across time.
At Penn State, we have our own spots. The Nittany Lion statue may be a carved block of granite, but it has come to stand as something much larger. Each year’s Homecoming students stand guard at the shrine to protect the statue. It, too, has been targeted—from orange paint from Syracuse fans to more serious vandalism.
In 1978, after Penn State’s win over Pitt, someone broke off the right ear. Sculptor Heinz Warneke was brought over from Europe to make a mold and fix the ear. Penn State’s continuing preservation efforts underscore how much the administration values the statue’s symbolism. (Click on the gallery to the right to see a larger image of the crack, as well as one that displays it from another angle.)
It means a lot to many people, maybe no one more than Colonel David Pergrin. I met him when I was speaking at an alumni event in 1996. At age 27, Colonel Pergrin was the World War II commander of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion—a unit that engineered roads and bridges from Normandy all the way across the Rhine. He had even been awarded the Croix de Guerre for his service.
But the first thing he told me about himself: He was Penn State’s 1940 class president. His year’s class gift created the Nittany Lion Shrine, a class gift like no other. Along his life’s journey he’d become an accomplished wood carver. As a thank-you for my attendance at that event, he gave me a hand-carved Nittany Lion statue he’d made for me. It has been in my office ever since.
When I mentioned the 1978 Nittany Lion vandalism, he told me how much it had saddened him, but how glad he was that the university united, made it right and preserved the statue for the future.
I hope that Auburn will find a way to preserve its unique tradition. If the Toomer’s Corner trees do come down, I am sure that there will be grown men and women who will shed some tears. They’ll be saddened by the loss of place, the site of college memories, of youth and moments that bound them together with their fellow students.
That void will be a reminder of college football fanaticism gone awry, and a reminder that football should be a part of life, not bigger than life itself.