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Jeff Byers: Heartache, Pain Consume Friend of Sandusky Family

by on January 13, 2012 6:00 AM

My heart aches.

If the allegations against Jerry Sandusky are true, my heart aches for the young boys whose lives are altered in ways I truly cannot comprehend. If the allegations are true, my heart aches for the many lives that will never be what they should have been.

Selfishly, my heart aches for what I have lost, too. It pales in comparison to what the alleged victims have lost, but my heart aches for my own lost innocence. It obviously pales in comparison the degree and manner in which the innocence was ripped from the alleged victims, but my heart aches for my own lost innocence nonetheless.

When I first caught wind of the investigation, it was after the Second Mile golf tournament. I was told by friends in the media, including my late friend and colleague Pat Boland, that Sandusky was being investigated for molesting children. I was incredulous. “Give me a break” was my initial reaction. Either they misunderstood what the investigation was about or there was some misunderstanding on the part of the girls (at the time I assumed that the alleged victims were female).

Over the next year and a half, I heard numerous rumors and speculation about the investigation and what it might uncover. While it was clear that the story, if it ever became public, would be explosive, there was no way anyone could have anticipated the rapidity with which and the degree to which havoc would be wreaked on the university’s hierarchy.

It was surreal as I watched people I personally knew, respected and enjoyed being around get skewered. And as things have settled down a bit — at least for the time being — I am still trying to sort through my emotions. I have gone through a wide range of emotions including anger, frustration, bewilderment, confusion, and embarrassment, among many others. While I now feel some renewed determination and pride, my overwhelming emotion is still sadness.

My heart aches.

I grew up a couple of doors down from the Sanduskys, and my experience was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the boys who are making the allegations.

I could not possibly have asked for a better childhood. Growing up in Lemont, I had two loving parents whose purpose in life was to raise my sister and me in the best manner they knew. From the day I was born, I had an interest in sports, and living in State College, I was a passionate Penn State fan. In our neighborhood, we had two former Penn State players in Bob Mitinger and John Kulka and a football coach in Jerry Sandusky.

Well, not just a football coach but arguably the best defensive coordinator in the game. I was friends with all of their children and our neighborhood was a kids’ utopia. We often played our sports in the big church yard off of Branch Road. My childhood memories are of riding bikes through the cornfields to play baseball at the Dalevue fields, of playing football, whiffle ball and Ghost in the Graveyard in the church yard, of playing basketball in the Sandusky’s driveway, of sledding at Slab Cabin, of going to the movies with large groups of us, including memorable evenings at the drive-in, of going to Penn State football games, of swimming at the White’s swimming hole on Spring Creek and of walking to and from school.

We had neighborhood picnics and parties after Christmas caroling, and through it all, a contented air that life in Happy Valley was as it should be. This is not to suggest that bad things never happened here or that horrible experiences haven’t occurred here. But I never saw any of it, never felt anything but safe, secure and truly happy. My idea of a traumatic experience as a kid was a bee sting or a skinned knee. Our concerns were arguments over the best players, the best teams, the best sports, the best announcers and other important sports-related topics.

I keep thinking about how lucky I am to have had the childhood I did. It was the childhood I’d wish for all kids. We had families, including the Sanduskys, that we trusted with our care and we lived knowing that the adults would always look out for us.

I am not here to defend nor condemn Jerry Sandusky or any of the others involved in the investigation(s). I am hopeful that the legal system will properly sort out the facts and that whatever justice is needed will be meted out. I am simply here to explain why this case has so profoundly affected me and why my heart aches.

I never saw anything inappropriate with Jerry Sandusky and never heard of anything untoward. My only experiences were of playing kickball or basketball or football in the Sanduskys' yard and Jerry was a jovial, fun-loving adult who would include all of the kids in all of the games. He wasn’t around a lot, but when he was, he was just fun to be around. And so were his kids.

I was close friends with E.J., the second oldest of Jerry and Dottie’s five children (they adopted a sixth later). E.J. and I are the same age and his sister and my sister are also the same age, so it was natural we would spend a lot of time together. E.J. and I shared a passion for sports and games and we enjoyed playing and competing for hours on end. Dottie always seemed overly strict to me when I was a kid, but in retrospect, I have a great deal of respect for the way she ran the household.

With a husband who was often not home because of his coaching hours along with the children’s charity he founded, she had to have clear rules in place for the five (and eventually six) adopted children. The three children I know best, E.J., Kara and Jon, are all genuinely good people. To know them is to realize they had to have been raised well as they are all loving, caring people with a strong sense of right and wrong and a positive outlook on life. E.J. loved to kid around with my family and he got into coaching because it was a natural fit with his passion and his ability to relate with others.

Regardless of what happens in court, my heart breaks for the kids I grew up with, the family I knew, the memories I had. I admittedly lived in a Happy Valley bubble and I enjoyed it. The bubble has finally burst, perhaps long after any reasonable person would have expected.

My heart breaks for E.J. and Kara and Jon and the other Sandusky children. I know they are good people. They love their parents. They are raising children of their own and carving out their own paths in life doing the very best they can. They have done nothing wrong and yet their lives have shattered. They deserve better.

I reflect on the innocent childhoods we lived and I yearn for the untainted memories of my ideal childhood. Yes, selfishly and lastly, my heart aches for me. I loved my neighborhood and the people in it. I loved growing up with the Sandusky children and I loved the pride with which I could say I’m from Lemont, from State College, from Penn State and, yes, from Happy Valley. For me, it’s a place that had always lived up to its overly simplistic, romanticized name. 

I don’t mind telling you that I still have pride in calling the Sandusky children my friends. I still take pride in calling Happy Valley my home and Penn State my school.

I am proud of the way the Sanduskys are dealing with unimaginable circumstances, of how the university and community have responded to help the survivors of child abuse, of the neighborhood I grew up in and the memories I get to keep. I also am proud of the alleged victims for telling their stories and surviving and bringing the reality of their situations to light.

It is terribly important and my heart aches.

I have pride in Happy Valley, love my community and friends, and, my, how my heart aches.



Jeff Byers has been the wrestling team’s traveling announcer since 1990.
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