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New to the Student Section at Age 66

by on November 28, 2018 6:00 AM

It felt strange to feel strange in Beaver Stadium. After all, I grew up in nearby College Heights and attended my first game at the Beav in 1961. I’ve been to scores of games there ever since, sitting in the north, east and west stands and in the old south bleachers. I’ve sat in the press box and stood behind the home team’s bench.

But there I was, for the first time in my life, watching football from the student section of Beaver Stadium. At the tender age of 66. Of course, I knew there was no way I could fit in with the crowd around me. I felt like an animal in the zoo, with my gray hair communicating my identity like an elephant’s trunk or a giraffe’s neck.    

So why did I take my creaking body to the student section last Saturday, despite the cold and constant drizzle, to watch the game against Maryland? Well, for many years, I’ve been curious to know more about the culture that exists in the lower deck of the south side, the culture that perennially ranks among the nation’s most spirited.   

A GREAT OCCASION

When my good friend Yu, a Ph.D. student from China, invited me to join him for his last game at Beaver Stadium, my answer was an enthusiastic yes. Adding to the attraction was the occasion: quarterback extraordinaire Trace McSorley would be playing his last home game. And I knew that Yu’s sense of humor would help me relax among the kids. As he suggested before the game, “You’ll probably be older than everyone else in our row combined.”

I was all eyes after we took our “seats” in Section SJ. (Of course, no one actually sits in the student section.) The students sang both the national anthem and the Penn State Alma Mater with appropriate respect, even devotion. I couldn’t help but recall that, in my undergraduate days, the lyrics of choice for the Alma Mater were, “We don’t know the @S#X% words.”

Beach balls floated anywhere and everywhere. Aptly chosen songs entertained the crowd during TV timeouts, none more appropriate on this wet day than Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen Rain?” And every positive play by the Nittany Lions was rewarded with roars and feverish use of blue-and-white shakers.

NASTY WEATHER; WELL-BEHAVED KIDS

I had been told to expect an abundance of profanity, especially when a referee or opposing player provided an excuse for anger. I had also been told that I would probably smell weed and would certainly observe drunken kids. But none of that was in evidence; just lots of noisy fun. I decided that the vast majority of Penn State’s student fans are actually very well-behaved and that Saturday’s nasty weather weeded out the negative ones.     

At my request, those standing nearby were happy to offer their comments about the Penn State student section:

  • Daniel Cetnar, a Ph.D. student from Bellefonte, said that he loves being in the student section “just for the energy of it” and added that “It’s so fun to be with 110,000 of your closest friends.  He had one tip to offer: “You’ve got to get your sleep the night before and get ready to go.”

  • Brielle Hohne, a Ph.D. student from State College, has attended many games while sitting with the general public and she said, “It’s more fun in the student section. I feel like you should stand for all sports, but you can only stand (for football) in the student section.”

  • Yu noted the noise levels that Penn State students produce during a big game. “I think the peak volume is 120 decibels,” said the doctoral student in aeronautical engineering. “An aircraft takeoff is about 130 db, and a rocket’s takeoff — if you’re a mile or two away from it — is about 120. Penn State’s student section is always loud, always crazy, always exciting.  You never get bored here.”

  • Patrick Bachman, an undergrad from State College, spoke highly of his experiences in the stadium’s south end. “I think the student section is so dynamic. You want to feed off that and totally take it in.” And then, knowing that I had graduated from Penn State in 1974 but never been to the student section, he challenged me a bit. “Why haven’t you been here?” he said.  “Why has it taken you so long?”

I told Patrick that I had served with the Sports Information Department during the four football seasons during my student days (one season behind Coach Joe Paterno’s bench; three seasons in the press box), but I’m not sure he was satisfied by that answer. To be honest, now that I’ve been to the student section, I’m also not so sure I’m satisfied with that response. Sure, I loved everything about the press box in the early ‘70s—the pay, the free food, the warm and dry conditions and the chance to get a bird’s-eye view of John Cappelletti’s Heisman Trophy season. But as much as I loved my experiences in that big metal box, I’m wondering now if I gave up too many fun times with my friends.

With Penn State leading at halftime by 17-3, I figured it was permissible to escape the noise and the cold for a few minutes. Yu and I paid a visit to Mark McFall, a Beaver Stadium usher for the last 28 years who is in charge of the student section. Mark led us to his little office under the west stands where eight of his supervising ushers including his son, Marcus, were crowded together.


Patrick Bachman (back row, left) and his friends join in the pre-game singing of Penn State’s Alma Mater.

VETERAN USHERS

After noting that I had chosen a very mellow day to visit the student section, Mark introduced Yu and me to his leaders — a group of veterans. TJ Lamphere has been serving since 1996 when he was a Penn State sophomore. Lou Russell has been driving in from Erie for the last 19 years. And Bill Wolford mentioned that “I started here before I had kids, and now I’ve got three grandkids.”

I asked these supervisors why they have served for so long with minimal pay and major responsibilities (the student section has 20,000 seats). The answer came in two parts.  A man in the back said, “Because we are Penn State…” And then Mark quickly added, “and we love the kids.” Then he elaborated. “I think, by and large, you will notice how nice the kids are. Those that use profanity and the ones that are a pain in the patoot are the minority. I will say that the negative ones have grown more negative as I’ve gotten older. But we’re here because we like the kids, the vast majority of kids in the student section.”

The second half of the game moved along quickly and uneventfully, apart from the heroics of McSorley and Yetur Gross-Matos, an emerging superstar at defensive end. Despite countless additional TV timeouts, the students maintained their energy as they fed off Lion heroics and the musical fun being supplied by such tunes as “Baby Shark,” “YMCA,” “Sweet Caroline” and “Livin on a Prayer.”


These supervising ushers are responsible for the 20,000-seat student section. Mark McFall and his son, Marcus, are wearing the light blue coats. 

ALMA MATER, WIN OR LOSE

Best of all, however, was the last song: the post-game singing of Penn State’s Alma Mater. Yu said this is one of his favorite moments in the student section. “I like singing the Alma Mater with everybody holding each other’s shoulders like we are a big family, and we are. I love the fact that even when we lose the game, students stay there singing the song — supporting the team.”

This was no loss; the Nittany Lions prevailed over the Terrapins, 38-3. But as happy as the moment was, a bit of melancholy gripped the students since everyone knew that the magnificent McSorley and other seniors had just played their last home game.

My wife will tell you that the aging process has tenderized my heart. Yes, I’m an old softie these days, so I’ll admit my eyes were moist as I locked arms with these Penn State kids, reflected on McSorley’s legendary career and sang to the glory of old State. It was a great time in the Beaver Stadium student section. I wish I would have visited 45 years earlier.  

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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