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Penn State Football: The Students, Let’s Not Forget Them, As Well

by on August 30, 2012 9:25 PM

“The students.”

Bill O’Brien was in a contemplative mood at his desk this summer, early one morning after the coaches caravan and before Freeh and the NCAA sanctions, when he uttered those words, then added:

“We need everyone’s support. But at the top of the list is students.”

As has been the case with just about everything else since Jan. 5, O’Brien gets it.

The students are the business, and the heart and soul and resiliency, of Penn State.

The students, inside the stadium, are 21,000 strong – the second-largest student section in America. On Saturday, they’ll be loud. They are expected to be out in force, although the noon kick is admittedly a challenge. “We need the students leading us inside the stadium,” the head coach said this summer. “We need them to lead the way.”

Truer now more than ever, no matter what blares over the loudspeakers. And I would suspect that in a show of support, they will not be late-arriving. At least I hope so.

The students are respectful of the circumstances of the past 10 months, and many student groups have pledged support of the fight against child abuse by holding events, establishing programming and approaching fundraising with a fervor honed on THON.

But most of all -- if this past week is any indication -- the students are focused primarily on moving forward, in their classrooms and in their lives on the University Park campus. In the HUB, on Old Main lawn, joining the hordes walking along the Mall as classes change. Penn State is distinctly their community and their most integral support system through Dec. 21.

Now, that does not match a lot of the media's narrative. I sat down this week with a writer from a national newspaper, who was focused on the negative ramifications of the past year. And I know they are there.

“But the students,” I said, “they are the core of the university. And the way they have moved on and not been so totally consumed by what’s transpired, unlike so many outside beyond the campus, is important. They are mindful of what happened, but they are an important part of moving forward too. Talk to them.”

The students are the 135 kids who showed up Tuesday night for the first meeting of Nittanyville (formerly Paternoville).

At the meeting, the leaders of the official student organization explained the name change. There was one question about it, though not even of true dissent. The 10 officers of the group voted on the change over the summer, after considerable conversation following a long, very inclusive process. It was unanimous.

The students who comprise Nittanyville are apolitical in that they want to concentrate on supporting the team and, ipso facto, their university, with their front-row cheers and body paint and banners (PSU has allotted more room for those in 2012) and quite honestly, the experience and the memory-building.

The students didn’t want to get caught up in the explosive interchange that would have happened if they kept the former name, so they respectfully – talking with a very compassionate Jay Paterno, as one example -- went generic.

A very angry alum called me Wednesday afternoon, livid about the name change. I said, “It’s the student’s group. It’s their decision. I support them, so I support it. It wasn’t against Joe, it was for Penn State. They were getting angry emails, threats, and they wanted to change the focus.”

The students are Matt McGloin, the starting quarterback.

McGloin's mind is on football, but also on the classroom, where we chatted Wednesday as he arrived for his class and I departed mine. He graduated with one degree in May and is diligently working on a second, with upper-level, decidedly non-cake courses this fall. Counter that with USC’s Matt Leinart, who took only ballroom dancing his final season.

(McGloin is not an anomaly. For example, Chima Okoli, a recent two-starter at offensive tackle, got three degrees by the time he left Penn State. “I wanted to get all I could out of my scholarship,” he told me as we talked of career options beyond football.)

The students are the 21 freshmen in a colleague’s first-year seminar.

It's a one-credit course designed to integrate them into the world of Penn State academics, the classroom and “to orient you to the scholarly community from the outset of your undergraduate studies” and “to facilitate your adjustment to the high expectations” of Penn State.

The students were asked that as incoming freshmen if they had any trepidation about coming to Penn State. One admitted to a bit of uneasiness, 20 did not. They did say they absorbed some unfavorable comments over the summer, to be sure. But they were unwavering in their decision. It’s a large one, too, with an out-of-state freshman braced to pay $169,052 for their four years of learning (assuming an annual increase of 3 percent and no grants-in-aid or scholarship).

The students, at least many of them, traveled a long way to be a part of Penn State. In my freshman class, they came from many states – including two from California, where they lived less than an hour apart but never met until they were in a small classroom in Willard, 2,571 miles from home.

Only two of the 20 kids in class knew each other before 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday. Less than an hour later, at the end of class, they were so loud, so excited, so much new friends, that I had to tell them to be quiet.

The students are Danny Jenkins, a former cheerleader, who when he wasn't not on the field sold football programs.

This fall, he's concentrating on the books and his fourth internship on campus. Jenkins has worked with the Undergraduate Student Association, was a freshman peer mentor for two years and he has a GPA of 3.76. If my daughter were a few years older, I’d even allow her go out with him.

I work with scores of terrific alumni. They are an important part of Penn State, usually unwavering in their support. I’ve seen hundreds reach out to their alma mater, with two major motivations, through the years. One is their experience as a Penn State student. And two is a hunger to help current Penn State students. (Football is third.)

The students are the players who will be on the football field Saturday.

They have learned valuable lessons since November – life lessons they could not have conceived of when they committed to Penn State over the past few years. And then re-committed again this summer. Another life lesson, to be sure.

Football and otherwise, I have had athletes and kids of all stripes and colors in class since I began teaching at Penn State 13 years ago. With hundreds and hundreds of students, I’ve not just had a front row seat – I’ve had the spot in front of the front row seat.

And now, more than ever, I believe students are the best part of Penn State.

Let’s not forgot them, as well.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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