Penn State Football: Warner’s Rush of Nostalgia Highlights 1982 Championship Reunion
One-by-one, they checked in with their families at the big white tent behind the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday.
A handful were still in playing shape, others were carrying a few extra pounds.
Some had a full head of hair, others had thinning hair sprinkled with gray. Some had simply no hair at all.
Some wore their 1982 national championship rings. Others didn’t.
In all, more than 50 players turned out this weekend to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of Penn State football’s first national title.
The team was recognized at a tailgate function before the game and honored again at halftime of Penn State's 24-13 win over Temple at Beaver Stadium.
“It’s always nice to get together with the guys,” said former All-American tailback Curt Warner, whose son Jonathan is a freshman wide receiver on the current team. “We share something that few others can share – we were part of the first recognized national championship team at Penn State.
“It’s a special bond. It’s something that can never be taken away from us.”
Todd Blackledge, Warner’s roommate and best friend, tossed the game-winning touchdown pass in the 1983 Sugar Bowl to cap the Nittany Lions’ first national title under Joe Paterno.
Blackledge called the play – Six-43. The Sugar Bowl MVP faked a handoff to tailback Warner, faded back and threw deep to wide receiver Gregg Garrity down the sideline.
Garrity's hands did the rest.
The one-time walk-on made a diving, 47-yard fourth-quarter touchdown catch to seal a 27-23 victory over Heisman winner Herschel Walker and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, as Penn State finished 11-1.
Garrity’s acrobatic reception still remains a sweet memory today.
“That was a special end to a special season,” Warner said.
Garrity's end zone celebration appeared on the cover of the Jan. 10, 1983, issue of Sports Illustrated, under the headline "No. 1 at last!"
"I never get tired of talking about that catch. Everywhere I go, someone mentions it," Garrity once told me.
Blackledge served as ESPN’s color analyst for Saturday night’s LSU-Auburn game and could not attend the reunion. He wasn’t forgotten, that’s for sure.
It was Blackledge who threw 12 touchdown passes in the first three games of the 1982 season. Penn State sandwiched easy wins against Temple and Rutgers around a shootout victory against Maryland and Boomer Esiason.
The fourth game, a pulsating 27-24 home win against Nebraska, is regarded as one of the most exciting – yet controversial – games in Beaver Stadium history.
After Turner Gill's 1-yard touchdown staked the Cornhuskers to a 24-21 lead with 1:18 to play, Blackledge marched Penn State down the field. His 15-yard pass to tight end Mike McCloskey near the left sideline – there's still plenty of debate as to whether it was inbounds and a legal catch – put the ball at the 2.
Blackledge then rifled a low throw in the end zone to seldom-used tight end Kirk Bowman. Bowman cradled the ball just above the grass for his second touchdown catch with four seconds left, giving Penn State an improbable victory.
Penn State wasn't so lucky against Alabama in week five. The Crimson Tide spoiled the Lions' unbeaten season with a resounding 42-21 victory in the final coaching matchup between Paterno and Paul "Bear" Bryant.
After that resounding loss, it seemed improbable that Penn State would win the national championship.
Somehow, the Nittany Lions pulled it off, winning the final six games.
Among the highlights in the final six weeks, Penn State:
- Blanked West Virginia, led by former Penn State quarterback Jeff Hostetler;
- Withstood Doug Flutie's 520-yard passing barrage at Boston College;
- Shut out North Carolina State, then rallied for victories against Notre Dame and Pitt before stopping No. 1 Georgia and Walker on New Year’s Day in New Orleans.
“We had so much talent that year, and nobody gave up after we lost to Alabama,” said Joel Coles, who split fullback duties with Jon Williams in 1982. “That team also had a lot of heart. We just didn’t give up.”
Coles, who played in the short-lived USFL and now works for FedEx in Pittsburgh, accompanied his wife and daughter, a sophomore at Penn State, to Saturday’s reunion.
“I see a lot of faces I recognize, but I just can’t put a name with all of them,” Coles said, laughing. “It seems like every bit of 30 years to me.”
A short time later, Coles hugged Warner, who along with Blackledge, was instrumental in leading Penn State to a 31-5 record in their three seasons.
Warner was the third overall pick of the Seattle Seahawks in the 1983 NFL Draft. Blackledge was taken four spots later by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Warner led the AFC in rushing as a 22-year-old rookie and was a three-time Pro Bowler when he retired in 1989 after seven seasons in the NFL.
He was inducted into the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor in 1994 and enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in December 2009. He owns a Chevrolet car dealership in Vancouver, Wash.
Warner realizes that the harsh sanctions handed down by the NCAA in wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal are going to make it tough for Penn State to be competitive in coming years.
Still, he credits Penn State for making him the man he is today – a respected businessman employing dozens of people, a devoted father, a caring husband and the volunteer leader of a local charity.
“Penn State is Penn State and the football tradition is the football tradition,” said Warner, who has attended two games this season.
“I’m not going to allow that stuff to interfere with my experiences and life lessons learned here.”