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Ben State Football: Hanging On Before Letting Go

by on January 04, 2017 1:40 PM

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- My phone says it's cold in State College. It doesn't mention rain or snow, but it's probably doing one of the two if I had to guess.

So an entire country away I'm writing this, halfway out on the Manhattan Beach pier not far from LAX, wearing shorts. Both of these things are happening simply because I can. 

And maybe so I can hang on a little bit longer like the rest of you.

I think we all, on some level, like the unexpected in sports more than the predictable. Watching Golden State run through the NBA is cool for a while, but who wouldn't have gotten a kick out of a first round upset simply because it would have been so unexpected? Watching Alabama thunder past teams is a nice display of dominant football, but do Alabama fans ever get tired of never really worrying? Everyone wants to be Alabama, but it drains the fun out of sports sometimes to never face challenges. You can never pull off the upset if you're never the underdog.

That's probably why I don't want to leave just yet, because Penn State won't have another season like this for a while.

It's not that I care about Penn State. I certainly feel for you the fan and I feel even more for the players I've gotten to watch grow over the past few years and this season. You'd have to be a cold-hearted person to walk into that losing locker room full of tears and pain and not wish just a little bit that you could give all of them a hug and tell them it'll be okay.

Aside from that I didn't have a horse in the race.

But I loved the story.

Penn State was the best thing about what sports can do. A team that wasn't good at first, finding itself, finding its confidence and keeping the momentum going. By the end of the year the Nittany Lions could have hung with anyone, and probably on the right night could have beaten anyone as well.

It was fun. It was impossible to watch and not just shake your head as Trace McSorley threw passes in the air that no coach would ever advise and see Chris Godwin come down with them more often than not. It was insane to watch Saquon Barkley bend time and space itself to slip past defenders. It was hilarious to watch teams try and figure out what in the hell Penn State was doing and having no answer to the insanity. It was rewarding to see Mike Gesicki go from a season of struggles to one of the best a Penn State tight end has ever had.

That kind of feeling won't last in 2017. The problem with success is that on some level it sucks the fun out of it. When you're knee-deep in the process, the ups and downs are handled better, the stakes feel high but not dire and the losses are expected. None of the teams I root for have won anything in my lifetime, but I watch the Flyers all the same and I do my best to stomach whatever it is the Eagles are doing.

Next year though, that story will change. From the outset people will expect a lot and for the first 4-6 weeks they will probably get it. Even that will undoubtedly slowly ratchet up the pressure, turning it into a sour and anxious mess if things go south. You could even see it this season, the fun of Penn State's unexpected run turning into the tension of the bigger and bigger games.

Maybe that's fine. I'm an eternal optimist and the better you get in sports the harder it becomes to hand out a pass for mistakes. Teams don't play to perpetually be one year away. You aren't playing so you can feel good about how close you are to something special. This job by its very nature is a one full of critique and I'm more apt to give you the benefit of the doubt than not. It's just who I am. I like watching growth, and I'm somewhat indifferent to massive winning streaks. So maybe I'm just wrong.

That's not to say I'm not looking forward to next season. Penn State will continue to be a fun team to watch, largely populated by easy-to-like players. You don't get into this profession to constantly cover average teams. I may not be invested in Penn State, but that doesn't mean I want to spend my career watching .500 football. Even I could use a break from explaining the sanctions to people.

But right now I'm just happy to sit on this pier and watch a lone Penn State fan, still seemingly dressed as he was two days ago, wade around in the surf. We both probably have a plane to catch later today and a 2017 season to look forward to.

But maybe he doesn't want to let go just yet either.

I know I don't.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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