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Penn State Football: Don't Forget To Say Goodbye

by on November 13, 2017 12:27 PM

I get asked a lot if I'm a Penn State fan, or if seeing Penn State lose makes me unhappy. If I'm as upset about a last minute loss to Ohio State and Michigan State as everyone else.

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is a bit more complicated. 

In this line of work you get to know people. The job is in many ways just as much about building trust as it is telling stories. For some that takes time, for others they're naturally trusting.

The job means sitting down with Saquon Barkley before his sophomore season just feet from the Heisman Trophy and hearing how much winning means to him, and how hard he is on himself. It means hearing DaeSean Hamilton tell you about his self-doubt and how he has had to reinvent himself to become successful in this offense.

It means hearing Mike Gesicki tell you about his disappointments early in his career and how he had to move on in order to grow as a player. It means asking Trace McSorley following the Rose Bowl what went wrong while he sits in his locker still wearing his pads, trying to find the right words to explain it to himself as much as anyone else.

So you get to know the people behind the numbers. You aren't rooting for either result, but you know what victory and defeat means to them. I've never found it to be a crippling ethical handicap to say that knowing people and seeing their arc is a rewarding privilege, and that it is easy to be happy for someone or feel badly for them, without losing your objectivity. Empathy is not taboo, if anything it's necessary.

All told, I don't really care that Penn State has won or lost, but I feel for the people who had a hand in that result.

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Which brings us to this Penn State team. One that is living in this unenviable world of being beloved and belittled. The Nittany Lions had a very good chance to make the playoffs for the first time ever. They even (when healthy) had a punchers chance of beating anyone they faced. Penn State was right there on the cusp and for a lot of different reasons that chance has slipped through its fingers.

For fans that's a difficult pill to swallow, it's hard to know that Penn State is on the path to back-to-back 10 win seasons and still feel like it could have been better. A team en route to the kind of two year stretch that has not common for the program since joining the Big Ten. That reality feels secondary to the fact the Nittany Lions are going to come up short of their goals.

But that's sports. Basically everyone fails at the end of the year. I'm a big fan of the Eagles and the Flyers. One of those teams is going to break my heart while the other won't even get it together enough to make the playoffs. I know this, but I'm watching now anyway and I will watch again next year and the year after that. Because I'm an idiot, but in the end that's what being a fan means.

It is also true that my favorite team was a failure. The 2009-10 Flyers made the Finals as the lowest seed in the bracket. They won four straight to beat the Boston Bruins after falling behind 3-0 in the series and then again in Game 7. It was amazing and I loved it.

But they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. It broke my heart. I prayed more during that series than I've ever prayed in my life and it wasn't enough. 

And still to this day I love that team. That team never gave up, and that was all I wanted.

The point of all of this comes back to the people I get to cover and the people you root for. I get what we will call "copious" amounts of feedback about Trace McSorley and his imperfections, which to me is the insanity of fandom personified.

McSorley is without question, one of the best and more successful quarterbacks in the history of Penn State football. He has piloted one of the most entertaining teams you will ever see to one of the more improbable seasons you will ever witness. He is completing nearly 65% of his passes, which blows just about every Penn State quarterback out of the water, and rarely throws interceptions.

My point isn't to go to bat for Trace. That's not my job and I'm not going to sit here and say he is the perfect quarterback and has been perfect this year. He hasn't and I've said as much before.

But in a few days this bunch will take the field for the final time at Beaver Stadium. A team that is full of guys known by their first names. Jason, Trace, Saquon, Marcus, Mike, DaeSean and Grant. A team full of players that rebuilt your favorite college football program and won a Big Ten title. They will, for 60 minutes, be on the same field at home for one final time.

And two games beyond that, they will never play together again, scattered off in the winds to whatever might be next for them. Then 2018 will come and Penn State will look very different, with different issues and different strengths. 

I'll miss telling that story. They've been a fun bunch to watch unfold over the years, and an easy bunch of guys to like. But I'll meet new players and new stories and tell them and my life will go on. I'm looking forward to it.

But for you, that fan who sits on the edge of your seat every third down and cheers for every Barkley leap through the air, you will never get another chance to say goodbye.

And sooner rather than later, you will wish you had.



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