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Penn State Football: Years Later, The Loyalty Paid Off

by on December 04, 2016 4:45 AM

INDIANAPOLIS -- There is a silent wisdom that comes from most of Penn State's oldest players. They are some of the most unique in college football. They outlived the worst sanctions in NCAA history. They've seen multiple head coaches and multiple assistants. They've been a part of historic losses and historic wins. 

Nothing has been predictable, nothing except the guys to their right and to their left.

"Through everything we've only really had the guys in that room, the guys that wanted to stick it out," senior center Brian Gaia said after Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game win. "We play for each other, there are six guys in my class who stuck it out for the five years and you've got kids like Cabinda and who regardless of the situation they came in and they believed in what Penn State was and what Penn State is going to be."

A lot has been written about Penn State and the chemistry that this team has. It's a group that seemingly fears nothing, never gets rattled, never quits. Perhaps that's because when you've seen it all there is nothing new, nothing you haven't experienced.

It's something that makes this 2016 Penn State group so interesting. It's a team that is close because they survived not because they all just happened to get along.

They're the adventure movie cast that comes together despite different backgrounds, facing unprecedented odds, bonding over the fact they made it out alive. They were forged through a different kind of pressure. This wasn't a James Franklin pep talk or a Bill O'Brien speech. This was a group that could only rely on each other. Coaches came and went, but they could always depend on the guy in the locker next door. That's who they were playing for. That's who had their back.

"When Franklin first got here a lot of the older guys including my grade, we had gone through a coaching change with Joe Pa and then we went through a coaching change with OB," Garrett Sickels said. "The team was so tight, it was so close knit that the coaching staff just wasn't really getting through to us."

"It's just natural, things are going to happen and next thing you know it's something different. We have no hard feeling for OB or anything like that, we're extremely happy for him. But this team is so close, we committed to Penn State to win games for Penn State and win games for the tradition and make a difference."

Franklin and his staff have won over the team, but there will always be that group of players who are really just playing for each other and nothing else. There is no winning for the Gipper, just winning for the guy who didn't leave when you decided to stay too.

That in many ways is what makes Penn State's Big Ten title so special. The level of which Penn State deserved to be sanctioned by the NCAA is irrelevant in relation to the fact that young men saw a horrible situation and agreed to face it head on. They didn't pick Penn State and stay committed because of a coach. They did it because they said they would.

"I think that no matter what coach we had, we were always bought in," Sickels continued. "Because if you don't buy in you're not going to have the success you want. For us to have success we have to believe in them and believe in us and we'll always be there for each other regardless of the situation."

How far that chemistry goes is up to the new guard. Jason Cabinda is not far removed from his own decision to come to Penn State and the wide smiling linebacker knows that work is left to be done. The Nittany Lions may have returned to national relevancy, but it takes just as much effort to stay there.

But did even he expect this? If you believe his words, Cabinda knew it all along. If you believe his grin, you know that even he is a little surprised that success found its way to Happy Valley so quickly.

"It has been the goal from the start," Cabinda said of winning the Big Ten. "It has been a long road, a ton of challenges, but to see the way that the team has grown, it's the work ethic and the amount of time these guys put into it. Knowing that week after week that the week before wasn't good enough and what we did last week wasn't good enough if we want to be successful this week. The seriousness and the approach and the process and the obsession with the process is really the amazing thing about this team.

"I think that is one of the reasons why this team is so close and that's one of those things that you have to understand, that when you go through three or four different coaches and hearing different messages and to get those guys to buy in is tough. The way those guys bought into Franklin and his system and what he was preaching and what he wanted out of us, it's incredible. You have to understand it's tough, when you have coach after coach coming in, it's a different message and it's a different message. And it's hard, it's hard. To be able to see those guys stick together, that's part of the reason why this team is so close."

So as you watch the replays and watch the celebration you see tears, in part because winning a championship is simply so hard.

But you also see them because it's faith and loyalty rewarded. It's getting through the battle and seeing your brothers enjoying the victory with you on the other side.

Penn State football didn't survive the sanction era because of coaching or because of good play calls.

It survived because a group of young men stuck together and when no one else had their back, they had each other's.

And that is its own kind of special.

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