Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
Paul Simon wrote that when he was 21. He was full of hope.
My Saturday held such promise.
After an early-morning hike in Spring Creek Canyon, I did what has been my custom whenever I (rarely) leave home: I took a slow drive through campus, past the stadium, the IM fields, the HUB, the Lion Shrine and what is shaping into the Bellisario Media Center.
I looked and up down The Mall, imagining classes changing and the flow of thousands of students.
Forty-two years and three grown children after first arriving at University Park, I miss it. All of it.
If you are reading this, I know you do too.
Saturday's cruise was, as usual...as always these days...eerily silent.
But there were a few signs of hope.
There was the social distanced line at The Creamery, with a few folks scattered outside and eating cones. A few teenagers were touring the campus with their mom and dad. The campus lawns and flower beds and trees were as beautiful and manicured and precise as you remember.
And driving along Park Avenue, there was soccer. Inside the practice fields, in the shadow of the Jeffery Field eastside bleachers, a row of 10 men’s soccer players, clad in blue shirts and blue shorts performing windmills, practicing leg kicks on their backs and stretching big bands. Two grey T-shirted trainers hovered. A golf cart with big orange Gatorade coolers was nearby. Red and yellow cones dotted the middle of the field, two soccer nets empty but ready. I did not see a soccer ball.
Reality: Outside the gates, what was once a ticket booth is now a medical check-in station, with a masked staffer who took temperatures and asked questions.
I made a left turn down University Drive and headed over to the football complex: Lasch, Holuba, the East Area locker room, the parking lot that is now a construction zone. And across the way, in the distance, was football. Penn State was practicing. There were dozens and dozens of players and coaches.
Like a little kid looking through a walled outfield fence to get a glimpse of a baseball game generations ago, I stood in the parking lot, gazing through a utility fence at what was happening a football field away, watching the practice. All I saw was movement and energy and lots of running. All I heard was whistles, horns and what I think was the uniquely semi-Southern drawl of D-coordinator Brent Pry.
No silence. Sounds. Sounds of football.
Football practice — sans helmets and pads — officially started Friday. James Franklin & Co. have to think...believe...there will be football this fall. Under the hot Saturday morning sun, they seemed to be willing it to happen.
So, from afar, despite all the protocols and new variations of CJF’s already tightly-regimented SOP, there was a small sense of normalcy, of hope. Not just for Nittany Lion football and soccer, but of all sports.
Of Russ Rose and his grumbled musings, delivered an hour before practice on his eponymous bench outside Rec Hall. Of Char Morett-Curtiss, giving her field hockey team a post-practice pep talk then hopping on her bike and pedaling home. Of a real game this fall inside Jeffrey Field, featuring the best (and nicest) woman collegiate player in the nation, Sam Coffey.
English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller was the first to put in writing: "It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth."
Maybe, I thought, there will be sports in that fall. Even if it is a 3.14159% chance. Pie in the sky, right?
That Saturday was eight years and a day after the NCAA levied onerous and unfair sanctions on Penn State, full of malfeasance, was not lost on me. CoVID-19? Hell, PSU beat Mark Emmert and Ed Ray and Lou Anna Simon. That is in the PSU DNA. I never forget that. The day before, as is often my custom on that anniversary, I texted a note of gratitude to Bill O'Brien for his salvation of the program and, in some ways, its university.
“Unbelievable” that it’s been that long, replied OB in 18 minutes. “Love Penn State. Hope all is well.”
Um, kinda sorta.
Then Sunday morning — darkness.
Scrolling through Twitter on the bright light of my phone, just as the sun was rising, I came across the darkness. Again. I had missed it on Saturday:
Rutgers football halts voluntary workouts, quarantines team.
This follows a rash of positive tests and subsequent quarantines among the football programs at Michigan State (as recently as Thursday) and Maryland and Ohio State... you get the idea.
So much for “safe” division games. Penn State — and Penn State football — now more than ever, is in a bubble. The campus is theirs. But while the Big Ten may say it is going it alone, all 14 member schools are in the same boat.
The Big Ten Conference may be able to cancel the Nittany Lions’ football games with Kent State, Virginia Tech and San Jose State. But it cannot deny that there are 98 different fall sports teams, on 14 campuses scattered against 11 states, with a combined 598,980 undergraduates. Any and all conference-only games of any sort this fall mix and match those schools, student bodies and community populations.
Look to no less than an authority than Penn State alumna Deborah Birx, M.D. (Penn State College of Medicine, Class of 1980). Late last week, the doctor gave a list of the next 12 potential hot spots in the United States. Not a poll where you want to be ranked. The Big Ten was well-represented, not for better and potentially much worse.
There was Minneapolis, home of the University of Minnesota (and one of my sons). There’s Columbus, home of the Ohio State University. There was Baltimore, 32 miles from the University of Maryland. There’s Indianapolis, less than an hour from Bloomington and the University of Indiana. And there is Pittsburgh...near... um, ah... State College, and home to thousands and thousands of Penn State undergrads, due back in a few very quick weeks.
Penn State reports that it has had just one person from athletics turn up positive for the coronavirus in tests administered on campus. That’s a far, far cry from the legions at Clemson...or MSU, for that matter...
Penn State athletics has to take pride in that, as well as in its athletes assembling from near and far.
It’s now a whole new kind of #oneteam.
Darkness falls quickly. And so, too, have the Scarlet Knights.
Happy Valley, as much as we like to think otherwise, is not immune to the outside world. Or the forces of nature. Unfortunately. Sunday’s reported number of coronavirus cases in Centre County being nearly four times the previous high is a new reminder of that.
On Sunday, I decided to hike alone on a fire road in Rothrock State Forest — part-solitude, part-social distancing, all the while knowing full well on August 25 I'll be facing 83 students seated in person before me, our masks on and six feet apart, with another 22 attending via Zoom.
(I'll tell you what I am not going to do: Allow an additional 83 students from Michigan or Ohio State or Rutgers to fly in and sit in on a class one day, in the seats next to my own 83, whether they’ve been tested or not. Eric Barron and Nick Jones wouldn't allow it, anyway. When the Buckeyes, for instance, come to town for a game, they are coming from a campus where they just had classes and house parties with 61,170 other students. Contact trace that.)
Happy Valley is both a place and a mindset, as the late historian Nadine Kofman pointed out when she wrote of the definitive origin of the phrase (read it here), which came from former Penn State debate team coach Pat O’Brien, about seven decades ago, when he and his wife Harriet moved, she said, "from city life to bucolic life."
“Looking at it from the viewpoint of the fellow who is credited with coining it,” Kofman wrote, “Happy Valley is a positive state of mind.”
Unfortunately, be you in Piscataway or Columbus or East Lansing, being positive in The Year of the Coronavirus, is a negative. As in not good. In that way, even against our bitterest rivals — in football and in life — we are all in this together.