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Lou Prato: We Are . . . Cheer was Years in the Making

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the printed edition of Blue White Illustrated on Oct. 17, 2011.

‘We are… Penn State!’

It’s a cheer that has become as symbolic of the university — and especially its football team — as the Nittany Lion mascot.

The cheer is so popular among the Penn State cognoscenti that it is often shouted throughout the world by strangers wearing something that ties them to their Penn State background.

What most of the fans saying those now-famous four words don’t realize is that the cheer has its roots in two of the football team’s most intense rivalries, and with two other opponents, going back to its origin in the late 1970s. Furthermore, the cheer was not an instant hit when first used by Penn State’s cheerleaders on Sept. 11, 1976, at Beaver Stadium, and it took nearly a half dozen years to really catch on.

For decades, the most popular Penn State cheers were ‘N-I? Double-T? A-N? Y? Roar, Lions, Roar,’ known as ‘The Nittany Lion,’ and another one called ‘Short Yell State,’ which went like this: ‘S… T… A? T… E… State… State… State!’ To this day, some old-time traditionalists are upset about the demise of those cheers and would like to see them return in some form. Sam Flemming, the head cheerleader in 1958-59, suggests integrating the new cheer with the old cheers.

‘Instead of closing with ‘Thank you… You’re welcome,’ Flemming said from his home in Berkley, Calif., ‘the cheer continues briefly after the last ‘We are… Penn State’ exchange, and finishes with ‘N-I… Double-T… A-N… Y… Roar, Lions, Roar’ still alternating across the stadium. That last ‘Roar’ could be shouted in unison by both ends of the stadium or ‘Roar… Lions… Roar’ can all be in unison.

If that seems too complicated, Flemming would like to see ‘Short Yell State’ as the close in place of ‘The Nittany Lion.’

‘ ‘N-I? Double-T?’ was the only cheer everyone in the stadium knew because the Blue Band would do it before the game with its hats as a way to get the crowd going,’ said Bob Krimmel, a former cheerleader and the cheerleader advisor from 1975-77. ‘So the cheerleaders would repeat it several times during the game because the people would respond to it.’

Krimmel went on to coach Penn State’s men’s swimming team for 17 years before spending seven years as assistant athletic director. Now the athletic director at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa., he said Penn State cheerleading changed in the late 1970s. ‘It went from being just with megaphones and doing a chant to all the type of stunts that are done now,’ he said. ‘We had a group of kids who wanted to be creative and we went to [cheerleading] camps and watched games on TV to try and find new cheers.’

George Dennis, the cheerleading captain in 1977, remembers how quiet Beaver Stadium was in the mid-1970s, when the facility had a seating capacity of about 60,000. ‘The West side of the stadium where the press box is was dead in those years,’ Dennis said. ‘Back then, when the team came out, we’d have the fans stomp their feet. You’d put your arms up, and the hair would literally stand up on your arms because of the vibration. That was an unbelievable feeling, and so we wanted to try and generate that kind of enthusiasm all through the stadium during the games.’

Tom Twardzik, another cheerleader during that period, said the cheerleading squad not only wanted to get fans more involved, but specifically wanted to energize the alumni, adding wryly, ‘The older and larger the crowd, the more simple the cheer has to be.’

When the cheerleaders accompanied the 1975 football team to Columbus for its third game of the season, they were thunderstruck by the energy and enthusiasm of the 88,000 fans in the Horseshoe.

‘We watched as this loud roar of ‘O-H’ rolled down the field to an ‘I-O,’ ‘ recalled Don Mains, then a sophomore and the Penn State ‘mic man,’ the cheerleader who leads the crowd in cheers with a microphone.

‘It was phenomenal,’ said Dennis, another sophomore at the time. ‘They started to do this ‘O-H? I-O’ back and forth. We were impressed.’

That experience inspired the cheerleaders, but they weren’t sure how to instill the Buckeyes’ spirit and liveliness in the seemingly stoic Nittany Lion crowd. Part of the answer came a few weeks later while the cheerleaders watched a televised game from the Los Angeles Coliseum. None of the Penn State cheerleaders can remember the opponent, but when they saw the USC cheerleaders leading the home crowd in a rapid chant of ‘We are SC!’ they knew they were on to something. The USC cheer was fast-paced, with only a slight pause between the ‘We are’ and the ‘SC.’ It was repeated rapidly several times: ‘We are SC! We are SC! We are SC!’

So using the Ohio State and Southern Cal cheers as their framework, the Penn State cheerleaders developed a new cheer for 1976 and tested it in the student section, then located in the north end of Beaver Stadium. The first three games of the season were all at home — Stanford, Ohio State and Iowa — and the cheerleaders tried to get the students to cheer ‘We are Penn State!’ without any pauses between the words.

‘It went nowhere,’ said Krimmel. Of course, the fact that Penn State lost to Ohio State and Iowa may have dampened the students’ enthusiasm, but the cheerleaders were disillusioned.

The fourth game was at night against Kentucky in 3-year-old Commonwealth Stadium. As was usually the case with a night game, the atmosphere before kickoff was electrifying. ‘There was this unbelievable roar back and forth across the stadium, with one half yelling ‘Blue’ and the other half screaming ‘White,’ ‘ remembered Krimmel. ‘We knew that would work for us.’

So the cheerleaders placed a pause between the first two words and the last two and began teaching it to the students. It continued to be a slow, grueling process. ‘We had to work section by section,’ Twardzik said, ‘and the Blue Band drummers tried to help with a ‘boom, boom’ in the pause between the two sides screaming ‘We are’ and ‘Penn State!’ ‘

The cheerleaders labored throughout the 1976 and 1977 seasons with varying results. Before the 1978 season, a major expansion of Beaver Stadium removed the running track that had been in place since the stadium opened in 1960, and 16,000 permanent seats were added. The student section was moved to incorporate part of the east grandstand and a corner of the south end zone, and that season the cheer began to generate more enthusiasm among the students.

In 1977 the cheerleaders procured loudspeakers to assist them in the student section, and eventually they used loudspeakers on the west side, too, in hope of enticing alumni to join in. ‘The cheer didn’t pick up until after we left and until loudspeakers were used more and a second squad was sent to the press box side,’ cheerleader Jeff Fiddler said.

This writer was living in the Midwest at the time and was not attending games at Beaver Stadium, but I remember first hearing the cheer at the 1979 Sugar Bowl in the New Orleans Superdome when Penn State was No. 1 for the first time and was playing in the national championship game against Alabama.

Still, it took another three years for the cheer to be fully adopted by Penn State fans. It was during the second game of the 1981 season at Nebraska that the cheerleaders were encouraged to press on despite the continued lethargy among students and alumni.

Lee Giannone, another cheerleader and advisor, recalled the game. ‘We went out there and heard this loud cheer of ‘Go? Big Red’ all the time throughout the stadium,’ Giannone said. ‘I remember after that game, we worked harder on trying to get our crowd to go back and forth. We’d say, ‘We are?’ and there would be no response. Toward the end of that year, the crowd caught up and would respond.’

As to the ‘Thank you… You’re welcome’ that has been appended to the end of the cheer, there is a disagreement on how and when that became part of the chorus. Giannone credits fellow cheerleader Bob Moore with adding the tag line in 1980, but other cheerleaders say it was either Mains or Dennis a few years earlier. ‘I don’t remember, but I’ll take the credit,’ Dennis said with a laugh.

The cheerleaders had finally hit the jackpot, but even they could not have envisioned that the cheer would become a Penn State ritual that would ultimately be repeated millions of times outside the confines of Beaver Stadium and Happy Valley. Nowadays, it is used whenever Penn Staters come in contact, even if they have never met before.

There is no better example of this phenomenon than the experiences of Joshua Watson, a 2009 Penn State graduate from Montoursville, Pa., who has been traveling all over Europe and the Middle East for the past several months aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. He’s not in the Navy but is a civilian employee nicknamed ‘Fun Boss’ who was hired to oversee the recreation activities aboard the ship, which is cruising around the world in support of various military operations. Before attending Penn State to get his degree in recreation, parks and tourism, Watson spent several years in the Army with deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Kosovo and Bosnia. Everywhere he goes, he runs into Penn Staters and he shared some of those experiences with this writer in a series of emails.

‘I get to England as one of my [first] ports, and I’m walking down the road with my Penn State polo shirt on and I hear a WE ARE!!,’ Watson wrote. ‘Now normally British people don’t yell this out, so I responded back with the obligatory PENN STATE. I met the guy who yelled first and he turned out to be a grad who was just traveling abroad.

‘The third port was Italy. I’m walking down the street in Rome and the same thing happens that happened in England. Different thing about this was the guy said he graduated the same year as me. We sat there on a street corner and shot the bull for a little while and off I went. Later, I was in a bar in Bahrain and I was wearing a Penn State football polo shirt. Some guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey man, nice shirt.’ I thought to myself, OK, this is kind of weird, but I’ll go along with it. Lo and behold, he also went to PSU and was stationed at the [Naval Air Station] over here. He graduated in ’06 and is a pilot. Crazy, though, how we meet people all over the world. Penn Staters always seem to find each other, too.

‘We actually have quite a PSU following on our aircraft carrier as well. A lot of alums, plus a lot of fans. We also have some Penn Staters in our carrier group from the [cruiser] USS Gettysburg and the [destroyer] USS Mitscher. I bleed blue and white, and everyone on board knows it. I have nothing but Penn State clothing in my state room. My flight deck jerseys all have a Penn State emblem on them, and I’m trying to set up an abroad PS alumni association on board.’

One wonders if all this would have happened to Watson, and thousands of Penn State fans like him who have had similar experiences, if not for the ‘We are… Penn State!’ cheer.

Now, what you’ve just read is the true story of the cheer’s creation, which I initially researched and first wrote about in the fall of 1999.

However, in 2006, a movie debuted about the 1970 plane crash that virtually wiped out the Marshall University football team. The movie was called ‘We are Marshall.’ Its title evoked the cheer that allegedly became the inspirational rallying cry for the resurrection of the team, the university and the town of Huntington, W.Va., where the school is located. The popularity of the movie elicited assertions in several media outlets that perhaps the Penn State folks had taken Marshall’s cheer and made it their own.

Chris Spencer of the Huntington News looked into the claim, and in a story published on Jan. 4, 2007, he reported that Marshall’s cheerleaders created the cheer in 1988 and first used it on Oct. 8 of that year in a game against Furman. So much for Hollywood folklore.

In the past two years, another radically different version of the conception of Penn State’s cheer has gained credence, particularly after the following account was publicized in The Penn Stater alumni magazine in November 2009. In an article about the 1946-47 football teams and Penn State’s first African-American football letterman, Wally Triplett, author Michael Weinreb described an incident during the 1946 season in which the team voted against playing a game at Miami because segregated Miami told Penn State to leave Triplett and the team’s other black player, Denny Hoggard, home.

‘The game was canceled,’ Weinreb wrote. ‘Some months later, All-American lineman Steve Suhey assured his teammates that there would be no more need for meetings like this. The decision would stand forever. ‘We are Penn State,’ he told them, and Triplett and others would like to believe that this phrase somehow worked its way from Suhey’s mouth into Penn State’s enduring mythology; that even if it is mere coincidence, this phrase still echoes as an invocation of the school’s embrace of modernity and civil rights.’

So, accept the mythology the next time you hear the cheer, but be sure to remember about all those diligent cheerleaders of 30 to 35 years ago who made it come alive.