For the next five minutes, please put politics aside….
Around noon this Saturday, no matter where we are, we’ll get the itch. We’ll know we should be in Beaver Stadium watching the birth of a new season as the kicker drives the football arcing end over end into the arms of a waiting kick returner.
But like many things in 2020, it is not to be.
The football cathedrals that tower across the Midwestern landscape will be empty and silent on Saturday. Big Ten country is the heart of college football. Football was born at Rutgers, grew across the Ivy League and exploded into the nation’s consciousness on fields in Ann Arbor, Chicago, South Bend, Champaign and Columbus.
This region was the backbone of the nation’s might, fueling our rise through the industrial revolution, the Civil War and two world wars. The sons of those miners and factory workers found gridiron glory and vaulted college football into an honored place in the American sports hierarchy.
Hall of Fame coaches Hugo Bezdek, Bob Higgins, Rip Engle and Joe Paterno gave rise to Penn State’s ascendancy. Now all are gone. But these autumn nights they, too, will be looking for the next game, the next play on the gridiron of their greatest days.
They knew college football is more than the game; it is life as art.
Each season begins as a blank canvas. But at Penn State the canvas is not just on the 120 yards by 160 feet inside the lines of that glorious stretch of God’s green grass. It is much bigger than that.
Each of us paints the season differently. We create our own stories: Friday night spent at The Tavern, the Saturday morning traffic, the smell of hot dogs, sausage or steaks cooking on a grill, the feel of a cold soda or beer can’s condensation on an unseasonably warm October afternoon. It’s your child’s wide eyes walking through the portal to see the sheer scope of the stadium spectacle.
But so, too, does autumn’s chill remind us of the coming of winter and our own mortality. Each year we know the last Saturday tailgate in November could be…we dare not say.
Next season is promised to no one. So we live in the moment.
When the game begins the players add color and grace to our canvas. We see the birth of immortality that alas, will last only until the light dims in the eyes of the last witness.
These young men are elevated for a time, but for most the cheering stops after college never to return. In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his character Tom Buchanan, a former football star at Yale, “I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”
Even those who did not play, this Saturday will seek a little wistfully for that turbulence.
Even now as you read this you are thinking of something. Allen Robinson elevating to make an impossible catch. Joe Paterno being carried after the 400th win. A blocked kick nudged by divine providence to end up in the right hands against Ohio State, a seismic sack by Tamba Hali, an impossible punt return by Derrick Williams in the first full white out game, a hurdling Zack Mills touchdown run igniting an historic comeback.The thunderous ovation as Michael Robinson jogged off the field for the last time, Paul Posluszny’s virtuoso performances, Bobby Engram’s acrobatic catches, a Todd Blackledge crossing route to Kenny Jackson against Pitt, Kirk Bowman making a catch just above the grass to beat Nebraska.
All glorious to this day.
And there were noble warriors, even in defeat. Did anyone deserve a win in Beaver Stadium more than Trace McSorley against Ohio State in 2018, or Zack Mills against Iowa in 2002, or Blair Thomas against Alabama in 1989?
These are but the brush strokes of time and history painted on my mind. Yours will be different. But the full spectacle is what makes this inherently such a wonderful game. Even as time fades and mortality takes some from us, it is in the memories of the event, not just the event itself.
Almost all the adults from my childhood tailgates are gone now. So too is my father.
On Saturdays we walked home and talked about the game just like you did with your family and friends. Ours was different in that we looked back on decisions made or not made that would leave memories for others.
But this Saturday all of time stands still.
For the Big Ten, it was neither the easy decision nor one made lightly. It was made with only one consideration; the health and safety of athletes, coaches, the Big Ten’s 607,000 students as well as faculty, staff and the workers striving to keep the in-person educational mission going.
But that does not mean we cannot in this season of sacrifice, take a moment to gaze toward our stadium on the hill, a stadium on higher ground where generations of young men came from farms and cities and factory towns to be something better, something different.
Those players will miss those intense pre-game moments before a big game, when even in the recesses of the locker room you can faintly hear the noise of the crowd.
And in the novel “Hot Seat,” I described it like this:
“Before big games, those twenty minutes drag on with the welling intensity boiling up inside so many highly skilled and trained men. Even coaches feel the edginess. A game like this provides an adrenaline high…..”
We will all miss that high this Saturday. We hope for a future when we gather again as one voice, united in our passion and painting a new canvas of tradition that extends across time.