In this cold hellscape of a year, fun has been noticeably absent.
If anything it has been the opposite of fun. It has been goodbyes, hands pressed together separated by glass as tears fog the division between them. It has been a year full of worry and uncertainty. Going into public is a gamble, making a run to the store could bring back more than just milk.
It has been anxiety, the crushing dark of never being able to know the unknowable. It has been sadness, days and weeks locked away in your home – often alone – time marching on, unrelenting in its pursuit of tomorrow. It has been the worry that social distancing might rob us of one last Christmas or one last birthday.
It has most decidedly not been fun.
The return of sports was supposed to mask these fears and worries. It was supposed to give everyone an escape from the reality of the outside world. It was supposed to make everyone forget that three entire Beaver Stadium’s worth of people have died from a virus that has only gotten worse – not better. It was supposed to be fun, it was supposed to be an escape.
It was supposed to be.
For some teams and for some fans it has been, but an ongoing tide of cancellations and delays have further rendered many seasons as an exercise in capitalism.
In the case of Penn State it has been a reminder that sports can only do so much. Players fought off the worries of those sick at home to return to campus but could only leave so much behind. Running back Noah Cain came back to State College not so much for his love for football as much as the safety of avoiding the outbreaks back home.
The Nittany Lions lost Journey Brown for the season due to a heart condition. James Franklin – no matter what his wealth might buy – drives home across town every night to a house tucked away in the woods that is cold and empty upon his return. His family lives several states away, riding out the pandemic. They have been gone for months.
There were the injuries, the bumps and bruises and the emotions of an 0-5 start. What was supposed to bring Penn State hope and happiness was instead just another hurdle to overcome. The escape from the real world became something else hunting them down to make life even harder. There was no respite from life’s stresses in the thing that should have provided such a safe harbor.
One would be remiss and hyperbolic to call Penn State’s 0-5 start turning into a feel-good 4-5 season as some grand message about humanity. But as the Nittany Lions fought and clawed for at least one good thing to happen to them in 2020, you would be hard pressed not to appreciate the perseverance that came with that effort.
They could have mailed it in, they could have given up, they could have done a lot of things that they very clearly chose not to do.
Which brings us to Jahan Dotson.
During Penn State’s season, particularly the portion in which the losing was happening, there was not a lot of fun to be had. Even during the winning the Nittany Lions’ method of winning by virtue of doing just enough to get ahead and then proceeding to try and not screw it up was not all that thrilling. Nobody – perhaps himself included – was all that excited to see which direction quarterback Will Levis was going to run next.
But it was working, and it was winning games.
So as Dotson turned on the jets and roasted Illinois for 189-yards receiving and a 50-yard punt return to go along with it, things were fun to watch. The Nittany Lions looked happy.
Dotson, the quiet leader who has been a constant all season, roared on Saturday, dispelling any notion that he might not be fast enough. He continued to shoot down any doubters that might question his skills. At the end of one of the most productive seasons a Penn State receiver has ever had, Dotson had fun and everyone had fun with him.
“It’s just fun to succeed next to your brothers,” Dotson said after the game. “I think that’s the biggest thing. We have such a great brotherhood on this team. And when you’re succeeding that’s the ultimate goal in this game […] it’s just a great feeling. It’s always fun.”
He had fun.
And it’s hard to have fun sometimes when the world is buried in a layer of anger.
There was the local, State College product Keaton Ellis who found himself on the right end of an interception, a beautiful catch that brought a smile back to his face after a year plagued with injuries sidelining him most of the way. He had been living the dream, and then he was sidelined, trying to live it out again. And as he ran to the sideline, the ball raised in the air, he finally was.
And he was happy.
“Once you get comfortable out there, you start enjoying yourself,” Ellis said. ”It really is a good feeling.”
A good feeling. They’re so hard to find these days.
There was linebacker Brandon Smith who led Penn State in tackles on Saturday with eight bone-crunching hits that made good on his five-star potential, three of those happening behind the line of scrimmage. He was a force like the linebackers before him and those that will follow in his footsteps. And it was fun to watch. And he was happy.
And happy can be hard to feel these days.
“Just going out and playing free and not worried about making mistakes,” Smith said with a smile, contemplating what part of football was the most fun to him.
It’s fitting really that Penn State managed to score 56 points in a game that everyone wanted to end by the third quarter. It was – aside from those moments when Dotson ran like the wind, Ellis dove and Smith hit – an unremarkable game beyond the entirely bonkers 21-21 first quarter. There was nothing to write home about, nothing about this game that will make anyone really remember it.
But in those moments, as fleeting as they may have been, Penn State looked like a team that forgot the stadium was empty, packed with snow rather than people. The Nittany Lions dancing on the sidelines, enjoying something good. Something fun. Something that finally made them happy.
For a brief moment, sports were finally that thing everyone promised they would be. They were the escape, they were the happiness that you dream of when you first put on the helmet.
Following the game the program announced it would not participate in a bowl game if invited.
Bowl games provide teams with a lot of things, more practices, more time together and a chance to win another game.
But they’re also a chance to end the year on a high note. They’re a chance to feel good and feel happy and feel like football is fun. It’s a chance to go out into the summer with your head high and optimism for the future.
And on Saturday night the Nittany Lions did all of those things. They checked off all the boxes, escaping for a few hours into the warmth and safety that sports is supposed to provide from the outside world.
They will, however, wake up on Sunday morning having been through the ringer. They will be sore and tired, both on the inside and out. They still won’t have seen their families in ages, they will still be stressed and worried. They will still wonder what might happen next.
So if they want to take that slice of happiness and bask in it, remembering what fun felt like for as long as they can. If they want to find the embrace of those they have worried so much about and forgo an additional week or two of money-making stress without seeing any of it in return.
Who are we to say they shouldn’t?