Penn State players know next Saturday's season opener against Ohio won't resemble a normal football game.
After an offseason filled with change, NCAA sanctions, scandal residue and constant tension around State College, the emotion at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 1 will be like nothing we've seen before. Some think Penn State shouldn't be playing football at all, after everything that has transpired at the school. They think the notion that football can heal the school and the community is not only disrespectful, but reinforcing the culture that led to the heinous crimes committed by former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky.
The players, not surprisingly, think otherwise, and they embrace their roles in Penn State's quest to move forward.
"In a lot of ways, people turn to football," quarterback Matt McGloin said Thursday. "This is a football town. You don't get 110,000 fans showing up to games everywhere in the country. With everything that's happened, people want to see how we respond. ... Myself and the rest of this senior class has an opportunity to try to rebuild this program. All we want to do is go out there and play football.
"If that can make a difference, if that can bring this community closer together and change anything that happened, that's all we want to do -- play our part, keep this program together and make it better."
The NCAA sanctions are just beginning for Penn State, which is ineligible for postseason play until 2016 and will deal with significant scholarship losses through the 2017 season. But this season, at least in the eyes of senior fullback Michael Zordich, has "everything" riding on it.
Zordich doesn't minimize the significance of next week's game to the Penn State community.
"We know what we're going through is tough," Zordich said. "But we also know the power football has to bring people together. It lifts spirits. People turn to it. You look at New Orleans back [after Hurricane Katrina] when they were down and out, and the Saints won the Super Bowl and that city's been improving ever since. We know it can't heal everything but we know it can help."
A natural disaster and an institutional disaster aren't remotely the same and shouldn't be compared, but Zordich is right about one thing: as was the case in New Orleans, football will be a welcome sight in State College.
"We definitely have a chance to make history at Penn State," McGloin said. "We have an opportunity to bring this great university back from the bottom. We have an opportunity to bring this community together."