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Ex-Penn St. players rally behind team

DALLAS -- The day after Joe Paterno was fired, former Penn State player Tim Sweeney relayed two messages to the current Nittany Lions at a team meeting.

One was a farewell note passed on by the ousted coach; the other a statement of support from former players for a team besieged by scrutiny after Paterno was ousted in the aftermath of child sex abuse charges against retired assistant Jerry Sandusky.

Nearly two months later, Sweeney and other old Nittany Lions are gathering again in Dallas to see a tumultuous season come to a close Monday when Penn State (No. 22 BCS, No. 24 AP) plays Houston (No. 19 ESPN/USA Today, No. 20 AP) in the TicketCity Bowl.

"Some (current players) I think felt they were being blamed for something they had nothing to do with," Sweeney said Saturday. "These guys needed to know we were in support of them, we had their backs."

Sweeney is the president of the Football Letterman's Club, a group of former Penn State players with the goal of helping other school football alumni after college. Fellow board member Trey Bauer, a former linebacker, called the three-decade-old club a group that worked more behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.

But the scandal that rocked Happy Valley had the club bending the rules. No team in college athletics has ever had to play under such extenuating circumstances.

So the club reached out to Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley, who replaced Paterno, to get the OK to play a more proactive role with current players.

"They've really helped out, staying with us, supporting us," senior left tackle Quinn Barham said Saturday at the team hotel in Dallas after practice. "Telling us to stay motivated to block out all the negativity ... to hear that from them, it feels good to know that we're a family."

Once a noted member of that same Penn State family, Sandusky is awaiting trial after pleading not guilty earlier this month and waiving a preliminary court hearing. Paterno testified before a state grand jury investigating Sandusky, and prosecutors have said he is not a target of the probe.

But the state police commissioner on Nov. 7 -- two days after Sandusky was first charged -- criticized Penn State leaders including Paterno for failing to do more to report alleged abuse to authorities. Paterno announced his retirement effective the end of the season the morning of Nov. 9 before trustees fired him anyway about 12 hours later.

The next day, Sweeney relayed the message from Paterno to the team. Sweeney declined to divulge the content on Saturday except saying "it was a very brief letter, very poignant and powerful ... Only Joe would come up with something like that."

Recently, other former players acting separately from the letterman's club have taken more proactive roles in support of Paterno.

As of Saturday, the names of more than 520 former players were attached to an online petition entitled "The Penn State Football Family" with the subject heading of "We Stand in Support of Joe and Penn State." The letter began by expressing sadness over the allegations and offered prayers to alleged victims and their families.

The message was written by former Penn State and NFL linebacker Brandon Short, Sweeney said, and organizers, including former standout tailback Lydell Mitchell, released it online Dec. 20 -- the day before Paterno's 85th birthday.

"Many in the Penn State community view the public's rush to judgment of Joe as a rush to judgment of everything Penn State," the letter said. "We ask for due process for Joe Paterno and the Penn State community."

Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti; former NFL running back Blair Thomas; and current NFL players Michael Robinson and Paul Posluszny are among the prominent signatures. Sweeney and Bauer have also signed, though not on behalf of the letterman's club.

According to Sweeney, 44, many of the younger ex-players have been more vocal backing Paterno, while older former players have taken more subtle approaches.

"To me, it's more about due process and letting things work itself out. At the end of the day, the truth always comes out, and it's about letting the truth come out," said Bauer, 47.

Paterno is home in State College as he recovers from a broken pelvis and gets chemotherapy and radiation for what his family has called a treatable form of lung cancer. His son, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, said Friday that Paterno was currently concentrating on fighting cancer, but that more details would eventually emerge.

"There's the court of public opinion and then there's the court of law," Bauer said. "For me personally, it's made me very sad. From being a Penn Stater, I think a lot of people feel the same way."

Hundreds of former players showed up Nov. 12 for Penn State's first game since Paterno was fired in an unprecedented show of unity by alumni with current players. There's no such organized effort by the letterman's club for the bowl game, though many who arrived Friday night for a social in Dallas are expected to attend Monday.

Come Monday evening, Barham and fellow senior Devon Still will be eligible to join the club, too, after suiting up for the last time in blue and white. Still, the All-American defensive tackle vowed not to miss his college finale despite missing the last few practices with turf toe.

"We've worked hard, we've been through a lot together, and this is our last time playing together as a team," Still said. "So we want to go out on a positive note."

Starting quarterback Matt McGloin missed practice again Saturday, though, and hasn't been medically cleared to play after suffering a concussion and seizure following a locker room scuffle two weeks ago with receiver Curtis Drake. Backup Rob Bolden will get the start.

Penn State notes

Leading tackler Gerald Hodges, a junior, said he submitted his name to an NFL draft advisory board for "precautionary reasons" but intends to return to school regardless of the evaluation. "Not a chance at all," Hodges said when asked if he was going to skip his senior year. ... Sophomore tailback Silas Redd, the team's leading rusher, also said he spoke with his family about his future the week after Sandusky was charged Nov. 5 before deciding to stay with the Nittany Lions amid the coaching uncertainty.