Community begins healing process

Originally Published: July 13, 2012
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The day after Louis Freeh and his investigative team exposed Penn State's ugliest scar, one that never can be concealed, a different side of the school revealed itself.

Across University Drive from the football complex where Jerry Sandusky raped children while others did little or nothing to stop him, Penn State football players gathered on the school's lacrosse field to flip tires, push vans, toss medicine balls through goalposts and raise tens of thousands of dollars for a worthy cause. Friday marked the 10th annual Lift for Life, a strength and conditioning challenge run by the organization Uplifting Athletes, which raises funds to help fight kidney cancer.

Founded by three former Penn State players, including Scott Shirley, whose father, Don, died of kidney cancer in 2005, the Lift for Life event has raised more than $600,000 for the Kidney Cancer Association since 2003. There are now 15 Uplifting Athletes chapters run by college football players around the country who hold similar fundraising events to fight rare diseases. But Shirley, a 2003 Penn State graduate, regards Penn State's event as "kind of like my Christmas," even though it took place following the university's Day of Atonement.

[+] EnlargePenn State
Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comPenn State alums such as the Kappeler family struggle to understand all that happened.

"This isn't in response to anything, this isn't trying to prove anything," Shirley said. "This is something that has happened for 10 years naturally, because it's what we do. It's part of our culture."

Similar events such as THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, and the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games, held annually here, are also part of Penn State. So, too, are the heinous crimes Sandusky committed and the massive cover-up that Freeh said four senior leaders, including former head football coach Joe Paterno, engineered for years.

Penn State is a campus in contradiction.

Normalcy returned to a large degree Friday. The chimes at Old Main still played "The Nittany Lion," Penn State's fight song, every quarter-hour, as they do each Friday and Saturday. A group of students called out "We Are!" to a passing tour group, whose guides enthusiastically answered, "Penn State!" People gorged themselves with ice cream at Berkey Creamery and snapped photos at the Nittany Lion Shrine. The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, held annually here, brought in thousands of visitors, creating a cheerful buzz downtown.

There was also a man leaning on the Allen Street Gate, reading the Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper. Plastered across the front page was a quote from the Freeh report: "Catastrophic Failures." The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that during the Freeh report's release Thursday, the TVs at Penn State's student center mysteriously switched from CNN, which was broadcasting Freeh's news conference, to a public access channel (CNN was back on the TVs Friday). Penn State said Friday it plans to renovate the Lasch football building, where Sandusky committed many of his crimes, including a remodel of the team shower and locker room area.

At the Joe Paterno statue flanking Beaver Stadium, several bouquets of flowers and signs lay on the ground Friday afternoon. One sign read: "I stand by Joe." Another: "He was a man. Not a God!!!"

Amy Kappeler nearly didn't bring her family to campus Friday. A 1993 Penn State graduate, Kappeler fondly recalled her previous visit to her alma mater. She was pregnant with her daughter, Chloe, now 21 months old, and took a picture in front of the Nittany Lion shrine.

"It was such a joyful feeling coming here then," Kappeler said. "We almost decided not to come today because it's such a sad time, and also we were fearful of what might happen here with riots and violence and things. But I decided we love this school and we want it to come back stronger and learn from it."

Kappeler and her husband, Lloyd, a 1991 Penn State graduate, made the trip from their home in Carlisle, Pa., with Chloe. Lloyd wore a Penn State cap commemorating the football team's 2008 Big Ten championship, while Chloe wore a Penn State cheerleader's outfit and carried a Barney doll. They took pictures at the Lion Shrine and planned to visit the creamery, Old Main and possibly the chemistry lab where Amy used to work.

Amy read the executive summary of the Freeh report, as well as several articles following its release.

"I'm really just very sad and very disappointed, and almost in disbelief that it happened at this university," she said. "My grandfather came here and my older cousin came here. It's always been a university that I've respected. It's just so hard to hear that there was such a leadership failure."

Especially one that involved Paterno.

"It doesn't seem congruent with who he was," Kappeler said. "He seemed like such an honorable man. [Sandusky's victims] were young men from a different economic and family circumstance that didn't have anyone to advocate for them. That's when you need a leader like Joe Paterno to stand up. I would have expected him to have done something different. I wish we could know what's in his heart."

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno sign
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarHow long Joe Paterno's statue, where signs and flowers lie at its feet, remains is a topic of debate.

One site absent from the Kappelers' campus tour: the Paterno statue.

"We're not going there," Amy said. "I'm curious if that statue will be here a year from now."

The statue has become a flash point at Penn State since the release of the Freeh report. Many have called for its immediate removal. Others argue it should stay as a tribute to a man who, despite his mistakes, made many positive contributions to Penn State.

Dan Cernugel, who bought Penn State football season tickets Friday for himself and his nephew, said of Paterno, "He donated a lot to the library and so forth. What are they going to do, knock the library down?"

Penn State board of trustees chair Karen Peetz said Thursday that honoring or not honoring Paterno remains a highly sensitive topic that "will continue to be discussed with the entire university community." A group of students who visited the statue Thursday night and hope it remains said a removal would trigger a backlash greater than the one that took place following Paterno's sudden firing in November.

"We were all expecting it in November," said Taylor Patton, a Penn State sophomore who visited the statue Thursday night. "They were saying, 'It's coming down, it's coming down.' If it's really coming down, all hell's breaking loose."

Penn State running back Silas Redd thinks the statue should stay, noting that Paterno did "more good than bad at Penn State." Kurt Plummer, a 2008 Penn State graduate, called the potential removal of the statue "a disgrace."

The bluntest assessment came from a man visiting the statue late Friday afternoon who was asked if it would be there in a year.

"When you have, 'Educator, Coach, Humanitarian,'" he said, pointing to the words engraved to the left of Paterno's likeness, "probably not."

The Paterno question is particularly difficult for Penn State's current players to reconcile. Lions starting quarterback Matthew McGloin, a former walk-on, says he owes his career to Paterno, a coach who gave him an opportunity when many others wouldn't.

[+] EnlargePenn State
Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comThe campus tours go on, but guides such as Matt Mahalik rarely talk about the scandal.

"I spoke at his memorial," said senior linebacker Michael Mauti, whose father and older brother both played for Paterno at Penn State. "He had a lot to do with my family, and there's a connection there. Obviously, we have a lot of respect for him."

Mauti paused.

"No matter what you say, it's not the right thing to say. It's f-----."

The players paid little attention to Thursday's fallout from the Freeh report. Wide receiver Justin Brown had a four-hour Spanish class in the morning, followed by a workout and a tutoring session. By the time he got home, he went straight to sleep.

"I can't even tell you what's going on," he said.

McGloin had more trouble blocking out the coverage.

"Anytime you turn on the TV or open the newspaper up, you see it," he said. "It is tough, but at the same time, you have to realize the outside stuff has no affect and doesn't control how you perform or the way you work. You definitely have an opinion on it, but I keep it within myself or just talk about it among my teammates."

After a tumultuous winter, Lions players are firmly focused on the upcoming season, their first under head coach Bill O'Brien. They're motivated to put Penn State in a positive light again.

"Whether it's Lift for life, Special Olympics, THON, it's always a chance to do something positive," Brown said.

Can Penn State heal?

"It's Penn State," Brown said. "Penn State's going to be Penn State."

Matt Mahalik preaches a similar message as a volunteer tour guide for Penn State's admissions office. Mahalik, who graduated from Penn State in May, has been a guide for more than a year and gave a tour Thursday morning following the release of the Freeh report.

"There's still the same enthusiasm on campus," Mahalik said. "One of the best things about being a tour guide is having the student groups, all the different faculty, staff, anybody on campus, yell, 'We are!' We'll always respond with, 'Penn State!' That happened six or seven times during my tour [Thursday]."

The 90-minute tours don't include stops at Beaver Stadium, the Paterno statue or the Lasch building, but it didn't before the scandal broke. Tours do stop at the Paterno library, and guides inform their groups about the large donations Paterno and his family made to the university.

The scandal rarely comes up during Mahalik's tours.

"It's very rare to get a question about the case itself," he said. "Occasionally, like right at the end of the tour, a parent will pull me off to the side and say, 'What's it like being here? Is it any different?' And it really isn't. Obviously, it's not fun to be a part of this. We're all paying attention, we all see it in the news, we're heartbroken over everything that happened to the families and the victims and everybody involved. But it's our responsibility as students, as tour guides, to show off our university.

"And to show that we're so much more than anything you see on the news, all the good that does come here."

Reconciling all that good -- and there is plenty -- with the incomprehensible bad is a challenge for all who love Penn State.