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Committed to the program

Tim Gaia leaned forward in his leather chair, his eyes fixed to his office computer as NCAA president Mark Emmert strolled up to the podium to announce Penn State's sanctions.

Gaia knew that whatever Emmert said would impact the future of his son, Brian Gaia, a four-star recruit who enrolled at PSU weeks before. He didn't know what words might come out of Emmert's mouth on that July morning or what actions he might take. He just watched, captivated by an eight-minute speech he knew would very likely dictate the next four years of his 18- year-old son's life.

Our goal is not just to be punitive but to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.

Emmert glanced down at his prepared text every few moments without breaking rhythm, his gray hair parted like a congressman's. The nattily dressed president numbered each sanction -- 80 fewer scholarships, a $60 million fine, four years without a postseason, and on and on -- while railing against the university Gaia chose above nine others.

"I saw him read those sanctions one by one, and I think I can speak for the majority," Tim Gaia said. "I was devastated; I was absolutely devastated."

Tim was still in shock when his cellphone buzzed hours later once his son learned of the harsh penalties.

"Dad," Tim vividly remembers Brian saying, "The score is 6-0. We did not lose yet. I'm sticking with this, and I am not moving. I'm done with the decisions; I am part of Penn State."

One by one, Penn State's Class of 2012 -- a class that was free to pursue opportunities elsewhere -- recommitted to play under Bill O'Brien. Eighteen recently graduated high school seniors committed to Penn State before those sanctions -- and only one, Jamil Pollard, transferred. He's now at Rutgers.

Those freshmen jogged toward the locker room Saturday when the seniors were told to remain on the field for their final game. They grew teary-eyed, some placing their hands on teammates' shoulders, when this season was honored with the number "2012," now featured alongside other seasons defined by conference titles, perfect records and national championships. The media has thrown lofty, and deserved, praise toward this senior class.

But this freshman group, the Class of 2012, had the most to lose. Players such as wideout Trevor Williams and cornerback Da'Quan Davis will never experience a bowl game or compete for a conference title. They'll be part of teams with scholarship restrictions, teams that aren't supposed to compete with the Big Ten's best.

This is the group that has made the biggest sacrifice, the class that stayed put when few fans could have faulted them for leaving. And they've remained remarkably intact.

"It just felt so family-oriented and, with the education, they just had everything in place," said Chantel Davis, DaQuan Davis' mother. "That really sold me on Penn State; I wanted him to go there."

Maybe these teenagers didn't know what they were getting into. Maybe they didn't understand the ramifications of the sanctions. Maybe they were too young, too idealistic or too naive. But, in a world of maybes, parents are there to lend experience and advice to the conversation -- and they wanted their children to stay.

"When Trevor told me he was staying I felt relieved," said Williams' mother, Tracey. "Penn State is a great school and, as a mom, that's my priority. He was comfortable, he was close to home, and it just made sense for him to stay."

Said Ed Kiley, the father of freshman safety Jake Kiley: "No question, the biggest selling point, even with the old regime, was academics. It's a great school, not just because of the education but the alumni networking that's up there. In my opinion, it was a pretty good choice."

In an ironic twist from Emmert's speech, where he lamented PSU placed priority on football over academics, most freshmen's parents said they either nudged their children -- or agreed with their children's decision -- to remain at the school mostly because of academics.

The New American Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, placed Penn State at No. 1 in the symbolic Academic Bowl for graduating 80 percent of its players. And Chantel Davis, whose son decommitted from West Virginia last January, said she could tell academics weren't a priority for other schools.

When West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen knocked on the door to her Baltimore home, the family gathered in the living room to pepper him with questions about the university. Most revolved around academics.

Chantel folded her hands: "What do you have in place to make sure they go to class?" Holgorsen's answer didn't please her.

"He said they were working on it," she said. "I was like, 'Shouldn't that already be in place?' So, I was like, OK, to me, that's enough. It shouldn't be just about football; it should be about education first."

By comparison, Chantel remembered the first time she and DaQuan met Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson. He addressed mandatory study halls and tutors, graduation rates and majors. Before football was even discussed, Johnson implored the younger Davis to take the SATs one more time. He did.

These parents said they formed a bond, a trust, with the coaching staff. With a scandal and swirling controversy, they needed to know their children could be trusted in the care of O'Brien and the staff.

For the fathers of Gaia and Kiley, they didn't have to wait long. The two gathered at the Nittany Lion Inn, a colonial-style hotel trimmed with blue and white, to join others on official visits in January. There was friendly chatter on a cold Saturday night as they watched O'Brien's New England Patriots trounce the Denver Broncos, 45-10, in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

The next day, as Gaia sat down to a western omelet flooded in Tabasco sauce, O'Brien arrived. He sat down with each visitor for 20 or 30 minutes, armed with a manila folder packed with information on academics, and waxed poetic on just what this university meant and what this team could achieve.

"If there was something that I or my wife seriously saw glaringly in-our-face wrong about what's going on up there and it was going to devastate or destroy our son's potential future, we would've shared our concern and said, 'Look, you need to consider this,' " Tim Gaia said. "But we stepped back like a lot of parents and we just let it simmer. I think it was close to the boiling point, close to it being a total disaster. But when we went up there on that official visit, with the coaching staff they had put together, it was one of the best staffs I had ever seen.

"And when O'Brien was there the next morning after that late-night game, that showed the man's character. That and the academics really resonated with a lot of us. That's what kept the boys there -- and kept the parents committed."