As I approached the stadium, the image of a battleship came to mind. The tall, gray superstructure exudes that same type of impressive power. Inside, the vast network of visible steel beams that supports the upper decks just reinforces the initial image of unyielding strength.
Beaver Stadium holds 107,282 fans on game day, just behind Michigan's Big House, which leads the college football ranks with a capacity of 109,901. (Guess the other stadiums with 100K capacity.) Penn State is known for occasionally orchestrating "whiteouts" for big rivalry games, in which fans are encouraged to wear that color and no other. It's an amazing sight that takes place a couple of times a season.
This day's opponent, Northwestern, apparently didn't warrant that type of attention, so the stadium was a motley collection of high school letterman jackets, replica jerseys, and the camouflage and safety orange of early-rising deer hunters. More visible in the crowd were the man in the blue-and-white terry cloth bathrobe, the Elvis impersonator in the shiny suit, and the handful of men and women wearing JoePa's trademark tie and glasses as an homage.
Beaver Stadium wasn't always this big. First built in a horseshoe configuration that seated a shade more than 46,000 in 1960, the edifice underwent frequent renovations that brought capacity up to 60,203 by the nation's bicentennial year. In 1978, the stadium actually was jacked up eight feet into the air in order to add retrofitted support for 16,000 more seats. A 2001 expansion brought the building up to its current massive size.
Transferring that many people from the parking lots and open field is not an exact science, but the stands were mostly full by the time the band spelled out P-S-U on the turf. Students, perhaps reluctant to enter the alcohol-free environs of the field early, took their time filling in the southeastern end of the stadium. That corner, reserved for juniors and seniors, was where I found an extremely spirited group of fans who weren't about to miss a minute of play.
A group of young women in the upper deck celebrated Penn State football with one boisterous voice, cheering in unison whether the rest of the stadium joined in or not.
"WE ARE ...
It's a cheer that works best when one side of the stadium answers the other, creating an echoing wave of sound that crashes onto the field, where it must give the assembled players goose bumps.
Up in the student section, goose bumps come from school pride and the chill, which settled in as Northwestern jumped out to a 21-point lead and the sun disappeared, literally and figuratively.
Kelsey Cousley, 21, of Pittsburgh, along with friends Aubrey McGuire, 20, of Pittsburgh, and Hilary Rota, 20, of Philadelphia, refused to give up hope. As Penn State rallied to score its first touchdown on a two-minute drill just before halftime, they joined together and tossed another friend into the air, once for each point the team had scored. The ritual was repeated in pockets of excited humanity throughout the stadium, as hope began anew.
The halftime entertainment included a tribute to something called Thon, a charity in which several of the young women around me played an active role. Sporting the full name of the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, Thon is billed as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. The event debuted in 1973 with a modest 39 dancing couples, who raised $2,000 for pediatric cancer research. Since then it has grown to the point where 15,000 students volunteer their time and 700 participants dance -- not for a prize, but to play a part in raising money for the Penn State Children's Hospital. To date, the beloved student charity has raised more than $69 million for the cause.
The ability to pull together when the situation demands it is a hallmark of the Penn State fan base, whether it be the fight against cancer or a big football game. Buoyed by the last-second score that ended the first half, the students around me began to rally for a huge comeback in the second half.
When a bystander (OK, it was me) shiveringly asked what the temperature might be, Amy Beatty, another 21-year-old from Pittsburgh, turned and shouted, "There's only one degree at Penn State, AND THAT'S WINNING!" It was a nonsensical but heartfelt exhortation, seemingly bolstered by Beatty's choice of face paint -- blue lettering that somewhat hopefully predicted JoePa's 4,000th win.
Hey, don't bet against it. The guy doesn't know the meaning of the word "quit."
Neither does his team. The Nittany Lions awakened from slumber to score the next 28 points, winning Paterno's 400th going away. In the waning minutes of the 35-21 victory, a trio of men dressed as linebackers from the 1930s (or perhaps from present day; the uniforms haven't changed much) paraded back and forth in the front row, each holding a placard with one digit of the number 400, much to the delight of the crowd. Across the way, a more superstitious fan waited until the final gun sounded before flipping the digits on his sign -- digital clock style -- from 399 to 400.
Afterward an emotional Paterno was carried to a low podium by his team, as players, cheerleaders and field staff embraced and slapped hands. The community feeling was endorsed by Paterno himself, whose voice reverberated throughout Beaver Stadium as he spoke into a mike.
"People ask me why I stayed here so long," the octogenarian legend said. He spread his arms to encompass the packed bleachers on either side. "Just look around. When I say 'us,' I mean Penn State."
The crowd returned the love, chanting his name as a long, long list of his victories rolled across the big screen behind him. JoePa ended the rally with the cry, "OK, now let's beat Ohio State!" eliciting a roar from the crowd.
Tailback Silas Redd walked away with a smile on his face and a profound network of grass stains on his white pants. A teammate asked him how many yards he had in the game. The answer was that Redd had the best game of his young career, racking up 131 yards and scoring his first TD; but the redshirt freshman couldn't help but get caught up in Joe Pa's message of Penn State solidarity.
"I don't even care," he said, looking around at the still-roiling stands of Beaver Stadium. "I'm just glad we won."
Eric Angevine is a freelance writer and editor from Charlottesville, Va. He is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com and the editor of the college basketball website StormingTheFloor.net. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.PREVIOUS PAGE