Proud PSU fans show strength, support before debut

By Dan Gelston

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 1 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Penn State football fans surround the Penn State football team buses as Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien, center, leads his team into Beaver Stadium for their season opener against Ohio in State College, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State fans ushered in a new era in the football program with a raucous ovation as the team stormed the field for their first game under coach Bill O'Brien.

O'Brien, the former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, led the charge in the first home opener without Joe Paterno since 1949.

More than 80,000 fans chanted the familiar "We are .. Penn State!" shortly before kickoff against Ohio. After scandal rocked the program, the Penn State community is ready to put the focus back on football.

Penn State held a moment of reflection for all victims of sexual abuse. And all 31 Penn State teams and more than 600 athletes were invited on the field before the game as part of Penn State's "One Team" motto.

Not long afterward, the Nittany Lions lost the coin toss, but the Bobcats elected to kick first. So, the O'Brien era began fittingly, on offense.

So much has changed on the field, but the lively atmosphere remained the same Saturday outside Beaver Stadium. The overall mood around the program is that of pride, perseverance and support — for both the current and former coach.

Hours before the official beginning of O'Brien's tenure, tailgaters tossed footballs through the parking lots, set up their cooking stations and readied themselves for the new Nittany Lions' debut. Many wore "We Bill-ieve" shirts, endorsing Penn State's new leader, who has been a steadying force within the program for nine months.

When the team arrived at the stadium, O'Brien was the first person to deboard off bus No. 1, followed by his game captains Derek Day, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Matt McGloin.

Boisterous fans waited for hours by the tunnel entrance waiting for the team busses. They chanted "Joe Pa-ter-no!" before turning their cheers toward O'Brien. There were thunderous cheers for the players as they exited the bus. The fans showed they stood by the players that stuck with the program.

Though the statue of Hall of Famer Joe Paterno — O'Brien's predecessor — was removed July 22, the day before the NCAA announced the sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky scandal, many fans still hold Paterno in high regard and are unafraid to show it. One tailgater, in fact, has a 16-foot, homemade banner that reads "409 wins with honor," referring to Paterno's victory total. Other fans are wearing shirts that read "We Are ... Still Proud."

Where the statue used to stand, a fan placed a Paterno bobblehead between the trees. Others stopped to snap pictures with cellphones and cameras. Dressed in Penn State jerseys, Cindy and Mark Wascavage of Washington, N.J., paused to remember the man they say will always be the face of Penn State football.

"It makes you wanna cry," Cindy, 54, said as she saw the bobblehead.

The couple has held season tickets for nine years and has always admired the former coach, even through these difficult times.

"He was the whole football program," Cindy said, while Mark believes during this proud season, all of Penn State will stand united.

Chris Bartnik, of Chantilly, Va., created a life-size cutout of the former coach to honor him, and carried it with him through the lots. He stopped by the former statue holding place, but did not keep the cutout there out of fear it would be removed by university personnel.

"I don't think it's fair," he said, "to pretend Joe Paterno never existed."

At Paterno's gravesite, fresh flowers were added to the fading collection of notes and memorabilia by Rob Elchynski, 44, who stopped by with his wife and friends before the game.

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