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Proud PSU fans show strength, support; Lions lose

By Dan Gelston

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 1 2012 3:52 p.m. MDT

Former Penn State running back Franco Harris, outwardly vocal in his support of the Paternos through the scandal, watched the game in a suite — next to a life-sized cutout of "JoePa."

"I am excited about our new beginning with coach Bill O'Brien," Harris said. "But I will never forget our history and what we accomplished."

Paterno was fired in November following 46 seasons, days after former assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child molestation charges. Paterno's son, quarterback coach Jay Paterno, also left the staff.

Tailgaters still backed Paterno in the parking lots, though many wore "We Bill-ieve" shirts, endorsing Penn State's new leader, who has been a steadying force within the program for nine months.

Though Paterno's statue was removed July 22, the day before the NCAA announced sanctions for the Sandusky scandal, many fans still journeyed over to its spot, while others illustrated their support. One tailgater, in fact, had a 16-foot, homemade banner that read "409 wins with honor," referring to Paterno's victory total. Other fans donned 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, win or lose, all of Penn State will stand united.

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.

"I think it's critical to the moving-on that they talk about, that they start playing football again," Elchynski said, walking back to his car after saying a short prayer at the grave.

The students, alumni and fans outside the stadium were nearly unanimous in their stance that Paterno received a raw deal and the university should have dug in and fought back against the NCAA sanctions. Indeed, they've united behind the program following strict NCAA sanctions including a four-year bowl ban.

"We're maybe more determined than ever to be supportive," Mike Bealla, of Harrisburg, Pa., said. "If you're a fan, you're a fan. The spirit will be there."

About 90 minutes before kickoff, a plane flew over Beaver Stadium with a banner reading "Oust Erickson/Trustees," referring to Penn State president Rodney Erickson.

On the field, of course, the players donned their new jerseys, complete with names on the back. That was O'Brien's call, tinkering with the classic look in order to recognize the players who stuck with the program amid the scandal. It's always been about family at Penn State, and so it's no surprise that Karen Caldwell, the wife of equipment manager, Brad "Spider" Caldwell, stitched the names on the jerseys.

A blue ribbon was also placed on the back of helmets to show support for child abuse victims.

"Sweet Caroline," the Neil Diamond classic, was scrapped for rock music blasted at ear-ringing decibels that would have made Paterno cringe. In fact, as the Nittany Lions took the field for warm-ups, "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC was the song of choice.

Atmosphere and positivity aside, there were still scores of empty seats and rows deep into the game, which is unusual for an opener. The announced crowd was 97,186. Beaver Stadium seats 106,572, and last year, the Nittany Lions averaged 105,231.

Dan Gelston can be followed at http://twitter.com/apgelston

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AP writer Mark Scolforo and freelance writers Christina Gallagher, Mike Still and Andy Elder contributed to this report.

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