STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Athletes often talk of the playing field being their sanctuary, the one place they can go to shut out the distractions — good and bad — of real life.
If ever a team and its fans needed an escape, it is Penn State.
Still reeling from the child sex-abuse scandal that has rocked Penn State to its very core and cost Joe Paterno his job, the Nittany Lions' game against Nebraska on Saturday will be part pep rally, part cleansing.
"This is not about even a football team, or who coaches or doesn't coach," Gov. Tom Corbett said Friday after attending the board of trustees meeting.
It is about picking up the pieces.
Former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, once considered Paterno's heir apparent, is accused of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span, with several of the alleged assaults occurring on Penn State property. Two university officials are accused of perjury, and Paterno and president Graham Spanier were fired for not doing enough to prevent the alleged abuse.
This will be the first game in almost a half-century — 46 years, to be exact — that Paterno is not leading the Nittany Lions. Tom Bradley, Paterno's lead assistant on the field for the past 11 years, is serving as interim coach.
"We are obviously in a very unprecedented situation," Bradley said Thursday. "I just have to find a way to restore the confidence and to start a healing process with everybody."
The scandal would be damaging enough to a university that prides itself on its integrity. That it involved Paterno, major college football's winningest coach and the man who'd come to symbolize all that was good at Penn State, made it that much worse.
Thousands of angry students paraded through the streets after Paterno was fired Wednesday night, some throwing rocks and bottles and tipping over a TV news van.
"Having (Paterno) taken away from us made us feel lost," Leah Blasko, a junior from Pittsburgh, said at the candle light vigil held Friday night as a show of support for the alleged victims. "Tonight really gave us a place to put ourselves back together."
Saturday's game will be another step.
Instead of the usual "whiteout," Beaver Stadium is expected to be awash in blue in a sign of support for the alleged victims. Donations for two child-abuse prevention organizations are being accepted at the stadium gates. Other fund-raisers taking place have already raised more than $200,000.
"We are supporting the victims," said Kristie Winiarski, a senior from Doylestown, Pa., who was selling homemade baked goods Friday to raise money for Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania. "We want to show the world we can do more than riot."
State College police Capt. John Gardner promised a heavy police presence to deter a recurrence of the violence that occurred Wednesday night. There were already signs of it Friday night, with police officers walking up and down Beaver Avenue, a street popular with students because of its bars and restaurants.
Gardner said he does not anticipate any problems Saturday.
"I've got a lot of faith in the vast majority of Penn State and I think they're going to do the right thing," he said. "Come out, show support for the victims of this terrible scandal and enjoy themselves at a football game."
One person not expected to be there is Paterno, who has stayed out of sight since Wednesday night.
"That's Joe Paterno's decision," new Penn State president Rod Erickson said Friday when asked if he expected Paterno at the game. "Clearly he's welcome to come, as any other member of the public would be."
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