Penn State prepares for the strangest game ever

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – If this weren’t such a small town, the following would qualify as an urban legend. Instead, call it a semi-rural legend:

Word is, Jerry Sandusky went shopping on Wednesday.

At Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Two workers at the store told me Friday that it was true – but said they weren’t in the store at the time and didn’t see him personally. Four other workers stiffly declined comment. Nobody refuted the story.

The band played on in "Paternoville" outside Beaver Stadium on Wednesday, but it has hardly been a normal week on the campus of Penn State.
(Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

If it’s true – Sandusky shops while Penn State burns – it is one more offensive twist in the worst week this school has ever seen.

Deposed legend Joe Paterno is hunkered down at home, dealing with a high-powered defense attorney and a PR specialist. The school is flailing for direction with a stopgap president and athletic director. Rod Erickson was elevated to the top administrative position Friday. Mark Sherburne is acting AD. Interim coach Tom Bradley tries to pull together a staff missing its receivers coach (Mike McQueary) deposed to administrative leave and with another offensive assistant presumably quite distracted (Jay Paterno). Players have seen their last home game of 2011 turned into a sideshow.

And while the entirety of Penn state suffers, the alleged child molester who started it all is said to be out in public as if this is business as usual? Is there no shame?

Rubbing his current freedom in State College’s face would seem to require either an incredible amount of hubris, or denial, or perhaps an industrial-strength belief in his own innocence. Whatever the root cause, it is shocking.

And it only adds to the surreal run-up to this Nebraska-Penn State meeting Saturday – a matchup that once appeared to be quite important. Now it’s simply the weirdest game anyone has ever seen.

Nobody knows what will happen. Nobody knows how to act.

[Forde: Firing prompts chaos, sadness at PSU]

Will it be an escape for Nittany Nation? A cathartic moment? A display of anger? A display of perspective? A celebration of misplaced priorities? A unifying moment? Another divisive one in a week full of them?

Possibly it will be all those things at once. This is a complex issue that has affected different people in different ways. There may not be a consensus emotion.

Will the students show up loud and proud in support of their fellow students in uniform? Or will the rumors be true that some of them are planning a mass walk-out of Beaver Stadium to protest the firing of the iconic Paterno? Or will some stay away out of shame and anger at the role of Paterno and McQueary in failing to do everything in their power to help the children allegedly assaulted by Sandusky?

Will the students wear blue in recognition and support of child-abuse victims? Or will they wear black to mourn Paterno’s absence after 46 as the head coach and 61 years at Penn State?

Will the players have any focus? Will the coaches have any plan?

There have been player-only meetings, as they grapple with the reality of losing Paterno and accepting Bradley – the defensive coordinator – on both sides of the ball. They must decide whether they’re still all-in for the home stretch of the season while playing for what assuredly is a lame-duck staff.

“I think we’ve got to understand that this team has put in a lot of hard work,” Bradley said Thursday. “Saturday will be Senior Day for many of them. They deserve to have this day.

“Obviously, they have had a tremendous amount of distractions over the past week. It is a very resilient group. They will come to play on Saturday.”

[Wetzel: Process of healing begins for Penn State]

Tributes to Paterno on shoes or helmets would not be a surprise. But much more important would be gestures or symbols of support for Sandusky’s alleged victims.

How will the alums and other fans react? Will they still fill the 107,282-seat Beaver Stadium? After a brief spike on Wednesday, when early in the day it appeared this game would be Paterno’s last at home, average resale ticket prices jumped to $157, according to The New York Times. But with Paterno no longer coaching, The Times reported that price plummeted to $112 Thursday.

How will campus police, stadium security and the school administration react? Will protests be tolerated or squashed? What would the protests be – against the school for allowing a predator free rein on campus for years, or against the school for firing JoePa?

And, well down the list of curiosities, how will Nebraska respond? The Cornhuskers have been innocently sucked into a tsunami; will it affect them at all?

We won’t know any of those things for sure until the game arrives at noon ET Saturday. After an unprecedented week of action and reaction, trying to predict mood and outcome beforehand is impossible.

But as the week has progressed one thing has become clear: football still matters to Penn State fans and students. If anything, it may still matter too much.

Fury at the media is on the rise. But if Penn Staters are angry at anyone, it should be the accused pedophile allegedly out shopping in the midst of their shame and pain.

Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. Follow him on Twitter. Send Pat a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Nov 11, 2011