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Penn State takes a step toward redemption

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Penn State takes a step toward redemption
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Fans greeted the Penn State players as they arrived at Beaver Stadium, but Joe Paterno's absence was …

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The morning was proceeding like most home football Saturdays at the Kendig family tailgate outside Beaver Stadium. Pat and Bonnie were serving tenderloin-and-egg sandwiches, beer cans were popped open, and 20 guests mingled in the bright sunlight outside their RV. It's been that way for more than two decades.

Suddenly someone shouted, "Buses!" Everyone scurried to the edge of the street. The blue buses carrying the Penn State Nittany Lions to the stadium were rolling by, signaling that the worst week in Penn State history was finally going to give way to a football game.

While everyone waved at the buses and cheered the players, a teary Bonnie Kendig slipped away into the RV. The emotional toll of the week was still being felt. Joe Paterno was not on the team bus, and won't ever be again. The fans didn't know it at the time, but the team left the first seat on the first bus vacant in honor of their legendary former coach.

While others involved in the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal have been victimized far more than the iconic former coach, it was his unceremonious firing Wednesday night – and absence here Saturday – that the fans were dealing with on game day.

"You would never have thought something like this would be the end of Joe Paterno's time," said fan Matt O'Hora, wearing a blue Penn State jersey.

O'Hora's grandfather, Jim, was once the defensive coordinator at Penn State – he was succeeded in that position by none other than Sandusky. A young assistant coach named Joe Paterno lived with the O'Hora family for his first 10 years in State College, from 1950-60. Jim O'Hora had to gently kick him out of the house to make room for his third child, and it was shortly thereafter that Joe met and married Sue Paterno.

Joe and Sue still live in the same modest house they moved into after that. It's been part of their Camelot existence until this surreal week, when the house became a media camp-out location.

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Brian Tumler, another guest at the Kendig tailgate, has donated in the past to Sandusky's charity, The Second Mile – the place that now is alleged to have been a grooming ground for his victims.

"I wish I had my money back," said Tumler, a lifelong Nittany Lions fan from Lambertville, N.J.

He understands that the heinous nature of the alleged crimes spurred Penn State to swift and dramatic action – "When there are children involved, you have to do something" – but cannot believe Paterno had to go. Not the way he did.

"In the long run, when everything is said and done, they're going to regret what they did to Joe," Tumler said.

The construction worker said he was working a job at the Monmouth County Courthouse on Wednesday morning when he heard the news that Paterno was going to retire.

"I'm on a scissor lift in tears," Tumler said.

That night, he sat stunned in his garage when the news came that Paterno's season-ending retirement plans had been pre-empted with his immediate dismissal by the school's board of trustees.

"My wife asked me, 'Are you OK?' " Tumler said. "I said, 'I don't know.' "

He had plenty of emotional company. Thousands of Penn State fans didn't know what to think or how to feel as a week of shame and scandal damaged much of what the school had stood for.

That led to widespread uncertainty about how this game day would unfold. Turns out, Penn State's 17-14 loss to Nebraska was more ennobling than dispiriting.

"Maybe," said interim coach Tom "Scrap" Bradley, "today's the start of the healing process."

There actually figures to be many more painful revelations and developments to come, as a grim legal case plays out. This horrific story will continue for a long, long time. But with the entire nation watching a game that some thought shouldn't even be played – including Nebraska coach Bo Pelini – the awful first chapter of the Sandusky saga ended here Saturday in uplifting fashion.

[ Slideshow: Penn State vs. Nebraska photos ]

The Penn State community comported itself with class and dignity – a dramatic departure from the student riot downtown Wednesday night.

A huge throng gathered to greet the Nittany Lions as they got off the buses at the stadium. First off was an emotional Jay Paterno, assistant coach and son of the man fired Wednesday. When Bradley got off the bus, he went into the stadium and shook hands with the fans in the front row – then he went into the student section to greet them.

As anticipated, Penn State's portion of the crowd of 107,903 was dressed in solid blue in support of child-abuse victims – even Bradley, who always wears a white shirt on the sideline, went blue Saturday. More than $22,500 was raised outside the stadium for Central Pennsylvania victims of child abuse, and an online movement has raised more than $200,000. A moment of silence was held in honor of all victims of child abuse.

Instead of charging out of the tunnel before the game, Penn State's players walked out arm-in-arm. Bradley did not lead them, but rather came out behind – this was the players' moment. Caught in the crossfire of an emotional situation not of their making, this was their opportunity to stand together amid the chaos.

"The 120 kids on the roster had nothing to do with this," Tumler said before heading into the stadium.

They already had seen their larger-than-life leader break down in tears in front of them after announcing his resignation Wednesday – a display defensive tackle Jordan Hill said was similar to watching his father cry at the death of his grandmother. On Thursday, someone read the team a letter from JoePa.

"You could definitely feel the emotion he poured into the letter," safety Nick Sukay said.

But the gesture that spoke most eloquently for the entire day came at midfield before the game started. Players from both teams converged in something of a group hug – solidarity from the Nittany Lions, sympathy and support from the Cornhuskers. Then they took a knee for a long, poignant time, as Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown led them in prayer. The massive stadium was very nearly silent.

"That was a great moment," Sukay said. "We were united with Nebraska. It felt like we were united with the whole stadium."

Said offensive tackle Quinn Barham, "That touched my heart a lot."

There were signs in the stadium urging unity and school pride. None mentioned Paterno or hinted at the divisions within the university community (there's a very good chance any of those kinds of signs were confiscated on entry by tighter-than-normal security).

The students initiated a couple of Paterno chants in the second half, but those were the only in-game salutes to the deposed icon.

In the actual football game, a Penn State team that endured a tumultuous week acquitted itself well. The Nittany Lions rallied after falling behind 17-0, getting possession twice in the final minutes with a chance to tie or win. Neither possession turned into a serious threat, but the gritty display in defeat was greeted with a thunderous cheer of "We Are … Penn State!"

Bradley removed his cap and waved it to the students when leaving the field. Unless something unforeseeable happens, this will be the longtime assistant and Penn State alum's only game here as head coach of the home team. Under impossible circumstances, he did his job well Saturday.

The only coach who had a more difficult job was Jay Paterno. He began his first day without his dad as a boss by visiting Joe at 6:15 a.m.

"I didn't want to spend a lot of time there," Jay said. "It was going to be tough for him and it was going to be tough for me."

One of the things Jay did do during that brief visit was to grab a white coat out of the closet – one Joe has worn before on the sidelines. And he left a letter for his parents.

The contents of that are private, he said.

After being surrounded by cameras and microphones for a long time postgame, Jay Paterno finally got up to leave.

"I'm going to walk home now (to his parents' house)," he said. "Do not follow me."

They had gotten through a difficult day at Penn State. It wasn't easy and it wasn’t victorious, but at least it was an improvement on the nightmarish preceding week. It was a small step on the long road to redemption.