Football returns to Penn State in wake of Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno's death

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – At 9:25 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning, the first Penn State football team coached by Bill O'Brien rolled up Porter Road in a series of blue buses. Most of the players sat silently in headphones, some heads bobbing as they looked out the windows at the rows of fans standing in the grass, cheering them on.

As the buses got closer to Beaver Stadium, the sound of the honks and sirens from the police escort was drowned out by a deep roar that rolled over the hills of Happy Valley. The roar was touchdown-loud, as if the first game of the O'Brien era had already started. It was a roar filled with relief, resolution and raw emotion.

Finally: football.

Since the Nittany Lions last played in January, longtime head coach Joe Paterno died, former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse of children, a damning Freeh Commission report accused school administrators and officials of doing nothing to stop Sandusky, and the NCAA handed down years of devastating sanctions against the Penn State program. The people here are torn between looking forward to a new season with enthusiasm and looking back with deep disappointment. There were many T-shirts outside the stadium in tribute to Paterno on Saturday morning. Some called him "More than a man, more than a coach." Others said, "Just one thing: Thank you." And although the statue of Paterno was removed after the NCAA vacated all of the former coach's wins dating back to 1998, a fan built a makeshift memorial not far from where the old one was uprooted.

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It was a Paterno bobblehead placed in the grass with a bouquet of flowers.

Dozens of fans stopped to click photos of the tiny doll, including a married couple wearing matching T-shirts that read "We Are … Pissed Off."

Asked what exactly was bothering him and his wife, Ron Gossert said, "The way the university has handled this. The way the media has handled this."

Gossert, who went to school here, was asked which upset him the most.

"Equally," he said.

Still other fans wore shirts that said "We Care," a tribute to Sandusky's victims. And others simply wanted it known that Penn State is still a great place, still a great institution.

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But in one sense there was a singularity of purpose in the hours leading up to the first game of the post-Paterno era. The Penn State players, everyone felt, deserved all the support this community could possibly give. That's why so many traveled for this particular game, on this particular weekend. Many statements were made outside Beaver Stadium Saturday morning, from fans' mouths and on their backs, but inside the huge football cathedral, there was only one statement to make.

And at exactly 11 a.m., when the Nittany Lions took the field for the first time in uniforms with names on the back, the roar that greeted them was clear, loud and without dissent.

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