An Opportunity, Not a Punishment

By Chris Buchignani, September 8, 2014

As I write this, Penn Staters everywhere are still celebrating the immediate restoration of Penn State’s football scholarships and bowl eligibility. We are all happy for the kids on the team and the coaching staff (and of course, for ourselves as fans too). Great opportunities await a deserving, hard-working group.

As part of an organization dedicated to curating the history and culture of the Nittany Valley in the name of sharing its story and spirit, I frequently find myself wondering how these last few years will be remembered in the decades to come. Right now, we are still way too close to the events and players in question, and the story continues to evolve in often-unexpected ways – today’s reprieve, for example, would have seemed a far-fetched notion in July of 2012. We just can’t forecast how time and distance will shape our understanding of these matters. Nevertheless, I do believe certain tidbits of that larger narrative are beginning to crystalize.

In particular, I will draw your attention to the morning of July 25, 2012, when two senior football players – Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti – both legacies whose fathers had starred for Joe Paterno’s teams, led an impromptu “press conference” outside the football building after a weight training session. Their message was raw, unpolished, emotional, and real. To watch it now, with knowledge of everything that transpired afterward, inspires chills. Listen to their words:

ZORDICH: We’re going to stick together through this. We’re going to see this thing through… We know it’s not going to be easy, but we know what we’re made of. As a team, we don’t see this as a punishment; this is an opportunity. This is the greatest opportunity a Penn Stater could ever be given… We’re going to embrace this opportunity, and we’re going to make something very special happen in 2012. Together, we’re going to get through this thing to the end.

What sounded then, with analysts and pundits predicting our doom, like admirable, if ultimately futile, bravado turned out to be a prescient forecast of a season for the ages, a series of magical moments that, by its end, commanded the grudging respect of even the harshest critics. “The greatest opportunity a Penn Stater could ever be given.” What wisdom to discern that challenging truth. What guts to declare it to the world.

MAUTI: No sanction, no politician, is ever going to take away what we’ve got here. None of that is ever going to tear us apart… We’re going to fight for Penn State. We’re going to fight for each other. Because this is what Penn State is about, fighting through adversity. We’re going to show up every Saturday, and we’re going to raise hell.

Remember, at this time, every player on the roster was free to transfer elsewhere – immediately and without penalty – away from the scrutiny, away from the uncertainty, away from the stigma and the chaos and the anguish. What took more than a century to build up could have all but vanished in mere hours, taking with it the institutional, psychological, and financial bedrock of one of America’s great college towns.

Who knows what would have happened without their leadership, their resolve? I shudder at the prospect, but take heart in its unlikelihood. For this month’s Town&Gown, I wrote that the Nittany Valley’s spirit may be characterized by an “enduring capacity for attracting a special brand of people, its power to captivate the hearts and imaginations of those who will enrich and sustain it.” That is the story of this place and its people.

At one of the most critical junctures in the University’s history, a select few young men, who represented the very best of the Penn State Family, seized the moment. In their unfiltered honesty, truthfully sharing the contents of their hearts, they outshone their elders, inspired a downcast community, and set the stage for a remarkable tale of loyalty, resiliency, and love. In no way was it fair to expect this of them  They acted because they had to, because they are Nittany Lions. We will never forget them for it.

Thank you. Now, and always.