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Penn State protester wearied of lonely fight in battle of ideology
He felt the wrath of fervent football fans
The 34-year-old father and Penn State graduate held two handwritten signs. One read: “Put abused kids first.”
Passers-by screamed expletives before the game against Nebraska, kicked and grabbed the signs, threw them to the ground, slapped Matko’s stomach and told him, “Not now, man, this is about the football players.” Matko didn’t respond.
Today, Matko’s signs are gone, left in a New York television studio after an appearance on Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show. Matko’s hands hurt from holding them, and he tired of sideways looks while toting them through airports.
“I’m trying to let it blow over,” Matko said in a recent telephone interview from his Pittsburgh-area home. “I don’t want to be the focal point of all this. … I’ve been trying to keep a low profile. I’ve never been in the center of anything like that.”
The chiropractor drove three hours to State College, Pa., on Nov. 12 expecting to join 20 or 30 others demonstrating against the Sandusky scandal with signs better made than his. On Matko’s Facebook page that day, he asked: “What if it was your son?” He wanted to turn attention from the football game to Sandusky’s alleged victims.
But Matko and his signs were an island in the sea of blue-clad supporters outside Beaver Stadium and, before long, he expected to be punched. He couldn’t believe people hefted cases of beer under their arms and wore Joe Paterno T-shirts and sang fight songs as if no scandal existed. A strip of black tape covered the eyes of the Nittany Lion logo on Matko’s hat.
“I want to be someone that my son can look up to and say, ‘Hey, my dad felt this strongly about doing something that he was willing to put safety on the back burner, not trying to preach to anybody, just trying to be a presence,’” Matko said. “It kind of chose me to do it. I didn’t really look for it. It just happened. I said, ‘I’m going to do it. To hell with everybody.’ “
The taunts and profanity don’t linger in Matko’s mind. Instead, he can’t forget a postgame vigil to discuss child sexual abuse and possible changes to Pennsylvania state law. Twenty or 25 people held candles and listened to a woman tell her story of abuse.
A student walked by and spit a wad of gum in the woman’s direction, Matko said.
“These people just don’t get it yet,” Matko said. “They’re just crushed. … They were trying so hard to block it out. It was really weird and surreal to me.”
During Matko’s drive home, he worried about the protest’s consequences. Matko wondered if he’d lose his job at a chiropractic clinic in a Pittsburgh suburb where his supervisor is a 1993 Penn State graduate. There wasn’t a problem.
Most of the calls and emails have been positive. A Facebook group in his honor — Bravo John Matko — popped up.
“I couldn’t disagree more,” Robert Matko wrote in a tweet the day after the game. “Not fare (sic) to punish team, fans, alumni.”
Robert Matko didn’t return a message.
“He’s willing to almost sever, or be so against, his own brother and he’d rather support a stranger he’s never met,” John Matko said.
“It’s really a cultural thing that’s going to take some time for them to really redefine themselves from just being a football school. They’re so much more than a football school. This football program just got out of control. They’re not handling it very well. I’m seeing that. You ask anybody who is outside the Penn State blue-and-white cult and they understand that.
“It just gets weirder and weirder.”
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