“We’re maybe more determined than ever to be supportive,” said Mike Bealla, of Harrisburg. “If you’re a fan, you’re a fan. The spirit will be there.”
They threw their creative energy into homemade signs, T-shirts, and tailgate feasts. And Penn State stores sold T-shirts touting “Tradition” and “We Are.”
Sue Wilson, a Penn State graduate, set up camp in the same tailgate lot she’s celebrated for more than 20 years. Wearing a “House that Joe Built,” T-shirt, Wilson said the NCAA or former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s university-commissioned report did not diminish Paterno’s accomplishments.
“He was a man of honor and superior high-moral integrity,” he said. “I knew him and I was honored to know him. I miss him.”
About 90 minutes before kickoff, a plane flew over Beaver Stadium with a banner reading “Oust Erickson/trustees,” referring to Penn State president Rodney Erickson.
But while much of the famed gameday atmosphere remained the same, there are still plenty of changes in the first home opener without Paterno since 1949.
Hours before kickoff, the Penn State football Twitter account posted a picture of the team uniforms hanging in the locker room _ jerseys with names on the back. More than 90 percent of the roster stayed after the NCAA handed down its punishment July 23. A blue ribbon also will be placed on the back of helmets to show support for child abuse victims.
Some 15,000 fans gave a preview of what to expect on gameday at Penn State’s pep rally Friday night at the stadium. As the team sat on bleachers atop the field, and O’Brien gave a brief, but inspirational, speech, a familiar refrain echoed through the Beaver Stadium crowd.
“We Are … Penn State!”
“I can’t tell you how much we need to hear you all tomorrow,” O’Brien said at the time. “We need to hear you loud and proud to cheer these guys on.”
The Nittany Lions were the stars of a 45-minute show that built up to the team’s entrance about two-thirds of the way into the event. They were barely there for 10 minutes, watching the debut of the 2012 season video to get the crowd pumped for kickoff before listening to O’Brien’s brief talk.
It was an emotional outlet for students and fans who have united behind the players following strict NCAA sanctions.
“This is a very, very special group of players, led by a very special senior class that has made a huge commitment,” O’Brien said. “Our guys have worked extremely hard … They’re tired of hitting each other and they can’t wait to get going. Thank you very much and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
The rest of the athletic department had the chance to show its support, as well, on Friday. New signs at Beaver Stadium include the slogan “One Team” _ a motto for the entire department, not just the football team. Coaches from other Penn State teams also addressed the crowd.
“We’re all one voice, and that one voice needs to be heard with great passion, great pride and great enthusiasm. Not just tonight, not just tomorrow, but from here on moving forward,” said men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers in an impassioned speech.