STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — They call this isolated dip in central Pennsylvania’s mountains Happy Valley, where withered fields of corn stalks inch toward Penn State’s campus, cloaked in brick and the bright red and yellow leaves of autumn.
But happiness is elusive these days, from the growing row of television satellite trucks encamped along College Avenue to state troopers in riot gear on horseback in front of Beaver Stadium to hundreds of candles dripping wax in front of Old Main.
The candles — with pictures of the Virgin Mary and scents such as lemon crisp or chai rooibos — remain from Friday night’s vigil by thousands of students to remember the alleged victims of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Nine days ago, he was charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse, initiating an ever-widening scandal that has shaken this idyllic campus and exposed a conflicted relationship with its beloved football program.
No one seems to know what happens next, as the town sorts through a week of chaos.
The uncertainty washed up against Beaver Stadium on Saturday, where the university’s first game without Joe Paterno since 1949 mixed the usual blue cans of Bud Light, the Allegheny Rib Company’s stand offering Paterno masks and speakers blasting the Puhdys’ “Baba O’Reilly” with John Matko’s lonely vigil on Curtin Street.
“Honor the abused kids,” one of Matko’s two signs read, “by cancelling the game and season now.”
Fans clad in blue, ostensibly to support victims of child sexual abuse, cursed Matko, grabbed and kicked his signs, tossed beer, slapped his stomach, wagged their fingers and ridiculed him.
“That is such [expletive],” one young woman yelled at Matko. “Who the [expletive] do you think you are?”
“Not now, man,” bellowed one of few passers-by who abstained from profanity, “today is about the football players.”
Football drove much of what occurred in State College last week. After the university’s board of trustees fired Paterno in a late-night phone call Wednesday for not informing police after being told of an alleged sex assault by Sandusky, thousands of students flooded narrow confines of downtown State College in a protest that quickly turned riotous.
Baseball-sized rocks and bottles pelted outnumbered state troopers in riot gear. A television van was overturned, its windows bashed out. Chants of “We want JoePa” and “[Expletive] the media” rained down like the clouds of OC spray the troopers fought back the crowds with.
No one tried to help Pat Daugherty, the 64-year-old who owns The Tavern, begin to clean up the destruction at 1:45 a.m.
As interim coach Tom Bradley was asked about his starting quarterback four minutes into his introductory press conference in Beaver Stadium’s sterile media room Thursday morning, the broken glass and downed light poles with silver and blue Christmas decorations and crushed Natural Light beer cans were swept away downtown.
You couldn’t tell anything happened, other than Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett begging students to refrain from violence and cruisers packed with troopers staged downtown.
Bradley wouldn’t talk about Sandusky. Not after the first, second or sixth question. Bradley, at Penn State since 1975 as a player or coach, swore he knew nothing about Sandusky’s 15 years of molestation and rape of young boys the 23-page grand jury indictment alleged.
Then Bradley insisted receivers coach Mike McQueary, who reported the alleged rape of a 10-year-old boy by Sandusky in a university locker room to Paterno in 2002, would coach Saturday. Hours later, the university announced McQueary wouldn’t coach because of multiple, unspecified threats. McQueary was put on paid, indefinite administrative leave Friday, with interim university president Rodney Erickson calling the situation “complicated.”
The same day, Penn State senior Kristie Winiarski set up a table outside The Corner on College Avenue filled with all things blue: fudge, ribbons, cupcakes, cake balls. Wednesday’s riot surged a few blocks from where she sold treats for $1 each to support victims of child sexual abuse.
“I was disappointed the world could see the riot and associate it with all Penn State students,” she said. “Not all students feel that way.”
But by the satellite trucks and bright lights of television cameras across the street, passers-by regularly shouted at reporters to “go home” and less family-friendly phrases, at odds with signs in town businesses welcoming Nebraska fans or the “thank you” that follows each cheer of “We are Penn State.”
“This is my home,” one television reporter shot back at a student.
At Friday night’s candlelight gathering, one speaker complained to the thousands in attendance of the “negative publicity” heaped on the university. Arm in arm, they sang Coldplay a capella and thrust candles skyward, chanted “We are Penn State” and sang the alma mater.
“May no act of ours,” one line goes, “bring shame.”
And so at Saturday’s game, as Matko was cursed and volunteers distributed literature about child sexual abuse, Penn Staters gathered around Paterno’s statue that transformed into a shrine. They wanted to forget this week. They wanted to move on. Many refused to give their names, preferring to pull the cloak of anonymity back over this town.
But J.J. Kowal, a 2003 Penn State graduate from Frederick, Md., tried to find a place to throw away the sign supporting the alleged abuse victims security wouldn’t let him bring into the stadium.
“The grand jury report is terrible,” the father of two small children said, then glanced at his sign urging the game’s proceeds be donated to abused children. “Oh, well. It’s going in the trash now.”