Penn State students cheer at a game in November. (Getty Images )
The turn of the calendar to September marks an awakening for college football fans. Hats and hoodies emblazoned with alma maters are dusted off, game-day party plans are organized and preseason rankings are scrutinized.
The same rituals hold true for about 4,800 Chicago-area Penn State graduates, with one notable difference: The conviction of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on child sexual abuse charges has brought severe sanctions upon the Big Ten team and has shaken the community as a whole.
With the Nittany Lions set to play their first game of the season Sept. 1, alums from around Chicago have expressed everything from doubts to dedication going into the first full season without longtime coach Joe Paterno, who died in January from cancer.
"I think we all, and not just Penn State, some 30 or 40 different schools that have competitive college football programs, we all need to re-evaluate just how important this really is," said Thomas Day, 32, of the Loop.
Day's connections to Penn State run deep. He grew up in State College, Pa., the home of the university. At 15, he was part of the Second Mile Foundation that was founded by Sandusky and ultimately implicated in creating an atmosphere of abuse. Before any of those accusations became public, Day was a mentor in the program. Day said he never witnessed anything inappropriate, and his involvement was overwhelmingly positive both as a mentor and participant in the program. Nonetheless, when news broke late last year of Sandusky's indictment and arrest, Day said, he was speechless.
"I think it kind of made me look back at my youth in a very, very different way," he said. "To a certain extent, that's still something I am dealing with." The scandal also has presented a certain "awkwardness" when he tells people where he went to school, and how close he was to Sandusky's program. Day said he believes it is clear Paterno knew about the abuse, and failed to do enough about it. He still plans to watch the games and support the team this season, but he hopes attention shifts from Penn State's football program—which he said should be an extracurricular activity—to its academic program.
"When you have 110,000 people filing into a stadium, millions more watching on TV and $70 [million] to $80 million changing hands, this clearly isn't an extracurricular activity," Day said.
There are signs that enthusiasm for the football program have waned. Sales of Penn State merchandise are down 50 percent since the Freeh report – a damning independent investigation of top leaders' conduct at the university – was released in July, according to Matt Powell of SportsOneSource, an industry analyst. Campus Colors, a local college sportswear seller, has seen a "big fall-off" of sales since the scandal broke, workers there say.
"We've laid off of Penn State merchandise," said Vice President Jon Rubenstein. "We don't sell anywhere as much as we used to, we don't stock as much as we used to."
The events of the past 10 months have impacted anyone with PSU connections, said Greg Myford, associate athletic director for business relations and communications. He said expectations for game attendance and admissions numbers remain strong.
"I think Penn Staters are now wanting to [move forward] and come together collectively to do that, and I think that's what we're seeing," he said.
Penn State alumna Alexis Puhala, 27, of Pilsen, said she wants to see Penn State gain back its reputation.
"It's definitely been tarnished," she said, adding that the scandal often is the first thing discussed when it comes to her alma mater. But she said she wants to move beyond that.
"[We are] taking it upon ourselves to kind of remake our name a little bit," she said. "We can represent ourselves, we don't have to have [former university president] Graham Spanier, Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky represent the whole school."
Lance Manion, 42, of Lincoln Park, doesn't share that opinion. He said a "shadow" has been cast over the season by the blame that has fallen upon Paterno in the scandal. He said he does not believe the results of the Freeh report, which suggests the former coach actively tried to cover for Sandusky.
"I have read [the report] through twice," he said. "I think it's filled with a lot of leaps of logic."
Though he has donated to the school several times in the past, he said he is withholding any more support until both Penn State's president and board of trustees resign for accepting the Freeh report and for what he says is a failure to defend the university. He plans on attending a few games in person this season, and also is helping to organize a protest against the university at its next board meeting.
"Ultimately there has to be a restoration of Joe Paterno's legacy and his record," he said.
Others are simply looking to the future. Bob Pirri, 32, of Roscoe Village, is finishing up his Penn State liberal arts degree through online courses, and said he is more excited for this season than any other in the past 10 years.
"To see all of our players that did step up and decide to stay and take on the challenge … they made a strong life decision that you have to respect, and I respect them for it," he said.
As the social chairman for the Chicago chapter of PSU alums, he said the group has chosen a bar on the North Side to call home this year. He said he won't look at this season any differently than any others.
"We move forward as anybody else would. You have to be cognizant of what went on. We feel worse for victims than probably anybody else," he said. "We want to move forward, because where else is there to go?"
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