The letter arrived last fall, delivered to the Penn State football offices in the days following the Nittany Lions' embarrassing 38-7 loss to Ohio State in Columbus. It was addressed to sophomore running back Curtis Enis, an Ohio native who had worked himself into an emotional frenzy for the game and then rushed for just 34 yards on 11 carries. "I choked," he had said after the defeat, flogging himself much too hard. Then came the letter, mixed in with a batch of autograph requests. In his short life Enis has endured academic uncertainty, athletic failure and the sting of racial taunting. But the words in the letter shook him more than he could have imagined.
You suck. We wouldn't want you at Ohio State, anyway.
There was no signature and no return address. Enis could have chucked the letter on the spot. He could have burned it to show his disgust, but he kept it. He took it home to his State College apartment, where it sat for nearly a year, words of disdain worth transforming into motivation. Last Friday he packed the letter in his overnight bag and went to the hotel where Penn State players sleep on the night before home games. On Saturday afternoon he took the letter to Beaver Stadium for the rematch with Ohio State, a game with huge implications in the Big Ten and national championship races. Before he put on his uniform, Enis pulled out the letter, read it one last time and then tore it into small pieces and threw it away.
The beauty of college football is that for all its stodgy reliance on tradition (golden helmets, "between the hedges" and Old Oaken Buckets ad nauseam), the sport roils with change. Notre Dame can be really bad. Florida can go to Baton Rouge and lose. And in one year Penn State can grow up, the same players can be completely different.
In last year's game in Columbus, the Nittany Lions' Brandon Short was a redshirt freshman linebacker who spent the afternoon on the griddle side of Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace's pancakes. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he says. Last Saturday, with Pace now wearing a St. Louis Rams uniform, Short had seven tackles (two for losses), an interception and half a sack.
A year ago Mike McQueary was a junior backup quarterback, a carrot-topped hometown kid from State College whose high school buddies were convinced he would never play for Penn State when it really counted. After beginning this season as the starter and easily winning four times, McQueary survived the toughest game of his life last Saturday, getting tagged so often that he ended the afternoon with a ringing headache and a sprained thumb. But McQueary endured and guided Penn State 86 yards in the fourth quarter for the winning touchdown. "Just decided to let it go and stop worrying about making a mistake," he said afterward.
Last fall Penn State wideout Joe Jurevicius was jailed by Ohio State All-America defensive back Shawn Springs and held to a single catch. Last Saturday he caught five passes for 59 yards and blocked ferociously. "I've been taking shots in the Ohio papers for a year, 'overrated receiver' and all that," Jurevicius said. "Bragging's on the Pennsylvania side now."
They all learned something from the beating they took last year, but none learned more than Enis. He scored the winning touchdown in Penn State's 31-27 victory last Saturday, bolting up the right hash mark off a sweep from 26 yards out with 10:31 to play and leaving much of the record crowd of 97,282 apoplectic. On three subsequent possessions Ohio State failed to retake the lead, leaving Enis to finish the Buckeyes with four killing runs for a total of 36 yards in the final 2:24. As darkness descended on the stadium, McQueary took a knee on the Ohio State five, and Penn State students heaved a blizzard of soft drink cups into the air while shouting the obligatory "We're Number 1!" Their chant would become prophetic hours later with LSU's upset of top-ranked Florida (page 36).
Flush with their biggest win since 1994, when the Lions went 12-0 and finished second in the polls to 13-0 Nebraska, Penn State players rushed into their locker room in celebration. They had known the stakes—on the Monday before the game, coach Joe Paterno had told them, "This week you'll find out if you're a good team"—but few of them knew just how badly Enis wanted to win. In the postgame euphoria he surprised his teammates when he stood on a stool in the middle of the locker room and, with tears streaming down his cheeks and his voice cracking, yelled to them, "I want you guys to know that this game meant so much to me." Moments later he sat behind a podium at a press conference and cried there too.
Before last year's game against the Buckeyes, the first of Enis's college career on Ohio soil, he had said it was the biggest game of his life, and he had played as if overwhelmed by that truth (and overwhelmed, to be fair, by a brutal Ohio State front four, three of whom were seniors). "Curtis is a very emotional guy," Paterno said before this year's game. "Sometimes he blurts out things that don't do him a lot of good." But in the week leading to this year's game Enis throttled his emotions so thoroughly that he seemed detached. His customary Yessirs and Nosirs were delivered in clipped monotones, with lifeless eyes.