MY FAVORITE MOMENT FROM PENN STATE FOOTBALL IS ONE THAT DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING TO ANYONE EXCEPT ME—EVEN THOUGH I SHARED IT WITH 97,000 PEOPLE. ANYONE WHO HAS BEEN TO A ROCKING BEAVER STADIUM PROBABLY HAS HIS OWN VARIATION OF THIS, A random moment that serves as a defining snapshot framed in blue and white.
Mine came on my first trip to the stadium. It was 1993, Penn State's first season in the Big Ten and my first autumn in central Pennsylvania. I was a cub reporter at the Centre Daily Times—I worked news then, not sports, but that hardly mattered on all-consuming football Saturdays. Penn State was playing Michigan, and I was given the assignment of doing a behind-the-scenes look at ABC's national telecast.
The day started badly, as it took me two hours (rather than the 45 minutes I had allotted) to make the 10-mile drive from my Bellefonte home down the Benner Pike to the stadium. Clearly I had a lot to learn about game day traffic.
Finally I got there, waded through the mobs of fans, made brief contact with the ABC folks in the production truck and then headed out to find Lynn Swann on the sideline. It was close to game time, and I poked around the bowels of the stadium, trying to find a way to get to the field. It should have been simple, but I couldn't figure out how to get down there. I felt like the rookie I was.
I took a left turn into a shadowy tunnel. And when I emerged at the other end, I was on the field—I realized that I had just walked through the tunnel. On a brilliant fall day I was looking up at the towering stands of the south end zone, which were packed with fans in full frenzy. Cheerleaders bounded about the field, leading chants of "We are... Penn State!" The growls exploded from the stadium loudspeakers.
It was a rush, plain and simple. The spirit of college football, laid out before my eyes.
Then I spotted Swann and walked over to meet him. My movement was well-timed, because just then, running through the tunnel, came Coach Paterno, leading a charge of behemoths in blue and white.
There it was, Penn State football.
THAT SEASON WAS A GOOD TIME FOR PENN State fans. Five of the players Paterno led onto the field that day—Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, Bobby Engram, Kyle Brady and Jeff Hartings—would be the core of the squad that would go undefeated the next year. Those players and others such as Mike Archie, Jon Witman, Andre Johnson, Marco Rivera and Freddie Scott powered an offense that was arguably Penn State's best ever. The '94 team scored nearly 48 points and gained more than 500 yards per game. Drubbings were handed out like Halloween candy. The other guys didn't have a chance, except for the Illini, the game I remember best because it was Penn State's gutsiest performance of the season.
That game, played in Champaign on Nov. 12, was PSU's chance to clinch the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. My bosses at the newspaper had wisely deployed me—this is where the reporter's job starts to sound a little less glamorous—at Damon's, The Place for Ribs, in State College. They had the biggest TVs in town.