Penn State’s football team came up short Saturday minus Joe Paterno, losing an emotionally-charged first game since a shocking child sex-abuse scandal engulfed the college campus.
In a hushed Beaver Stadium prior to Penn State’s final home game of the season against Nebraska, players from both teams gathered at midfield before the opening kickoff to kneel and pray for the victims of child abuse.
Interim Penn State head coach Tom Bradley called Saturday an “unprecedented” day in American college football history.
“It was unprecedented ever in the history of college sports what went on today,” said Bradley, following Penn State’s 17-14 loss. “We grieve for the victims, we feel sad for the families and the children.”
The Nittany Lions played for the first time in 46 years without Paterno — US college football’s winningest head coach — at the helm.
Paterno was fired this week as part of the fallout from the scandal swirling around former assistant Jerry Sandusky which has rocked the university to its core and put big-time American college athletics under scrutiny.
Sandusky, who was once considered to be Paterno’s heir apparent, has been charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over a span of 15 years, some of them at Penn State facilities.
Paterno’s son Jay took his father’s spot on the sidelines, coming down from the press box where he usually conducts business as the team’s quarterback coach.
“I think back about a week ago and where we were sitting, and obviously our world has turned upside down,” said Jay Paterno after Saturday’s game.
Penn State’s new president Rod Erickson — who replaced Graham Spanier, fired along with Paterno — said in a video message shown in the opening quarter that the university wanted to show its support for victims of abuse.
“This has been one of the saddest weeks in the history of Penn State and my heart goes out to those who have been victimized. I share your anger and sorrow,” Erickson said.
Security was stepped up at the stadium as police had to deal with an anonymous bomb threat on Friday night. Additional police were visible around the stadium and fans had to undergo more aggressive screenings before entering.
Police wanted to prevent a repeat of Wednesday night when students rioted on campus after learning of Paterno’s firing.
Game day was emotional as many of the 107,903 fans were clad in blue, the color of child-abuse prevention. Some of the players had tears in their eyes and wore shirts in support of Paterno that read “Joe Knows Football”.
“People saw the student body and the support that they had for the children and victims that were all here today,” Bradley said.
Erickson said they would use Saturday’s game to acknowledge the tragedy of child sex abuse. Donations for two organizations focused on the prevention of child abuse were being taken at the stadium entrances.
An airplane passed over the stadium with a sign that read “Cry for the Kids Not the Cowards & Liars.”
Critics of the Penn State administration’s handling of the scandal said Sandusky’s arrest, the firing of Paterno and the decision to place assistant coach Mike McQueary — who witnessed some of the alleged abuse — on leave did not go far enough.
There have been calls for the remainder of Penn State’s season to be canceled, but Erickson on Friday defended the school’s decision to finish it out.
McQueary told a grand jury he saw Sandusky sodomizing a boy in a campus shower in 2002 — testimony that eventually led to charges being filed against the ex-coach.
McQueary reported the abuse to Paterno, but neither they nor other school officials told police, according to the grand jury findings.
Senior vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley recently stepped down and have been charged with perjury and failing to notify authorities of suspected abuse. Like Sandusky, they have denied wrongdoing.
Paterno has not answered questions or revealed details about how much he knew about Sandusky’s actions.
There was no sign at the game of Paterno, who has a home nearby, although the crowd did chant his name at halftime.