STATE COLLEGE —
The crowd gathered early in the freezing drizzle in the shadow of Beaver Stadium.
It was four hours before Thursday’s memorial service for the man who built this place, the man who packed this house with more than 100,000 people on fall Saturday afternoons, the man who, many said, was Penn State.
They laid flowers at the feet of a larger-than-life statue of the man. They left photos and caps and memorabilia. An American flag was draped over the statue’s right shoulder.
An Italian flag was hung below it. Candles somehow found a way to remain ignited in the steady cold mist. At the statue’s feet, someone had placed a 1.5-liter bottle of Old Grand Dad bourbon. The man liked his bourbon.
Deb Benigni, class of ’91, laid a bouquet of white roses and walked around the shrine. She and her friend, Jamie Johnson, class of ’96, had driven to State College from northern Virginia, four hours, to be here. There was no place else they’d rather be than standing out on the rain on a miserable January morning.
"I don’t know if you can put it into words," Benigni said. She took out her phone and opened up a photo of her, standing arm-in-arm with the man. She had the photo taken with him more than a decade ago. She carries it with her everywhere.
"That’s why we’re here," said Benigni, who works for the U.S. State Department, her eyes misting. "In this day and age, I don’t think there will ever be another like him. We were all his students."
Cindy Robertson’s daughter, Tiffany, was told in high school that she shouldn’t try to go to college, that she wouldn’t be able to cut it, particularly at a big school. She had a learning disability, and her high school guidance counselor told her that she would fall through the cracks at someplace like Penn State.
But she wanted to go to Penn State, her mother said. It’s a family tradition. Her father went to Penn State, as did her uncle. She made a lot of trips to Beaver Stadium with family for football games, and she loved the place.
One such trip, she got to meet the man, and she mentioned that she wanted to go to Penn State but that her teachers told her she couldn’t do it. The man told her, "Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something."
She went to Penn State and graduated in 2006. She made the dean’s list. Now, she lives in Hershey and works at the Giant Center, staging concerts and other events.
"When she had a tough time, she always thought of his words," her mother said.
Thursday, Tiffany Robertson volunteered at the Bryce Jordan Center to help with the man’s memorial service. She told her mother, "I owe this to that man."
Doug Sumpman rolled up his right sleeve. On his forearm, in ink, is a portrait of the man. "He’s my right-hand man," Sumpman, class of ’92, said.
Sumpman drove to State College Thursday morning. He didn’t have a ticket to the afternoon memorial service and planned to watch it on television, somewhere downtown. "Either you get it or you don’t," Sumpman said.
He pointed to his right forearm.
"I," he said, "get it."
In the lobby of the All Sports Museum, a flat-screen played highlights from the man’s coaching career. There was the touchdown run by D.J. Dozier in the ’86 Fiesta Bowl. There was the long touchdown pass to Greg Garrity in the ’82 Sugar Bowl.
On the opposite wall are plaques listing the university’s academic all-american athletes. The list of football players is the longest.
In the back of the lobby, by the case containing the school’s national championship trophies, Pat Scanlan signed a card shaped like the man’s iconic glasses and added it to those taped to a window.
He came to Penn State after six years in the Navy, graduating in ’96 and getting a job at the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station. He now works as an engineer at a nuclear power plant in Syracuse, and on Thursday, he brought his family to State College to honor the man.
"He was a great man," Scanlan said. "Football’s just a small part of it. Penn State is a big part of my life — I met my wife here — and he was big part of Penn State."
This was the last game. In a way. Chuck and Brett Miller, father and son, both engineers, both Penn Staters, came to the Bryce Jordan Center for the man’s memorial. Chuck, 69, retired now, lives in York. Brett, 44, lives in East Berlin.
As the man’s career was winding down, the Millers made a pact. Whenever the man was going to hang it up, they were going to go to his final game, whatever the cost. They didn’t have a chance. Instead, this would have to do. A memorial service.
The man was one of the constants of their lives. The man was just about to take over as head coach at Penn State when Chuck graduated. He was a legend when Brett earned his degree.
"He was Penn State," Brett said.
Brett remembered that he was among the students who would camp out overnight at the stadium to get tickets, and the man would walk by every now and then. And he would always say the same thing.
"What’re you doing sleeping on the ground?" he’d say. "You should be studying."
"That was him," Brett said.
The man would have hated this.
One of his former players, wide receiver Kenny Jackson, said, "We are here to celebrate a great man’s life. I played for him. I coached for him. He always never took a compliment.
"He never thought he was the show," Jackson said at the memorial service. "Today, you have no choice. Today, we’re going to show you how much we love you."
The speakers paraded to the podium. They praised the man for his life and the example he set for all of them. They talked about football and education and life. They all said his legacy will live on.
Only one directly addressed the scandal that enveloped the last months of the man’s life, one that threatened to taint his memory. Recalling that the man had been villified for not doing more in the scandal — something the coach said he regretted — Nike chief Phil Knight said, "If there’s a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in (the man’s) responsibility."
His words received a standing ovation, one of the loudest of the afternoon.
There were some laughs. Todd Blackledge, who quarterbacked the team that won the man’s first national championship, spoke about the man’s philosophy that team comes first and how that was reflected in his team’s uniforms.
"He always said the name on the front of the jersey means more than the name on the back," Blackledge said. "I always thought that was strange because we never had anything on the front of our jerseys either."
The man’s son — a man who carries his father’s name — spoke last. He said as his father lie dying, he whispered in his ear, "Dad, you won. You can go home now."
As the service ended — after a lone trumpter played a soulful version of "Hail To The Lions" — a lone voice in the upper reaches of the arena called out.
"We are ..."
The crowd responded, "Penn State."
Joe Paterno would have liked that.
STATE COLLEGE —
The crowd gathered early in the freezing drizzle in the shadow of Beaver Stadium.
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