COLUMBUS, OhioLike last week, two teams met at midfield before kickoff. Like last week, players from both sides commingled and shook hands, a unified acknowledgment of a horrible, sad situation that focused the nations attention on children who have suffered sexual abuse. Like last week, the stadium was largely silent for a brief moment.
Unlike last week, the stands were filled with red jerseys instead of blue, and everything unfolded in Columbus rather than State College. It was the first road game for the Nittany Lions -- the first time they left Happy Valley as a unit -- since former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually assaulting at least eight boys over 15 years.
No one was quite sure what to expect from the crowd at Ohio Stadium. Before the game, Tom Bradley, Penn States interim head coach, was asked about leaving State College and taking his team into a potentially difficult environment. Bradley said The Shoe hasnt been a great place for us.
Saturday was different, and it had precious little to do with the Nittany Lions 20-14 victory over the Buckeyes (see story). When the Penn State players ran onto the field wearing their white road uniforms and carrying a flag stamped with the Nittany Lions logo, a smattering of Ohio State fans initially booed. They were quickly drowned out by thousands of others who stood and clapped.
Youve got to take your hat off to them -- and I did when I walked off the field after warm-ups and they cheered us, Bradley said. That was first class. This is a first-class group and university at Ohio State.
In advance of the game, Ohio States student leaders implored people to act appropriately and have some compassion for the visiting team. It was a powerful, touching message, one the crowd seemed to internalize.
"As students, we will separate what happens on the football field from the transgressions and actions of individuals," Ohio State's student body president said in a statement. "Penn State students love their school just as much as we love ours. Its important to remember the victims of this tragedy. But its also important to remember that our visitors are not the people to whom we should direct our anger."
In the end, and somewhat unexpectedly, Columbus was the perfect place for Penn State to play its first road game since Sanduskys alleged, heinous crimes were revealed. The two communities -- rivals in every other respect -- have an odd kinship now, the sort that can only be formed by people who have been the center of a significant controversy.
That none of this has been easy for Penn Staters is obvious enough. Beloved head coach Joe Paternowho was recently diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer (see story)was fired as a result of the scandal. Meanwhile, students, fans, alumni and anyone associated with the school have been subjected to brutal and unrelenting national criticism.
Ohio State center Mike Brewster said he understood. He got it. He sympathized, and said many other Buckeyes did as well. It wasnt long ago, after all, that Ohio State was vilified when it was reported that members of the football team had accepted cash and free tattoos from a man who is the subject of a federal drug-trafficking investigation. As a result, Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel was fired, and the school is waiting for the NCAA to dole out punishment for those infractions. The NCAA recently said it would also investigate Penn State for what it called a lack of institutional control.
While Brewster admitted the two scandals are dissimilar, he said he couldnt help but feel for the Penn State players and those associated with the university.
Both of our situations are very different, Brewster told a media assembly earlier this week. I dont think you can really compare ours to theirs. Theirs had victims. Our hearts go out to those guys on the team and the stuff theyre going through.
Brewster wasnt alone. Outside Ohio Stadium, a man who calls himself Buckeye Santahe wore a red Ohio State jersey and red pants, and he had long white hair and a bushy white beardposed for pictures with anyone holding a camera. That included Penn State fans. When he saw one couple wearing Nittany Lions gear, Buckeye Santa called out to them until they came over. Then he threw his arm around them and told them to hang in there and that were all with you.
I feel sorry for Penn State, he said. I feel sorry for the fans, the kids, the players, all of them. I feel sorry for Joe Paterno. Hes a great coach. Its a shame. Its a shame he went out that way. Look at Woody Hayes. He was reduced to a punch. Its the same with Joe now. This is what people will remember. Thats too bad. I really do feel bad for all of them.
E-mail John Gonzalez at email@example.com