It began two days after Thanksgiving, 1972. If not for Agnes, it might have started a few years before that.
Jim Rayburn ’62 had seen plenty of Penn State games before that cold November afternoon, when he drove down from his home in Corning, N.Y., to catch the Nittany Lions’ regular-season finale against Pitt. His family had owned season tickets since the late ’60s, and he tried to make it down for every game, but the disruptive legacy of Hurricane Agnes interrupted his plans. The floods she brought in June had inundated the Southern Tier, and it wasn’t until late October—”when the house was all put back together,” Jim says—that he could start thinking about making the two-and-a-half-hour drive down to State College. When he finally did, it was the final home game of the season.
“It started with Pitt,” he says.
The Lions won it in a rout, 49-27, the highlight of a 10-2 season. Rayburn was back the next fall, and each fall after that — every home game, in fact, even after that two-and-a-half-hour drive became a 16-hour round trip from his new home in North Carolina and back. He’s been back this season, for the home opener against Eastern Michigan, and again for Saturday’s game against UCF.
Saturday started gray and chilly and turned early-autumn perfect a little after noon, and Rayburn was enjoying it in his familiar tailgating spot just south of Beaver Stadium. He was there with his brother, Dave ’70, who joins him for most games from Florida, and the “neighbors” they’ve parked next to for years. They had good food and cold beer and a small Tupperware container of Jim’s wife’s homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Like a lot of us, Jim knows there is no better way, and no better place, to spend a Saturday in the fall.
Saturday felt a little different. Celebratory, but bittersweet. Mostly, it was necessary. Jim won’t be up for Kent State next week. His wife has been growing insistent about that drive, eight hours each way, sometimes by himself, and, in a September like this one, doing it three weeks in a row.
“I would love to do them all, but three in a row is tough,” he says. “It’s enough. It’s time.”
The streak ended Saturday: 272 consecutive Penn State home football games, dating back nearly 41 years. When the Nittany Lions face Kent State next week, Jim Rayburn most likely will watch at a local bar with fellow members of the Greensboro chapter of the Alumni Association. “They’ve got a very active group, a big group,” he says. “It’s grown every year.”
It might well be liberating, this ending. His brother Dave says that Jim was increasingly mindful of the streak, that maintaining it risked becoming more about the streak itself than the experience of making the trip. With that out of the way, Jim says he plans to make the rest of this season’s home games. “Whether the wife knows about it or not,” he says with a grin.
We ask the obvious question: Is there one game that stands out above the rest? He recalls days when the weather was as memorable as the final score. “The Notre Dame game, when the stadium was a popsicle,” he says of the 21-20 victory over the Irish in ’87, “and the Michigan snow game in ’95. There’s just so many of them. Great finishes, some sorrowful finishes, where you get up off the ground, brush yourself off, come right back at it.”
Saturday was one of those: a tough game, a disappointing finish, a challenge for a young team whose players, most of them, have already been through a lot. You get up off the ground, brush yourself off, come right back at it. Jim is confident that, even as he roots from afar, the Lions will turn things around this week. And before long, they’ll have Jim Rayburn back in the building.
“I’ve always enjoyed it, in good times and bad,” he says. “A few years ago, when the team wasn’t doing too well, it was a long drive home after a loss. But it’s always been about the spirit, and I think that’s what’s been so great over the last few years. You can see it around you. It’s not a shallow spirit. It’s deep rooted. People have strong feelings, and strong support. And you can’t buy that. You gotta earn it.”
Homecoming, fittingly, is just four weeks away.
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